April 30, 2004

To restore the centrality of civil society

Orrin Judd wrote this as part of a comment on a fascinating essay about the possibility of reformation in the Islamic world. It's a good summary of what is happening, or trying to happen, here. [By the way, a good rule-of-thumb: Anyone who uses the term "theocracy" to describe the Religious Right is clueless.]

...Perhaps the most interesting way to approach the argument here is to reverse the entire thing and look at the Renovatio in the West. Well, really it's just in America, but that's the point. Just as the kind of totalitarianism that Islam has tended to require inevitably fails, so too does secularism as excessive as that adopted by most of our allies--and nearly by us until, the reversal came in 1980. What the conservative movement in America has been about for some time now and what has been greatly accelerated by President Bush is the project to diminish the state and restore the centrality of civil society--and with it the domination of daily life by religion.

Critics who perceive some inkling of this grand project will sometimes worry that it is an attempt to move America towards theocracy--nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a far more radical endeavor, seeking not to gain access to state powers but to remove power from the State. Thus creation of a "culture of life" to restore the rights that pre-exist the State; tax cuts to bleed the State of revenue; an Opportunity Society to make men independent of government as regards health and retirement; school vouchers to break the State monopoly on education; the Faith-Based Initiative to return the provision of social services back to churches and charities; etc.; etc.; etc

In effect, conservatism in America is attempting something not too different from what Mr. Vlahos credits New Islamists with attempting. The question as regards Islam is: do the New Islamists understand that it is best for them to eschew governmental power and allow both government and economics to be relatively secular and quite free? Or are they destined to establish totalitarianism? The rapidity with which the Iranian experiment with totalitarianism collapsed would seem to give us some reason to hope that its example can generally be avoided in the future.

The question as regards America is: can the secular State, once created, successfully have its powers devolved back to civil society? Or are we destined to keep sliding into the same kind of suicidal secular decline that we see in Europe? The coming election will go some considerable distance to determining whether the counter-revolution will continue.

What both groups are groping towards is pretty much the republicanism of the Founders, with a fairly minimalist, somewhat liberal, kind of democratic central government but then a tightly knit civil society that depends for its continued health on the virtue of its citizenry...

Posted by John Weidner at April 30, 2004 8:10 AM
Weblog by John Weidner