The United States is full of First Churches, mostly Baptist, though other denominations slip in some occasionally. There is, however, a new First Church, long in development but now fully functioning, which is not listed in the directories – the First Church of Political Correctness. This all-encompassing church has various subsidiary causes – abortion, same-sex marriage, environmentalism, Darwinism, secularism, and – the list goes on and on. These various causes are held with all the emotional intensity of any religious worldview; this church is an example of what Winston Churchill called a “Non-God religion.” While militant secularists have enforced a separation of church and state far beyond anything our founders ever conceived, one could argue that the scope of the separation should be expanded so that the Non-God religions are also disestablished, particularly in public education.
It is a deep irony that the seemingly unassailable headquarters of the new First Church is in American universities which Abigail Thernstrom of Harvard described over 20 years ago as “islands of oppression in a sea of freedom.” Why is it that on American college campuses, some religions, like the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, are more equal than others? Why is it that any Christian professor exhorting his students to believe in Jesus would face immediate censure while, day after day, class after class, the tenured acolytes of the Non-God religions proselytize freely? When did the honorable liberal professors of my undergraduate days, who welcomed free and open debate, morph into the politically correct leftist bullies of today? Of course, there are still honorable liberals on campus, and I am pleased to say that I know some. But they no longer are able to effectively resist the dominant politically correct fundamentalism.
In the 1950s, American universities were threatened by the indiscriminate anti-Communist zealotry of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The universities resisted. Today, an internalized McCarthyism is in force. The universities have succumbed. There is resistance, but, for the most part, it is coming from outside. Nonpartisan organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars are fighting to defend intellectual freedom. The real scandal, however, is that such organizations have to exist at all.
Indeed, for some zealots mere dominance is not enough. They want total control. People driving around with “Turn Off Fox News” bumper stickers are the psychological equivalents of small children who, when confronted by unwelcome news, shut their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears, and hum. There are many professorial fingers sticking in many professorial ears (and maybe even some humming). Any poll of college professors shows an overwhelming leftist dominance. Where is diversity when you need it? Where, for that matter, is affirmative action to redress the imbalance? Where is the true diversity of people who may or may not look alike but who think differently?
So is the answer really the total disestablishment of all religions, God and Non-God? This, tempting as it may be, is a kind of intellectual nuclear option. Far better is true diversity, true intellectual freedom, true openness to the riches of Western civilization. Far better is the recovery of the Socratic ideal. There is a pleasing symmetry here, for it carries us back to the fountainhead of our intellectual tradition which, unfashionable though it may be to say so, is certainly as varied, as profound, and as self-critical as any in history.
Socrates was a man of contraries – an “atheist” who revered the gods, a skeptic in search of transcendent truth, a rebel whose civic piety led him to endure an unjust death sentence. He shatters all comfortable stereotypes because for him the life of the mind was the great adventure of the human soul. Mary Renault gives us a memorable vignette in her novel “The Last of the Wine.” Her protagonist encounters Socrates in a “narrow Athenian alleyway” (symbolizing, perhaps, the constriction of the unenlightened soul):
“Can you tell me,” he said, “where one can buy good oil?” I thought it odd he should need telling, but I directed him. Then he asked after flour and cloth. I told him the best places I knew; he said, “And where can one get the good and beautiful?”
I must have looked pretty blank; at last I said, “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t tell you that.”
“No?” he said smiling. “Come with me, then, and let us find out.”
This is far, far better than the politically correct fundamentalism of the new First Church.