Book Review: The Politics of Heaven, America in Fearful Times
Author: Earl Shorris
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company
Reviewed by Stephen Keim
Earl Shorris wrote, perhaps, the best book I ever read: The Life and Times of Mexico . He lived his life as a progressive , something likely to endear him to me. Shorris was a prolific writer and I had been hoping to explore some of his other work , especially that looking at United States politics.
So, when my son, S, gave me a copy of The Politics of Heaven , one of Shorris’s political books, for Christmas, 2016, I was very pleased. It is not always easy to obtain non-current books even those of famous and successful writers. My copy of The Politics of Heaven has a stamp on the first page inside the cover which says: “Irish School of Economics, TCD Dublin Library, Discard Michaelmas Term, 2011, Slaine O’Hogain (Librarian)”. S, obviously, had to traverse the internet to track it down and bring it to me.
I spent most of 2017 reading and enjoying The Politics of Heaven. When exigencies of work kept me away for unacceptable periods of time, I refreshed my memory by re-reading the book from the beginning. The Politics of Heaven is the kind of book that one can happily read and re-read. The writing is beautiful. The information comes from many sources. Events and ideas intermingle. The joy goes on.
The Politics of Heaven is about religious ideas and how they influence the politics of a country. The first sentence of the Prologue reads: “In half a century, America has gone from love of God and one’s fellow man to fear God and one’s fellow man”. The thesis is that the religious ideas that inspired and gave birth to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal were those of the Social Gospel movement which flourished in and around the period of crossover from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Social Gospellers believed and taught that Christianity required its followers to apply Christian principles to economic and social problems and, thereby, to pursue social justice. A founder of the Social Gospel movement, Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch wrote that the essential purpose of Christianity was to transform human society into the kingdom of God by regenerating all human relationships in accordance with the will of God. The New Deal became the political expression of these principles and beliefs.
The New Deal did not die with FDR. New Deal policies continued to be implemented by administrations right up to Jimmy Carter’s presidency commencing in 1976. Notwithstanding this, a new form of politics and a new political movement was developing, at first, on the sidelines of mainstream politics.
Shorris depicts the history of ideas and beliefs using a concept borrowed from writer, Eudora Welty , namely, the idea of confluence. Everything that happens can be seen as the waters of a mighty river. Historians draw the events that they see as important from the great confluence and present that as reality. The river changes as new things influence events and ideas. The river does not change overnight but, over time, particular events and the ideas which drive them and which are promoted by them can come to exert more influence within the river even while other events and ideas continue to play a role within the mighty confluence.
Shorris dates the end of the Second World War as a turning point in the ideas which have driven America. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the commencement of the Cold War; the development of the Hydrogen Bomb; the Holocaust; and the aftermath of the great wars, themselves, made the fear not just of death through natural causes but mass death, untimely, before one’s time, death an ever present reality. And the resulting fear of death has been the catalyst for a new type of religious belief. This religion promises a heavenly salvation but rejects the love and pursuit of social justice promoted by the social gospel. Rather, devotees look first to their own salvation. They steer away from those of their fellow humans who are not part of their own religious community. They define themselves by the things, ungodly things, they oppose such as abortion, gun control, evolution, government, taxes, liberals, gay people, conservationists and climate change advocates. The movement stands for family values though many of their leaders, on that score, have failed to live up to the standards they set for others.
The new view of religion concerned with the politics of heaven rather than the social gospellers concern with the politics of society has given rise to a new political movement. In accord with the confluence view of history, the ideas which spawned this movement existed before 1945 but the new fear of death caused it to grow in numbers and influence such that it now plays a huge role in the great confluence of American ideas.
The movement is not a political party. It does not have a single leader. It is not a secret society. But its development and its progression towards political power has been strong despite being unnoticed and unrecognised by many.
There have been crucial events in the rise of the movement. Shorris highlights the speech, A Time for Choosing , of then former actor and Governor, Ronald Reagan, in support of the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, on 27 October 1964. Reagan had been a democrat. But he laid down a mantra for a new Republican Party in which he pitched for lower taxes; the privatisation of the social security; the reduction in size of the federal government; the reduction of the national debt; and, in a paradox we have come to observe frequently, greater spending on defence.
Goldwater lost but the election of Reagan as president, 16 years later, was a major advance by the movement from the sidelines to the centre. The Politics of Heaven was published in 2007. Shorris died in 2012 . His perspective was the 2006 midterm elections during George W Bush’s second term. On the surface, this had been a massive victory at both State and National levels for the Democrats and, thereby, a defeat for the movement’s conservative adherents. Shorris saw it, differently. He refers to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party representing the national political movement. He describes the new junior Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, standing beside her famous husband (famous for receiving an act of fellatio as President from a White House intern) and talking of family values, a catch cry of the movement . The Democratic Party had won the mid-terms but had, itself, become a home for the movement who had started on the right fringes of national politics. The left-liberal elements of the Democratic Party, the links with the interests of working class people, the poor and the New Deal, had become isolated and defeated within the Party of FDR.
Shorris approaches the history of ideas and politics in the United States and beyond on a thematic basis. He draws on great learning. His chapter titles include Silence (in which he talks a lot about government secrecy); Philosophers (he draws on Aristotle for some of his analysis of events and ideas); Apocalypse (a Protestant’s approach to politics is much affected by their view of the coming of the judgment day); Safety; Method; and Pessimism. The Politics of Heaven is as much about the context in which the movement has developed as the movement, itself, and, as a result, Shorris ranges far and wide in his survey of ideas and events.
Shorris draws, in his writing, and in The Politics of Heaven, on personal experience. The Life and Times of Mexico commences with an anecdote of crossing the border, every Saturday morning, with his father (to buy the petrol which was cheaper in Mexico) from Douglas, Arizona, to the little Mexican town of Agua Prieta where the seven year old Shorris spoke to an old man sitting outside his front door who told him about the still visible bullet holes in the houses and their connection to a famous battle of the great general, Pancho Villa .
In The Politics of Heaven, Shorris tells another story from his childhood in which he spends the after school/before dinner evenings of one summer and autumn, among the stalks of a cornfield, with a new girl from school. They read Dante’s Divine Comedy. The girl read aloud in Italian. Shorris followed along in his copy in English. The nostalgia and pathos is powerful.
Other stories involve ongoing discussions with old political opponents who shared a sense of political decency that most modern politics had left behind. Shorris conducted many interviews with many religious leaders who are influential in the looming ascendency of the movement. (The original intention was simply a book on the religious right in America. In researching that project, Shorris expanded his focus as he realised that the shift from the ideas and beliefs that had spawned the New Deal was more diffuse and more complex than simply involving the activists identifiable as the religious right.)
Shorris also interviewed members of congregations and couples who were not leaders but whose commitment to their church and the values promoted by their religious leaders made them followers and foot soldiers of the movement. He always treats his subjects with empathy and conveys their attitudes with a sense of human understanding. Shorris is not one to dismiss people with whom he disagrees as wrong and, therefore, of no interest. Indeed, the more he differs in his values and attitudes, the more it seems that Shorris is intent on understanding his subjects as humans.
For all his human empathy, Shorris is not blind to the moral flaws of the movement. He points out the importance of racism to the movement’s political success and tactics. He provides an example from Reagan’s presidential campaign. Reagan knew, at the start of his first campaign, that he had to signify that he was in accord with the movement on racism. He went to the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi , as close as he could get to the spot where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 . There, he gave a speech about the importance of State’s rights, a symbol and code word for racism in the South. By dishonouring the memories of three young men murdered in the name of racism, Reagan signalled to the movement and its followers that he was their man in the most unambiguous way.
And Shorris speaks of the moral contradiction at the heart of conservative religious politics. Religion is, essentially, about doing good to others. In their own lives, followers of the movement support charity and assisting the poor. But conservative politics and the actions of its leaders, both by intention and impact, result in harm: harm to the poor and middle classes; harm to the environment; harm to the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular; harm to the military and those who serve; harm to the city of Darfur; and harm to the people and city of New Orleans. It is this moral contradiction for the hearts of devout people, who seek to do good for their God, that is the weakness at the heart of the movement.
At the same time that I was reading The Politics of Heaven, I had commenced Jane Mayer’s Dark Money . Dark Money is about another strand of the conservative movement and its contribution to the rise and rise of the movement, the secretive billionaires who have planned together to use money to influence the political process. Shorris talks about the importance of ideas, especially, religious ideas, and the influence of religious leaders, the preachers with their rich churches and the institutions they have built using that income.
At page 302 of The Politics of Heaven, there is a mention of an attempt by a charitable foundation of the Scaife family , prime representatives of the billionaires funding a new extreme conservatism, to use money to influence the editorial policy and content of Harper’s Magazine. This is part of a chapter discussing ways in which the movement has attempted to create its own media outlets and influence the content of public media outlets. The billionaires, otherwise, are not discussed at length in The Politics of Heaven.
There is, no doubt, that the rise of religious ideas and influence since the end of the Second World War has had a massive influence on policy in America and the world, including Australia. However, the religious elements of the movement provided a crucial tool for the billionaires like Scaife and the Koch brothers . And the dark money of the billionaires made the political triumphs of the religiously influential individuals much easier to achieve. In order to understand what has come over American politics in the last fifty years, it would be an error to ignore either the ideas or the money. They have facilitated one another.
Shorris died in 2012. He is one of those few public figures (whom I never met) whose absence from this earth makes me sad.
As I write, I wonder what Shorris would have made of the 2016 elections. The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party wrapped up its nomination and proceeded to lose the electoral college to a Republican who was neither moral nor in the majority . Maybe, Shorris would have been disheartened by even more signs that the movement had taken over both parties and American politics as a whole.
I think Shorris would also have seen hope. Though the movement voted for Trump, they must have done so with some hesitation. More than anyone else, Trump seems to personify the disposition to evil seen so often among the leaders of the movement. Though he facilitates the cruellest of conservative policies including the stripping of health care from those who need it ; taking money from the poor and middle classes and giving it to the billionaires ; attacking freedom of the press ; attacking the judicial arm of government ; foreign adventurism; and facilitating and promoting racism in practice , his personal avarice and complete lack of family values is perhaps the clearest indication yet seen of the moral conundrum that lies at the heart of religious, conservative politics.
And, in the politics of Bernie Sanders and his supporters, which has not gone away, maybe, Shorris might have seen the beginnings of a new political movement. Maybe, this movement, still in its infancy, will re-awaken the values that inspired the New Deal. Maybe, again, in the context of our time, there will be a set of beliefs whose essential purpose is to transform human society into one with which resembles a Godly kingdom and to regenerating our human relationships in a way that respects everyone’s inalienable rights and freedoms .