BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company.
ERIC ALTERMAN: The great vision of the Great Society was built on an ever-expanding pie that could be redistributed to more people. But once that pie started shrinking in the 1970s, because of largely economic reasons-- then we started fighting over the spoils.
ROSS DOUTHAT: I am a supporter of capitalism, but as a Christian I'm not always a supporter of capitalists.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Imagine if you turned on your TV set someday soon and were greeted by this:
SESAME STREET CHARACTER #1: HI! Welcome to Sesame Street!
SESAME STREET CHARACTER #2: Hola!
BILL MOYERS: But first, this message…
CAMPAIGN AD #1: This time Romney’s firing his mud at Rick Santorum…
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BILL MOYERS: Sesame Street—brought to you by the letter C, for creeping campaign cash corruption. Okay, perhaps we’re exaggerating a bit, but as the late William F. Buckley, Jr., used to say, the point survives the exaggeration. Because a startling decision from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down the federal ban against political and issue advertising on public TV and radio. This means potentially, that super PACs, special interests, and the rich who want to influence elections could buy ad time on your favorite public television or radio station.
The Public Broadcasting Act was signed into law in 1967. It uses the term “noncommercial” 16 times to describe what public television and radio should be. It specifically says, and I quote, “No noncommercial educational broadcasting station may support or oppose any candidate for political office.” We’ve taken that seriously all these years, and most of us who've labored in this vineyard still think public broadcasting should be a refuge from the braying distortions and outright lies that characterize politics today.
In its majority decision, the circuit court did uphold the rule that forbids public stations from carrying ads for commercial products and services, but it said it seemed logical to the judges that the decision on political advertisers wouldn’t cause stations to dilute their noncommercial programming. Logical? Sorry, your honors: this is the same so-called logic that led the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its notorious Citizens United decision, that’s the one that opened all spigots to flood the political landscape with cash and the airwaves with trash. “To be truthful” one former PBS board member said, "it scares me to death.” Us, too.
With our stations always in a financial pickle, frantically hanging on by their fingertips, it won’t be easy to turn down those quick bucks from super PACs and others. But if I may, hang in there my brothers and sisters in the local trenches: if ever there was a time for solidarity and spunk, this is it. Stations KPBS in San Diego and KSFR, public radio in Santa Fe, have already said they won’t take these ads. If enough of you say no, this invasion might be repelled. And viewers, our stations need to know you’re behind them.
This message was paid for by our uncoordinated Super PAC: Americans at the Crossroads for Wall Street Prosperity and Restoring the Future on Our Terms Only Who are People Like You.
I’m Bill Moyers and I both approve and disapprove this message.
This week, two important new books, two fine writers – one on the left, one on the right, each an independent thinker. Together, they make the case for old-school faith and politics.
First, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.” Eric Alterman superbly tells the story of how FDR’s New Deal liberalism lost its hold on the American imagination and is struggling now to regain it.
A historian turned journalist, Eric writes for The Nation and The Daily Beast, among others, and has published eight previous books. He is also Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
Welcome to the show, Eric.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: So have you written the eulogy for liberalism?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, I certainly didn't intend to write the eulogy. No, I haven't written the eulogy for liberalism. I fear that I may have written the eulogy for a certain kind of liberalism, for an economics-based liberalism, for a liberalism that sees the-- that uses a strong central government on behalf of the people who need to be protected by their government, who need to-- who need some force in the world to protect them from corporations and economic forces that are beyond their control. Certainly cultural liberalism is flourishing. Social liberalism is as healthy as it's ever been.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by "cultural-social liberalism?"
ERIC ALTERMAN: Well, marriage equality, however you want to define it, is clearly the wave of the future. It's when I-- let alone, you, but when I was young, the idea that being gay is something that's okay, that you would talk about with your children and they would have teachers and friends that were openly gay was unimaginable.
Was one of the worst things you could joke about, in those days. And yet, today, we've had a revolution in that area. Much quicker, I think, than most of us expected. When gay marriage first came on the agenda. I don't think any of us expected that it would be legal so quickly. Civil rights took much, much longer than that. But again women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, other kinds of rights for people. Anything that doesn't cost money, really.
BILL MOYERS: This is why I asked you if you'd written the eulogy. Because taking the criticism from the other side, David Brooks, the conservative writer wrote recently that "this should be a golden age of liberalism." Wall Street debacle has undermined faith in capitalism. Worker wages are flat. Corporate profits are soaring. "The Republican Party is unpopular and sometimes," says Brooks, "embarrassing." And, "yet the percentage of Americans who call themselves liberals is either flat or in decline. There are now," says Brooks, "two conservatives in America for every liberal."
ERIC ALTERMAN It's a complicated phenomenon. In fact, if my friend David Brooks had looked a little more carefully at the data, or a little more deeply, not carefully, but deeply. He would have seen that most of the positions that people who reject the liberal label, nevertheless embraced liberal positions.
Just about everyone who calls themselves a moderate has liberal positions. But they won't cop to the word "liberal." That's in part because the word has been so abused. It's been-- there's been hundreds of millions of dollars spent by conservatives to make liberal an epithet. And it's been successful.
And the other reason is probably liberals' fault. It's not that people disagree so with liberals on the issues. They don't. What they don't like is what they feel to be liberal condescension. The liberals telling them how to live their lives.
BILL MOYERS: But wait a minute, it's the conservatives, Santorum and others, who are telling people how to live their lives.
ERIC ALTERMAN: But for a long time, when you and your friends were running the government there was a sense that anyone who stood in the way of progress for black people and other minorities was immoral or ignorant, at best. And they needed to be uplifted. And that was certainly-- I certainly would have felt that way. And-- but it didn't seem to have any end. So at some point, a bunch of people, maybe most people decided, "Well, enough is enough. We've made up for all of the inequities that this country has been responsible for a long time." We've made good on that check that Martin Luther King said needed to be cashed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. And then the rest of it was just liberals, again, telling them how to order their lives.
BILL MOYERS: What liberals were saying is, "You can't keep people in indentured servitude. You can't keep people in second class and third class schools." It wasn't--
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's what they began saying. But in the late '60s, what they began saying is, "We're going to take your job away and we're going to give it to other people."
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about affirmative action.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Affirmative action, housing, you know, discriminatory housing patterns. If you look at all of the inequity in education, in housing, in jobs, in a place like Chicago. Well, it all derives from housing patterns.
The way-- that were purposefully built that way, to separate white people who didn't want black people in their neighborhoods. And every time you tried to address that, you were met with community wide violence that was approved, by and large, by the community. Fire bombings and horrible things.
And so there were no good solutions to this. And I think one mistake liberals made, even though I certainly sympathize with the goal, is they didn't have a plan for what to do when things didn't work out. When we had to integrate the country with all deliberate speed, what was the plan if the people weren't going to go along with it.
BILL MOYERS: Liberals couldn't have done what you would like them to have done and reversed discrimination in this country.
ERIC ALTERMAN: But the fact is that we were asking for almost a revolution in everyday life for in a lot of parts of this country. And the liberals who tried to bring it on from above--
BILL MOYERS: But when the demand for change came, it didn't come from the top. It came from Martin Luther King. And young men and women on freedom rides and pastors in the South, standing up to Jim Crow. That's where the movement--
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's an enormously inspirational story. I call that the "we shall overcome period" of history. But societies are organisms. And when you change one thing in one place, things change all over the place. And I think that liberals were so in-- they were so committed to the rectitude of their cause that they didn't think hard enough about implementation. And they didn't realize-- I mean, the one things conservatives are right about is that when you change things-- particularly from the top down, they're never going to go as you plan. And you have to be adaptable. But that was Franklin Roosevelt's great strength was he was always ready with another plan when the first one didn't work.
BILL MOYERS: He was impro-- he was a great improviser.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah, great improviser. Government is--
BILL MOYERS: You write that "Franklin Roosevelt's great contribution was to inspire the notion that government might play a positive role in improving the lives of its citizens." But you also go on to say "He never defined the boundaries of benevolent government intervention in either the economy or our individual lives." And isn't that still where liberals are wrestling today, to define the boundaries of government, in its intervention?
ERIC ALTERMAN: I think they're wrestling with the consequences of having failed to define them. I think there were certain boundaries that people would have felt comfortable with and liberals went beyond them. And I do blame liberals, particularly in the '70s for failing to understand that they were no longer acting liberally anymore. They were merely redistributing the spoils of the system amongst various groups.
The political scientist, Ted Lowi, called this "interest-group liberalism." And liberals turned on one another, you know? Feminists turned on blacks turned on gays turned on white working-class people and so forth. And they ended up being their own worst enemies, because they couldn't agree on a common goal for government to lift up people in a majoritarian sense.
The great division in postwar American liberalism is between Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy's notion that-- I'm not so sure about Kennedy, but certainly Roosevelt and Truman, that this was a majoritarian movement to help everyone, lift all boats. And that by doing so, you would help the people who needed help the most.
And then beginning with the Great Society, it became much more about trying to help particular victims of past discrimination and past wrongs and so forth. And so people no longer saw themselves in this project. And that's when I think liberalism was seen to go too far. Now philosophically, you can say it was the right thing to do, because these are the people who needed help. But it's a political loser.
Again, society's very complicated. People are very complicated. And we have to be careful when we mess with these things. Because we're messing with people's lives. And they're not going to react like laboratory rats.
BILL MOYERS: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, United States Senator from New York, once said that Democrats are the party of government. And David Brooks says that is the problem, is that liberals still believe in government when most Americans don't. He quotes one poll that reports only 10 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing, most of the time. That makes it hard for liberals to call for more government.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I agree liberals are the party of government. You can't-- look, an individual in society, who is not well-born, who is not born with all kinds of advantages needs help to be able to self-actualize through the education system, through community organizations, to get through college.
It costs to go to a private college, it's $50,000 a year. And with people who work, you know, hard just to make a living, it's not easy. And they need a hand from somewhere, particularly since we now live in an age of global capitalism, where the corporations have no-- feel no sense of responsibility at all the local communities or even the country themselves. So if you want to give people genuinely equal opportunity, which is what is the point of liberalism, you need to give these people a hand somehow. And government is how we do that.
The problem is-- and it's the problem for liberals. There's an awful lot of unfairness in the world. And there's only so much we can do about it, you know, as a society. There's only so much opportunity we can offer people. There's only so much equality that's ever going to be available.
So the first thing we need to do, as liberals, to become credible to the other 80 percent of Americans who refuse to call themselves liberals is find a way to make the government protection of their lives, intervention on their behalf, in their lives credible. And it's no easy task.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you say that liberals have never gotten the right handle on the class issue. That Democrats, they can't handle politically the issue of class, right?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Why can't they do it?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I guess there's two reasons that come to the top of my head. One is that because identity politics, for so many groups, is so strong in this country. In part, because we're a nation of immigrants, and a nation of minorities that those identifications seem to trump class. So certainly race trumps class.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean when you say "race trumps class"?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Most people of color think of themselves as people of color first, not as working people first. And certainly their leaders do. Remember, it was an amazing thing when Jim Hightower from Texas endorsed Jesse Jackson. Because the idea that a white populist would endorse a black civil rights leader for president was seen as shocking.
When in fact, they were on the same side on just about all issues. But the division of race was seen as so much more powerful than the continuity in class. So the great question from Werner Sombart, the historian, why we have no socialism in the United States, it's because the people who would have been the socialists and were in Europe were fighting with each other, between the Italians and Irish and blacks and Jews and so forth. That's one reason.
The other reason is that the conservatives have mastered the politics of class in a way that liberals haven't. Liberals are afraid of the politics of class, in part, because they're funded by really rich people. They're funded. You know, our liberal politics are funded by people who would have to demand higher taxes on themselves.
And whereas conservatives have a consistent message. And so they're able to-- they're libertarianism, even if it's only for show, it resonates with people. It's a response to the liberals telling them how to live their lives. The conservatives are saying, "We're not telling you how to live their lives. You go do and whatever you want."
BILL MOYERS: Libertarians are, but not Christian conservatives.
ERIC ALTERMAN: No. And they're in a very uneasy balance with one another.
BILL MOYERS: You begin your book with a quotation from the late historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. himself a great liberal. Quote, "The existence of Franklin Roosevelt relieved American liberals for a dozen years of the responsibility of thinking for themselves." How so?
ERIC ALTERMAN: When Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York, he wasn't really much of a liberal. He didn't really become a strong liberal until his second term. He was elected on a balanced budget in 1932. But then he came out against economic royalism. And he called himself a "militant liberal." But his policies were not ideologically driven at all. They were incredibly pragmatic.
BILL MOYERS: Militant in his rhetoric against the plutocrats. But many of the New Deal programs deliberately excluded black participation, farmers in particular, others like that.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Yeah, Eleanor Roosevelt used to be on his case about this a lot. But he would tell her this is the only way that they can possibly pass. This is the only way to hold this coalition together. And they're better off. And he was right. None of those politicians would have gone along for the ride if it had included blacks. That was where they got off the train. And in fact, as you know, the labor movement never really made any progress, much progress in the South. And that was because it was insufficiently exclusionary to blacks.
So this-- I mean, you can tell the story of the epitaph of liberalism in many ways. You can say, "In the 1970s, the pie stopped expanding."
As you know, as well as anyone, the great vision of the Great Society was built on an ever-expanding pie that could be redistributed to more people. But once that pie started shrinking in the 1970s, because of largely economic reasons-- then we started fighting over the spoils.
You can say that "Liberals have a tendency, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, to overpromise and underperform." But you can also say, as Lyndon Johnson said, by signing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and losing the South forever-- he didn't just lose the South, he turned the primary constituencies of the Democratic Party, in the North, against one another. And from that moment on it became much, much harder to put together a progressive coalition.
BILL MOYERS: He knew this. He knew when he embraced the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, '64 and '65, that he was taking it beyond Franklin Roosevelt. He was including embracing the cause of civil rights, knowing it was going to alienate Southern churches, Southern Baptists and the white elites.
ERIC ALTERMAN: And it might have worked over time, if there had really been an expanding pie. But because he got so deeply involved in Vietnam. And Vietnam became such a sinkhole and also divided the country, it became impossible to move forward on the kinds of the "we shall overcome" agenda. And so we'll never know. We'll never know. But the way it turned out was disastrous for the cause of liberalism. And actually, in many ways, for the cause of the people that he was trying to help.
BILL MOYERS: You also quote the liberal economist whom we both know, Robert Kuttner. Quote, "how did we make such stunning progress in three decades on issues involving tolerance and inclusiveness," as you have just talked about. "And how is that, during the same period, we have gone steadily backwards on a whole set of economic issues?"
ERIC ALTERMAN: Another reason that liberals do so badly in polling, in terms of, "Are you a liberal?" is that most people don't think that politicians are going to deliver on any of their promises. So even if you-- some guys promising to gut your Medicare and Social Security and another guy's promising to protect it, they're just promises. It doesn't matter. You might as well vote for the guy who looks and sounds like you, as much as possible.
Liberals have taken their eye of the ball, I think, since the '70s. It didn't happen by accident. They have allowed this purchase of a government to take place. They have spent their time fighting amongst themselves, arguing about peripheral issues, being on the defensive. It has a lot to do with the loss of self-confidence. Liberalism suffered an enormous blow from McCarthyism in the first place. And then from the New Left--
BILL MOYERS: McCarthyism condemning liberals as traitorous--
ERIC ALTERMAN: As somehow less than American. And then they suffered an enormous blow when their children, in the 1960s, told them that they were war criminals because of Vietnam and because of the way we treated the Indians and because of how blacks were treated and so forth. And these were their children. These were the people in the elite schools that they had worked so hard to send their children to.
And they never-- and then Ronald Reagan got elected president, who seemed like a joke. Before Reagan was-- got elected, nobody took the guy seriously. How can you elect this buffoon who thinks that air pollution comes from plants and trees? And so I think those three events, those three punches in a row, robbed liberals of their self-confidence.
And ever since then, they haven't really been able to make their case in a full-throated way. You know, whenever a conservative says, "A." A liberal says, "Well, maybe A, maybe B, possibly a little bit of C." And it's very hard for any politician. If you take the most conservative politicians in our society, you know, people like DeMint.
BILL MOYERS: Senator Jim DeMint, South Carolina.
ERIC ALTERMAN: And Rick Santorum. And you compare them to the most liberal in our society, people like Barney Frank or George McGovern. They're-- I admire Barney Frank and George McGovern, but they're very moderate people. They see the other side of their-- of the issues. They're not demagogic in any way.
BILL MOYERS: So do liberals not have the instinct to fight?
ERIC ALTERMAN: I think, number one, they've lost their self-confidence. And number two, they're, to some degree, hampered by their own recognition of complexity. If you listen to Limbaugh and Buchanan, everything is simple, you know? "Here's what we've got to do." But if you listen to a liberal-- Obama said this about himself and about Jimmy Carter and about Bill Clinton. He said, we're paralyzed by our wonkishness. And it makes it difficult to communicate a vision that we can march to as a collective.
BILL MOYERS: On a scale of one to 100, as a measure of where someone stands, where do you put Obama as a liberal?
ERIC ALTERMAN: With 100 being who?
BILL MOYERS: Roosevelt.
ERIC ALTERMAN: I put him at about 30.
BILL MOYERS: Really?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thirty-five. Yeah, in today's society, I would put him at about 55, 60.
BILL MOYERS: Why the difference?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Because as a society, we've moved incredibly further to the right, since Roosevelt's time. But there's something about our political system, dominated as it is by money and by corporations and by the elite media that beats down the liberalism in Democratic presidents.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, David Brooks, who is a thoughtful critic of liberalism says that liberals need to do what farmers do. They weed. And they get their ground clear. And then they replant. And he says, liberals, Democrats should weed out what's not working.
ERIC ALTERMAN: That's absolutely true. And what liberals have done instead, because of their loss of self-confidence is they've played defense everywhere. So one of the great victories of liberalism, and it's true, was when George Bush tried to destroy Social Security. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo," which barely existed at the time, got all his readers to call up their representatives and say, "Oh, did you want to destroy Social Security?" And it got the representatives to go on record.
But nobody then came forth with a plan to make it whole. Nobody has a good plan on the liberal side to ensure, that I've heard, to ensure that Medicare will survive. Nobody's willing to take on corporate welfare, the agricultural lobby, all the tons of money that goes to all these different organizations. That goes to the Catholic Church, for God's sakes. Billions and billions--
BILL MOYERS: No pun intended.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Right. I mean, they're all these organized groups that, are we allowed to say, sucking at the tit of government. That are considered to be sacred. And liberals need to fight this battle, because the resources are finite. And you can't, obviously, you can't win these battles when the very victories that you won like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid in the Great Society have now become albatrosses around your neck. So they need to do what you and David Brooks suggest is weed out the programs and decide which ones are the ones worth fighting for and expanding. And then fight for them.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you write this book?
ERIC ALTERMAN: I was looking for people who I could admire in history. I was looking to locate myself on the shoulders of others. But more than that, you know, I think liberalism just makes sense. Liberalism is acting rationally and principally in the name of fairness, in the name of the greatest amount of equality possible.
Saying that being born rich shouldn't give you an impossible advantage over everybody else forever. That's just common sense to me. It's what this country was founded on. There were different priorities back then. But it's the same challenge that faced the founding fathers. That faces every generation. And yet, it's held in such ill-repute. It's considered so outrageous.
Whenever-- I've had the word liberal in a few of my books. And whenever I go on the radio or on one of these cable shows, it's like I'm defending, you know, child murder. So I'm really needed to-- I'm a historian, so I needed to understand that process, historically.
BILL MOYERS: In a word, as we say in television, what is the cause today?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Today the cause is greater equality, two words. Well, yeah. No way to say that in one word. Today, we're living in a moral emergency. The combination of the Supreme Court opening up the system to unlimited amounts of money and so much money being accumulated by such a small part of our society has really threatened the future of this country, as a democracy in any meaningful way. Plutocracy is not a hyperbole. It's actually a more accurate description of how our politics actually works.
BILL MOYERS: And plutocracy means?
ERIC ALTERMAN: Plutocracy means the rule of the wealthy, the rule of the very top of society by the plutocrats. Everything flows from that. Schools flow from that. Parks flow from that. Health care flows from that. Housing flows from that.
All the causes that liberals care about, having to do with equality, are only given meaning by the resources that are being, right now, sent entirely upward. And unless we can find a way to equalize those resources, to some degree, then things like integration are kind of meaningless.
BILL MOYERS: So when the proverbial alien from Mars arrives and says, Alterman, how will I know a liberal when I meet one? How do you answer?
ERIC ALTERMAN: You know how you know someone is a liberal? It's because they believe in the enlightenment. It's because they believe in reason. It's because they follow their thoughts to their logical conclusion. And they say, "This is the right thing to do." Now exactly what policies that leads you to is always changing and always open to argument. But they don't say, "This is what God told me to do." They don't say, "This is what the dialectic of history told me to do." They say, "This is the right thing to do for the greatest number of people."
So if there's one challenge that faces liberalism-- liberals today, it is to find a way to revive people's faith in the ability of government to improve their lives. And that, to me, is the-- would be the next chapter of this book.
BILL MOYERS: The book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Eric Alterman, thanks for being with me.
ERIC ALTERMAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Just as fifty years ago liberalism was the vital center of our politics, our religious landscape then was dominated by mainline Protestants and a Catholic Church becoming less Roman and more American every year. One of the most symbolic events occurred in 1958 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the new headquarters of the National Council of Churches here in New York City. Before a crowd of 30,000, Eisenhower quoted George Washington, who described religion as the firm foundation of the country’s moral life.
That was the decade America put God on our paper money and in the Pledge of Allegiance. And though the churchly DNA often fostered racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry and Cold War dogmatism, many thought biblical religion, in its various incarnations, was the engine driving the American future.
But then, says my next guest, American Christianity went off the rails – and now threatens to take American society with it. Furthermore, the snake in the garden is not atheism, nor is secular humanism the worm in the apple. Our fall is the work of heresy, as you see in the title of his latest book: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.
Ross Douthat has tasted widely from the buffet of American Christianity. He was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches in his youth, and was converted to Catholicism at age 17. Now he’s widely considered to be one of the country’s most influential conservative voices. He’s the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and also has written Privilege – about the perils of a Harvard education, and co-authored Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you so much for having me Bill, it’s great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: I found your book fascinating because you seem to me to be carrying on an argument with yourself. And I'm never sure till the last chapter which Ross Douthat is going to win out. Am I right about this?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, tell no tell me more. What’s kind of argument am I carrying out?
BILL MOYERS: Well, there's the pious Ross Douthat whose faith was delivered to the saints. Historically and traditionally grounded. A believer in the dogma of the essential Christian experience. And the political Ross Douthat who seems, throughout this book, to be unsure about making peace with a Republican party and you are conservative, whose base embraces an absolutist theology.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Ah. I see.
BILL MOYERS: And--
ROSS DOUTHAT: I see. You see, you're trying to tug me. Well, let me--
BILL MOYERS: No, no. There is the suspense of where you're going to come out, is worth the price of the book.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, that's very kind of you to say. I mean, I think that I do consider myself a political conservative. And I do identify, you know, with religious conservatism broadly speaking. And I identify with, I think, the causes that animate religion conservatives. I'm pro-life and I think that cause is immensely important to American Christianity.
But I also do argue that what's happened on the religious right over the past 30 years is often a sort of captivity of religion to partisanship rather than a religious spirit influencing politics. And I think that's happened though on the religious left as well.
I think in part the story of what happened to American Christianity after the '50s and '60s is sort of a captivity on both sides.
And so you have Billy Graham, this you know, Evangelical preacher, and you have Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist. Both of those figures are religious figures who had political influence. And, you know, both of them were sometimes more partisan. Graham became more partisan in the Nixon presidency. King late in life became somewhat more ideological. But they were never in general thought of as specifically partisan figures.
But then flash forward a few decades to the 1980s and two figures who could have been their successors in a way, Jesse Jackson, a potential heir to Martin Luther King, and Pat Robertson, you know, similarly in a preacher with a wide audience.
When they decide to get involved in politics what do they do? They don't sort of stand outside a little bit and try to influence. They run for president as you know, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson ran for president. And imagine how different the history of the 1950s would be if Billy Graham and Martin Luther King had run for president?
And I think in that, in that difference you can see the shift from, again, a faith that I'm arguing that Christian faith always has to be, in some sense, political because Christians are called to be engaged with the world. But, it needs to be political in a way that doesn't just become a sort of expression of a party line. And I think that's happened on the left and the right alike.
BILL MOYERS: But your quarrel is with what you call the heresies?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Joel Osteen's gospel of prosperity. God wants you to be rich.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Oprah Winfrey's therapeutic religion. You can make yourself feel better.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Glenn Beck’s messianic nationalism which sees God as the president, the commander-in-chief, so to speak. Your quarrel is with-- you call those the heresies, right?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I and try look at sort of popular theology. Right? Where are people where are ordinary Americans actually getting their religious teachings from today. Right?
And I think the places that they're getting it from are places like The Oprah Winfrey Show. There're writers like, you know, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love which I think is a fas - actually a theologically fascinating book. Writers like Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and so on.
And then, as you said, preachers of sort of a religion of prosperity like Joel Osteen who argue that, you know, God wants you to have that big house on the corner. That, you know, you need if you aren't rich now it's just 'cause you aren't praying hard enough. And I think that those-those aren't necessarily, you know, you could argue that Osteen is sort of right wing and Oprah is sort of left wing, but they aren't really political, they aren't really political figures.
BILL MOYERS: They're not Jesse Jackson.
ROSS DOUTHAT: They're not Jesse Jackson.
BILL MOYERS: Right, right.
ROSS DOUTHAT: But they are some of the, what I call in the book, heretics. And I use the word heretics because I think that - what is religion in America like right now? Are we a traditionally Christian country? I don't think so. But are we a secular country? Well, surely not. I mean if you look at public opinion polls on belief in God, experience of miracles, people claiming personal encounters with the divine, we're probably just as a religious as ever.
So we-- I think we occupy this interesting middle ground between sort of traditional Christian orthodoxy and sort of secularism or something more post-Christian where we're deeply influenced by Christianity but sort of flying off in all kinds of directions. And I think heresy, it is obviously a loaded word, but I think it's the right word.
BILL MOYERS: But the premise of your book it, to me is that once upon a time, 50 years ago, 60 years ago religion was the - it was a robust center.
ROSS DOUTHAT: There was, there was-
BILL MOYERS: And it was broad-
ROSS DOUTHAT: There was a Christian center, yes.
BILL MOYERS: And heresies can be even more robust, can they not?
ROSS DOUTHAT: They can.
BILL MOYERS: Than the institutions from which they split off?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Absolutely. And the book is very critical of a lot of the religion trends I'm describing. But it’s also…
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you call it bad religion.
ROSS DOUTHAT: But it's bad, but it's also what I do try and do as well is take them I think more seriously, theologically seriously, because you're right. They can be deeply robust. And I think, take the example of prosperity preaching. Right? I think a lot of people, especially our fellow journalists, turn on a prosperity preacher, whether it's somebody smooth like Osteen or one of the more ridiculous figures in their garish suits. And they say, "This is absurd. This is just something to be made fun of."
But the point I make in the book is that, no, there's actually a real core theological appeal to that idea. And the same is true, the same is true when I talk about sort of what I call the god within and sort of therapeutic religion and Eat, Pray, Love. I think that these are-- these theologies have an appeal for a reason. They answer people's questions about God and the universe.
BILL MOYERS: Well, they're writing theology irrespective of what the faith of our fathers and the old time religion might have believed.
ROSS DOUTHAT: What's different about our era is not the presence of, as you say, people writing their own theology. There's nothing more American than that.
What's different is the absence of a sort of institutional Christian response. I think there's been this, one of the points in the book is that we're used to thinking that orthodoxy without heresy is dangerous. Right? And that's absolutely true.
But the era we're living in now is a landscape were we have heresy without orthodoxy. That, you know, when Emerson stands up in the eight, I think the 1830s and gives this famous Harvard Divinity School address and says, "I can no longer agree with this, this and this Christian doctrine," that's a fascinating and intellectually important moment because the people in his audience disagreed with him because there were people though there who did believe in those traditional doctrines and you had that clash.
If Emerson - if an Emerson stood up and said that at Harvard Divinity School today people would say, "Well, sure. We don't, you know, we don't believe in that either." And it's that, it's that tension between orthodoxy and heresy I think that's been lost as the traditional mainline denominations have declined and as my own Catholic church has weakened as well.
BILL MOYERS: The charged word in the title of your book is not, to me, heresies, because I think the faith is a long narrative of heresies and many fights over them. The charged word is "bad religion."
ROSS DOUTHAT: Bad religion.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that fundamentalism, along with the gospel of prosperity, the cult of therapy with Oprah and the chauvinist, nationalist, god-soaked patriotism of a Glenn Beck are bad religion?
ROSS DOUTHAT: And you've left out the "Yes, we can" utopianism of certain Obama supporters, which I do throw in there as well. But I’m--
BILL MOYERS: That, oh, it seems to me that's political rhetoric. What, every president--- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Maybe that's theology, but it's political.
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think, I think--
BILL MOYERS: Are you equating Obama with Osteen and--
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that, I'm not equating Obama himself with those figures. I think in some of the enthusiasm for Obama in 2008, if you go back and look at some of the things that were written, there was this famous column in The San Francisco Chronicle where you know, a writer said, "I think Obama is the light bringer. He's this great soul." And you had all the endless sort of religious iconography and magazine covers.
And or you go watch that famous Will.i.Am video where, you know, everybody's singing about Obama. I think there, yes, you do see a sort of, a liberal, a liberal form-- I think the investment of partisan causes with sort of religious enthusiasm is part of what I call heresy. And I yeah, I think--
BILL MOYERS: All right. But--
ROSS DOUTHAT: Yeah, I think it happened with Obama supporters too. I think there’s a mirror.
BILL MOYERS: You're too young to remember how people sang for John F. Kennedy and--
ROSS DOUTHAT: I, but I-- well, I--
BILL MOYERS: And even Lyndon Johnson before the fall. And at the rhetoric, how did the rhetoric of Barack Obama differ from the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan in terms of its- -
ROSS DOUTHAT: Oh, no. I think, all but what I'm saying is that-- I mean I talk about Reagan a bit in the book too.
BILL MOYERS: You do.
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think there are mirroring-- I just think there's a mirroring on the left and right where on both sides you've had this sort of you know, as institutional religion weakens, but people remain religious. Right? They still have religious enthusiasm, because man is naturally a religious animal, it becomes easier and easier to invest partisan causes with religious enthusiasm.
And I agree. You see that in sort of the Republican cult of Reagan sometimes. Sort of, you know, "Morning in America, city on the hill." I'm just saying-- I think you saw it in the 2008 campaign a little bit too. But I haven't answered your question about badness.
I think the badness comes from the fact that they have the field to themselves. And it's the absence of this, this creative tension between, between some of these heretical forms of faith and stronger institutional churches, you know, I think you can draw a bright line between certain forms of prosperity, theology and the housing bubble.
I think you can draw a bright line between some of the cult of the god within and the fact that Americans seem to have harder and harder-- a harder and harder time living in community with one another. Our, you know, we marry less, we have more children out of wedlock, our community organizations are weakening. And some of that I think does have to do with a kind of narcissistic form of spirituality. So, so, yes okay. I will own up to the badness. I just want to emphasize that I'm a believer in that tension between heresy and orthodoxy.
BILL MOYERS: Let me come back to what was going through my mind as I read this book. It seems to me you're just not all that comfortable with the conservative religious sanction of politics that has turned the Republican party into a church of capitalism. Is that right?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think it’s, you know, what - part of what makes me a political conservative today, is that I think that that synthesis of Christianity and the welfare state isn't always as easy as people thought it was in the '40s and '50s. And it isn't always as easy, in part because I think people in those eras were often a little bit over-optimistic about what centralized planning could accomplish in an economy.
And also I think a little bit, a little bit naive about the extent to which original sin, right, which works itself out in the marketplace all the time, can also work itself out in, you know, corrupt bureaucracies and administrations just as easily.
And at the same time, I mean I think there has to be a distinction that Christians have to be willing to draw between saying we as a society need to be open to caring for the poor, but we as a society don't necessarily need to feel a Christian obligation to maintain, let's say, middle class entitlements as they are now indefinitely into the future. Right? There's no New Testament passage where he says, you know, "Remember the middle class and their Medicare, now and forever, world without end."
So again, I am a political conservative overall. And my broader sympathies at the moment are with sort of having some sort of limiting factor on government. That being said, I think you're absolutely right to see in my writing a discomfort with sort of an easy valorization of sort of anything that capitalists want to do.
BILL MOYERS: Jesus was hard on the money changers. Right?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But conservative Christians today seem quite at ease in the service of wealth and power. Quite uncritical. Quite unquestioning. In fact I think if they read this book they'll be harder on you for your judgments about the heresy of worshipping mammon and those who produce it than they will be you calling them heresies. But I think all of those Christians out there who think that the free market was set up in Genesis 1:1 will have a real quarrel with you. As you do with them.
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that there are conservative Christians who think that way. I also, though I spend a lot of times with conservative Christians. And I think that what you also have from a lot of them, younger Evangelicals especially and then also Catholics and so on, is a, I think an agreement with the point I make in the book. Right? And that you just expressed. That the New Testament is very critical of great wealth and so on.
But also a fear that if they - if they spend too much time sort of rhetorically focused on those issues, that they will be essentially giving aid and comfort to a liberalism that they feel is hostile to their basic beliefs.
BILL MOYERS: I wrote down something you said elsewhere. Quote. "If you don't think the government should be responsible for cutting great fortunes down to size that should only heighten your responsibility to issue a moral critique when rich people let greed and hubris get the better of them." Where on the religious right do you find that moral critique of wealth today?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that you've, I mean, I think you sometimes find it from even conservative Catholic bishops. And I think you do find it particularly among a lot of younger Evangelicals who are still sort of identified as conservative.
BILL MOYERS: But is a faith that has made its peace with laissez faire capitalism and that theologically justifies the pursuit of wealth, in your own frame of reference is that truly Christian?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I would distinguish in a way between the two. I think that laissez faire capitalism is, for all its faults, the system you know, it's what Churchill said about democracy, right? It's the worst system except for all the others. And so in that sense, yes, I think Christians do have to make their peace with some form of capitalism.
Having made that peace, though, as in the quote you just read, I think it's important for Christians not to then proceed to make theological justifications for everything that people within the capitalist system do. So that's a distinction I would draw. I am a supporter of capitalism but as a Christian I'm not always a supporter of capitalists, if that distinction makes sense.
BILL MOYERS: Should Christian societies do everything in their power to make the largest possible provision for the poor?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that Christian societies have an obligation to do two things. They have an obligation to, one, make a provision for the poor, but they also have an obligation to make sure that that provision doesn't create dependency and sort of rob the poor of their independence and ultimately their ability to rise.
And that the state doesn't become a substitute for institutions that I think Christianity is ultimately more in favor of. So sort of the family, private initiative and so on. Jesus of Nazareth, as you said, incredibly hard on the money changers. Incredibly hard on the rich. But his exhortations are usually focused towards individuals. He doesn't have a specifically political program.
And so there's a danger if you're too political, if you say, "Well, the state is just going to be solely responsible for taking care of the poor," then there'll be no room left for sort of genuine acts of charity. So that's, that's the balancing act. I support a welfare state, but it doesn't mean I support every expansion of the welfare state.
BILL MOYERS: Who is closer to your sense of Christian conservatism, Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Now that's a very good question. And it's a hard one. On the sort of big picture question of how faith should relate to public policy I have a lot of sympathy for the passion that Santorum brings and the fact that, you know, he's-- I mean there are a lot of nominally pro-life politicians in the Republican party.
Rick Santorum actually cares about the issues, that issue. And he's spent a large part of his career in the Senate working on that issue. By the same token, Rick Santorum has also been an example, to some extent, of the kind of thing we were talking about earlier where you want your politicians, your Christian politicians to not just be partisan. I mean Santorum as a senator, he was very conservative, but he was also would reach across the aisle, particularly on issues related to poverty.
BILL MOYERS: Well, on progressive taxation--
ROSS DOUTHAT: He was a tax--
BILL MOYERS: He was to the left of Romney--
ROSS DOUTHAT: He would, he would--
BILL MOYERS: --on progressive taxation.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Right. And he was attacked by Romney for a bill allowing felons to vote and so on. So there is a sort of a secret left wing side of Rick Santorum that was created by his Christian faith. So in that sense I say Santorum not Romney.
But then if you ask me on sort of you know, who, you know, aren't just voting for someone whose sort of overall premises you admire. You're voting for someone on policy positions and on competence. And on those grounds I'm probably closer you know, closer to Romney.
BILL MOYERS: What more do Christians conservatives want from Romney? I just made a list. You know, he's already says he's pro-life and has pledged to de-fund Planned Parenthood. He pledged to appoint an attorney general who will defend the Defense of Marriage Act. And he supports a constitution defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.
He pledged to repeal the healthcare overhaul. He says that Americans are victims of unbounded government appetite. He argues that Obama wants the repress the freedom of conservative Christians. Those are right out of his statements. So what more do Christian conservative want of him?
ROSS DOUTHAT: They want, they want what Americans always want from their politicians. They want to feel like he loves them. They want to identify with him. No, I mean, this is the thing. Politics is not just about sort of reciting the right list of positions.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, it's not even that.
ROSS DOUTHAT: People want you to support.
BILL MOYERS: You're on the right track. It's not even that.
ROSS DOUTHAT: It's not even that. And Mitt Romney in their hearts, conservative Americans know, it's not just Christians. It's just conservatives across the board. They know Romney isn't really one of them. That he is, he is what, you know, what Gingrich called him. A Massachusetts moderate. Not in the sense of being, you know, really liberal but in the sense of--
BILL MOYERS: That's a real heresy.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Being a sort of technocratic, you know, businessman. And that, it's that sense of identification that has been missing for Romney. Whereas, you know, I mean conservatives want to feel what liberals felt with Barack Obama. Right? And what liberals felt for Barack Obama in 2008. Again, it wasn't just about the policy. Isn't wasn't even about the policy. It was about this almost religious that, I said before, identification. And that's where Romney falls short. But it might also be why he would be a good president. But I tend to think it actually better sometimes when politicians don't inspire that kind of affection from us.
BILL MOYERS: I would challenge you on one point. I don't think the liberals I knew felt that way about Obama. They thought his election would be the apotheosis of 300 years of racism. But I think they wished he-- I wished-- they would like to feel the way they once felt, and my father felt, about Franklin Roosevelt. Which is, I think, the same thing that Ronald Reagan made a certain generation feel.
Look, we have to close. But you quote in your book my friend Bill McKibbon, who says that America is, quote, "simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior." Right?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well I, but I quote him to disagree with him slightly. I think that in quoting him, I think what – I think that argument does sometimes miss the good that conservative Christians do not by voting for government programs but in their homes and their charities and their overseas missions and so on.
And that if there was one thing I would say to liberals who think that all conservative Christians are sort of hypocrites and so on it's that, you know, look at the way a lot of American Evangelicals in particular live their lives. Look at someone like Michelle Bachmann, right? Who's kind of a hate figure on the American left. Michelle Bachmann really did you know, she really was a foster mother to a lot of children.
And I think that kind of impressive personal behavior is present, I mean it's present on the left and right alike, but I think it's a big - it's a big part of what it means to be Christian. And so as much as I'm critical of conservative religion, I think it does also get part of the Christian story really right.
BILL MOYERS: Can we continue and I'll put this on the web?
ROSS DOUTHAT: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Ross Douthat, thank you very much for spending this time with us.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you so much, Bill. It was a pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: You may recall that recently we talked about how the media giants who own your local commercial television and radio stations have been striking like startled rattlesnakes at a simple FCC proposal. It would shed light on who’s bankrolling political attack ads by posting the information online.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the rule April 27th, and this past Monday, its chairman, Julius Genachowski, walked into the lion’s den, the annual get-together of the industry’s lobby, the National Association of Broadcasters. In his speech, he cited a letter from the deans of several leading journalism schools who said quote: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover. It seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principles to themselves." We’ll link you to his entire remarks. In fact, we now have a special area on our website -- Campaign Ad Watch -- dedicated to keeping the story of political advertising and all the big, often secret money pouring into it, front and center. You can share your opinion on the idea of super PAC ads on public television. What do you think? Let me know. I’ll be reading. That’s it for now. See you next time.