This summer, as the race for the Republican presidential nomination began to gain steam, RD Director Gary Laderman wrote a pair of essays, coining the term “Republicanity” and offering an analysis of the current political landscape that made religion an explicit and overarching theoretical concern. The extensive discussion they’ve generated has been fascinating to read and instructive to ponder.
In the first, he described the ways in which “Republicanity” now seems to operate as a religion, with its own myths, rituals, theologies, and ethics. In the second, he identified an important “teaching moment” that this discussion and debate have created.
What this summer’s debate over the debt ceiling and the straw polls have made clear is that the Republican Party is now involved in a difficult battle over its own orthodoxy. Strange as the comparison may seem, what we’re seeing today is highly reminiscent of the shifting landscape of the Christian world in the second and third centuries, and concerns a truism of Christian history: orthodoxy does not appear at the beginning of a movement, it’s the result of a long, and painful, and drawn-out argument that was, as often as not, a violent one.
Heresy, if you will, comes first. Or rather, a diversity of opinion about what constitutes the central message of the new movement comes first. When that diversity reaches a certain critical mass—such that all the possible versions of the movement cannot peaceably coexist—then the battle for orthodoxy commences. What we call “orthodoxy”—and what the orthodox teach us to call “heresy”—is largely a matter of raw numbers, evolving habits, and a slowly emerging practical consensus within the movement.
And the really surprising thing is this: some early figures who were admired as the very vanguard of orthodoxy sometimes ironically find themselves declared heretical before the dust finally settles over the debates they helped initiate.
Take Tertullian. Born in approximately 160 CE in the North African city of Carthage, he was a pagan until middle age when he converted to Christianity. He became more and more emphatic in the faith—the zeal of the convert—and separated himself, first by joining an extremist sect called the Montanists (a group later declared to be, you guessed it, heretical), then by breaking from them and forming a Christian collective of his own. He is alleged to have died in extreme old age.
“I believe it because it is absurd… I know it because it is impossible.” With these resonant words, Tertullian announced an entirely new way of making argument convincing, as well as an utterly novel way of imagining religious faith.
It was elegant in its simplicity: first, insist that the most convincing argument hinges on something unbelievable—then there is quite literally nothing left to argue about. In short, Tertullian insisted that the true Christian (of whom he believed there were precious few) must prove his or her bona fides by believing what is literally unbelievable.
As Laderman suggests, we may be witnessing today what a politics of Republicanity grounded in the necessary absurdity of belief will look like. And it is not always a pretty picture. But it’s important to emphasize just how Christian the culture of argument currently embodied in one portion of the GOP appears to be.
Or rather, just how Tertullian a portion of this emerging Republican theology has become. To make one’s argument hinge on absurdity is to escape the need to deal with what the old-school rhetoricians (of whom Tertullian was one, ironically) called “counter-factuals.”
If your faith is intentionally and even proudly absurd, you don’t need to bother with facts.
It is striking to note how far one stream of the Republican Party has moved from even a perfunctory concern with the facts. In Laderman’s view, such religious myths are singular; they constitute the thing everybody has to sign on to in order to be a member of the movement.
In Tertullian’s day, however, most Christians agreed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; but as for what that actually meant, well, that was one of the things Christians argued most vehemently about. Those arguments led to the emergence of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” in time. And it took a very long time to figure out which was which (and still does).
In the debate on the eve of the Iowa straw poll, every single candidate may have raised a hand in objection to John Boehner’s deal that permitted the raising of the US debt ceiling, but here once again their reasons for doing so presumably varied widely. Some may have objected that it went too far to accommodate the president and moderates in the two parties; some may have argued that it did not go far enough. Time will tell.
Arguing about what such a vote of no confidence means to various candidates will be one of the things Republicans will argue most vehemently about. It will take a long time to figure out what the Party orthodoxy this time around will be, as well as which, if any, candidate holds the heretical view. The fact that the two top vote-getters in Iowa (separated by just a few hundred) were Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul is illustrative of the very diversity I am suggesting lies at the heart of the current Republican troubles.
An orthodoxy has yet to emerge; it is simply too early to tell what it will look like. What we can say at this stage is what Christian history reminds us of: that what eventually will emerge as “orthodoxy” will assuredly come at the end of a long and bruising fight. As competing interest groups defend their vision of the true faith, they work to solidify their own base and to weaken the voices at variance with their own. “Heresies” are identified, and “heretics” are rebuffed, or worse. It is highly instructive that Tertullian eventually aligned himself with a group of rigorists—a sort of Christian Tea Party—that was deemed heretical by what eventually emerged as the orthodox Christian mainstream. And then, as noted earlier, when even they weren’t rigorous enough he went his own way, alone. The necessary fragmentation of sectarianism is an important part of this story as well.
It could have gone the other way, and Tertullian deployed all of his considerable rhetorical skills to push the Christian party further in the absurdist direction he preferred. It does appear that a similar kind of factionalism is currently at work in the culture of Republicanity. Whether we choose to refer to these purist movements (and they are legion) as Tea Parties or something else, what they seem to share is an insistence on party purity, and the defense of what they deem to be orthodox Republicanity.
Here, I think, is where and why the Democratic Party is not best viewed as religious in the same way. The Democrats simply are not embroiled in a battle over Party orthodoxy in the same way. By contrast, the Republican Party has reached that critical tipping point where the extremity and diversity of viewpoints has made its orthodoxy an issue. What will come of this ideological push-me-pull-you remains to be seen, not just in this election cycle but in coming decades.
Which brings me back to Tertullian. It often appeared as if the rigorist perspective he represented was winning, though ultimately it did not. And while it may be tempting for those on the political left to hope for an ever-more absurdist brand of Republicanity as an easier heresy to defeat, this seems like very short-term thinking. In a larger political sense, such a development can and would be dismaying and destructive for the long-term health of our republic.
The most famous phrase for which Tertullian is remembered took the form of a rhetorical question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Nothing at all, he concluded.
This is an even pithier way of expressing the know-nothingism he deemed essential to Christian faith. Jerusalem was the city, not just of prophecy, but of the paradigmatically impossible and unbelievable event: God’s son dying as a sacrifice for the rest of the world.
And Athens? Nothing more than an aging university town seduced by its own supercilious paganism. Tertullian was suspicious of philosophy, of schools, and of teachers, so he had little use for Athens. This may be beginning to sound eerily familiar.
Climate change? A leftist lie of the scientists; and once you’ve sniffed out a series of allegedly incriminating emails, then you no longer have to deal with the overwhelming numbers that demonstrate the upward trending of the planet’s mean temperature, or the astonishing images of our melting polar ice caps.
The federal deficit? Easily fixed. Our nation’s credit is inexhaustible, and once we reduce the federal government to a more reasonable size, businesses will prosper, and the deficits will disappear.
Tax increases? Never. Obviously lowering taxes, especially on the industrial leaders who create new jobs, makes for a more business-friendly environment which will, in turn, increase the wealth of the entire nation (here we should remember that Adam Smith famously invoked what he called an “invisible hand” as the faith-based final justification for the capitalist system he was attempting to theorize). Indeed, a truly free market would actually increase federal revenues by putting more people to work and making taxpayers of them of all.
This last article of faith has demonstrated just how far the argument from absurdity can take us, and how little facts can be made to matter. The trickle-down theory, first enunciated at the presidential level by Ronald Reagan (himself a true believer in the Tertullian sense, with a smattering of astrology added to the mix), now has a thirty-year record to run on. And it’s not pretty. The imprudent mix of massive tax cuts and aggressive military interventions created the ballooning deficit and the spiraling sea of debt we’re drowning in today. If tax cuts create jobs, then how has unemployment remained so distressingly high? And why does the Federal Reserve pay so much attention to interest rates and so little to unemployment these days?
Rather than crunch the numbers, the rigorist wing of an emerging Republicanity in the budget brouhaha has been content to say that it’s high time for the federal government to start behaving more responsibly—like its most responsible citizens do, sitting around the kitchen table fussing over the monthly bills. (One might observe that a great many of the nation’s citizens seem to behave more like the federal government these days, living well beyond their means, and relying on an absurd faith in the infinity of their own access to credit cards).
Some well-meaning economists, like Paul Krugman, have selected this as the ideal ground on which to fight, by insisting that federal governments precisely do not act like families budgeting month-to-month, nor should they. Deficit spending is the way federal governments prime the pump of economic (and job) recovery.
Yet there seems a very different way to respond to this most universal of all the absurdities of Republicanity: no new taxes, ever, because the government needs to start acting like a responsible family. Let us accept the metaphor for a moment. And then let us observe that the responsible household that faces the reality of the numbers (instead of relying on absurd faith-claims or lottery tickets)—the simple fact that it owes far more than it earns—very quickly realizes that it is time to take a second (or a third) job. It’s painful, but that’s what you do.
And, like it or not, the analogy for a second or third job at the governmental level is… new taxes. There’s nothing absurd or impossible here, just a sobering and somber mathematical reality. And while many have argued most eloquently here on RD that Democrats need to get better at telling stories than at crunching the numbers, in this battle of the budget, the numbers actually matter. Hell, it’s a fight about numbers. And balance. And the virtue of justice.
What this latest budget battle, and the question of raising the debt ceiling, and the straw polls are revealing, is just how Tertullian a wing of the Republican Party has become. It not only offers absurd arguments with a straight face, but actually insists that belief in the absurdity of the nation’s fundamental fiscal health is a central tenet of the true faith: patriotism. To express a concern, especially a serious one, is tantamount to political defection—or, to put it more bluntly, to heresy.
And here several Christian implications of Tertullian’s insistence on the argument from absurdity come into focus: obedience to the reigning authorities; refusal to prosecute the people on your side in court; the radical, and very nearly cosmic, division between “us” and “them”; the aggressive and nearly fratricidal rooting-out of heresy within the ranks (as well as outside); turning a casual back of the hand to what has been, ever since Eve ate an apple, a very fallen world.
Theological pessimism can turn into political cynicism with surprising speed. And so long as believing the unbelievable is the primary article of the Party’s faith, then public policy is about assertions, not arguments. That is what has been happening to a portion of the Republican Party for quite some time.
It’s too early to tell whether this wing of the Party will indeed establish itself as the new orthodoxy. I have my doubts. But even if they do, the victory will be a Pyrrhic one, resulting (as both Paul’s symbolic victory in the New Testament and Tertullian’s Christian self-exile did) in mass expulsions of those with variant points of view on the central articles of the faith, and those less convinced that absurdity is a strong selling point for religion, politics or economics. But one thing has become clear: the current moment of “Republicanity” is Christian, and Tertullian, to the core.