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Secularism, Individualism Are The Targets In A New Culture War

by Conrad F. Goeriger
August 1, 2020

White House documents reveal that President Bush, whose faith-based policy initiative faces tough opposition in the U.S. Senate, plans to unleash an even broader “values initiative” next month.

According to US News, the Washington Post and other sources, the campaign involves what writer Mike Allen described as “more emphasis on the presidential role of moral leader with a series of executive actions and legislative proposals designed to foster community spirit and family values...” A strategy plan for the new initiatives says that Bush should build upon his support base with religious groups, and stress issues that “unite Americans by focusing on children, quality of life and universally appreciated values.”

The News describe the “values campaign” as “a new phase of Bush’s presidency -- an attempt to steer public debate toward gauzy notions of cultural conservatism and personal responsibility, just as the president is losing control of his agenda on Capitol Hill as the public increasingly questions his policies.”

The program will be packaged as “Communities of Character,” and touch on such diverse issues as teen pregnancy, adoption, drugs, gang prevention, prison ministries and the role of religious and other groups in fostering so-called “civil society.” It is designed, in part, to cast the president as “a different kind of Republican” who can reach to interest groups which traditionally have been part of the Democratic party.

* The effort is the brainchild of Bush adviser Karl Rove, and is being run out of the semi-secret White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. A memo from the office warns that “This project should not be seen as religious based,” although churches play a pivotal role in much of it. In addition, “The project, which has been under development for months, is being planned using techniques that might launch a soft drink or laundry soap,” notes Allen. “‘Avoid a traditional media roll-out of the program,’ a memoradum recommends. ‘Use creative media tactics to create buzz.’”

* Another document tied to “Communities of Character” suggests, “Compared to 30 years ago, Americans are more worried about moral values, the breakdown of the family and decline in civic life... The public wants government and individual elected officials to play a more active leadership role in dealing with declining values...”

* The initiative is meant to not only keep Bush’s core constituency of religious-right and social conservatives who support him, but find ways of courting other groups as well concerned about the “character component” of issues and perceived moral decline. The federal government, orchestrated by the White House, would thus become not only more of a “bully pulpit” but a cheerleader for promoting “values.” Already, notes the Post, the administration has “consulted” the media elite -- a traditional bogeyman for social conservatives and now many liberals -- including giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom (CBS, Paramount, Blockbuster) and even MTV. There is no word on how far the companies will go in endorsing “Communities of Character.” The White House also hopes to enlist big time athletes, professional sports groups like the NFL and the NBA, and even the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

* Bush’s faith-based initiative -- a campaign which thus far has floundered on Capitol Hill and attracted a barrage of criticism -- remains a core component in the new “character crusade.” There will be a larger cultural message, though, one which emphasizes “responsibility” for corporation, families and state-local governments. Mr. Bush told reporters recently, “The faith-based initiative is kind of a legislative component of a larger cultural message, based upon responsibility and family and communities of conscience.”

“Communitarianism” -- Masking A Dangerous, Authoritarian Theo-Political Agenda?

“Communities of Character” reflects the growing popularity in government and religious circles for a philosophy broadly labeled “communitarianism.” It incorporates features which can appeal to both liberals and conservatives, a reason why such figures as former Reagan administration culture guru William Bennett and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman find common cause over issues like the status of religion in American life, violence and sex in media, and the need to involve churches, corporations and government in the fight to address social problems.

“This is the ultimate Third Way,” said Don Eberly, a deputy director for the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “The debate in this town in the last eight years was how to forge a compromise on the role of the state and market. This is a new way to rethink social policy, a major reigniting of interest in the social sector.” Religion is the keystone for many communitarians, who blame an alleged erosion of moral standards on pervasive secularism and unfettered individualism. Noted US News writer Kenneth Walsh: “Bush, a born-again Christian, is said by friends to believe, despite mixed evidence, that America is ‘on the cusp of a religious revival.’” An unidentified Bush adviser quoted the president: “He knows that people tend to become more faith-driven as they get older.”

As a movement, communitarianism has up until now been confined mostly to academic think tanks, foundations, and scholarly journals. Many communitarians, especially the circle of policy gurus now ensconced in the White House, take their cue from former Vice President Dan Quayle, who in the 1990s became a lightning rod in the discussion over politics and values. Quayle, for instance, tackled the issue of single-motherhood, criticizing the popular television program “Murphy Brown” and its character, a unmarried mom played by Candice Bergen.

During the Reagan era, there were also forces percolating that would later play a role in emergent communitarianism. First Lady Nancy Reagan was put in charge of a federal program to establish “chastity centers” across the country and lecture teens on the evils of pre-marital sex. The program became an easy target for critics, and even some conservatives lambasted the idea as a mischievous form of “Big Brotherism.” Reagan’s own emphasis on religious faith also played a pivotal role in the endgame days of the cold war. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a call for the revitalization of “civic” institutions -- businesses, churches, trade and professional groups -- in that country and the remnant of the Eastern bloc nations. Another factor was the Catholic Church, which had worked closely with the U.S. Government in supporting the Solidarity trade union in Poland.

With the “fall of the wall,” the Vatican in particular found a new nemesis -- a multi-polar world characterized by globalization, the internet, international trade, and the erosion of traditional institutions. Pope Paul warned fellow Poles that while the ouster of the communist regime was a positive development, secularism and consumerism threatened tradition values and provided people with “too much freedom.” Catholic Bishops soon took up the banner of a new culture war. Called to Rome, the princes of the church heard warnings from their own ranks, men like Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh who cautioned: “Heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights has greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves.”

Even more extreme religionists agreed. Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a fixture on the American religious right scene, increasingly denounced what he said was the licentiousness of American women, and the pursuit of material gratification. He described American women as “prostitutes,” and increasingly portrayed the country as “hell on earth” and “fallen ... heading for destruction.” A new Moon ally, Louis Farrakhan of the National Islam agreed, and became increasingly involved with the Korean cultist.

Modernity, consumerism, and “unfettered individualism” soon emerged as the new targets of sundry religious groups and political leaders.

The Mantra Of “Civil Society”

A potpourri of social issues and gripes has coalesced as urgent matters to the ranks of communitarians. Under the same mantle are advocates of “civil society,” many of whom have been instrumental in helping to craft the Bush faith-based initiative.

* Marvin Olasky, a key policy adviser to Bush, is considered the guru of the faith-based initiative. In college at Yale he flirted with anti-war activism, and even joined the Communist Party. His search for a “true faith” continued while in graduate school as he began a philosophical transmutation to the religious right. By 1976, and following a spiritual epiphany, Olasky enrolled in a fundamentalist congregation and started devouring texts which included Puritan sermons replete with millenarian and punitive overtones.

Twenty years later, Olasky was a public policy advisor to then-Texas Gov. George Bush. It was Olasky who helped to shape many of Bush’s ideas about the need “privatize welfare” and to involve religious groups in the operation of social programs. A number of administrative reforms were pushed through, and faith-based outreaches like Teen Challenge, a Christian drug and alcohol rehab program, not only receive state aid but were allowed to operate outside the controls of government oversight agencies. Today, Olasky’s ideas are resonating at the federal, state and local levels.

* A strange intersection of liberal and conservative ideology has emerged through the “civil society” movements with groups such as Empower America, founded by William Bennett and Joseph Lieberman. The organization has been prominent for its criticisms of “vulgarity,” violence and sex in mass media -- everything from movies and television to video games and lyrics. This front in the culture war unites both ends of the political spectrum, with organizations like Morality in Media (headed by Brent Bozell) and the old Parents Music Resource Center, founded by Tipper Gore.

* “Communitarians” and “civil society” enthusiasts also look to policy thinkers like Amitai Etzioni, now a professor at George Washington University. Etzioni was also a former sernior advisor to the White House (1979-1980) and founder of the International Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics. He directs the Center for Policy Research at Columbia, a post he has held since 1968.

The author of 19 books including “The Limits of Privacy,” Etzioni is the foremost critic of postmodernist and libertarian individualism. Like fellow communitarians, he advances the thesis that the major woe facing particularly western culture is a surfeit of personal freedom with a lack of concomitant responsibility. For Etzioni, it is the family, the “community” and other values-giving institutions -- not the individual -- which are the building blocks of society.

Describing Etzioni’s work, “The Limits of Privacy,” Salon Magazine writer Mike Goodwin referred to the communitarian guru. “Whenever some would-be social reformer tells me that individual rights need to be balanced against the common good, I get nervous. And when someone argues that civil libertarians and privacy advocates have, in their concern for privacy, constituted an active social harm, I get positively jittery...”

Etzioni joins other policy crafters in proposing, for instance, that government take a more active role in policing the cultural landscape of America, and do more to “balance” personal liberties and individualism with what he terms the public welfare. It sounds good on paper, especially when you consider the extreme cases (such as on-line sexual predators) communitarians often cite. From there, the “civil society” agenda suddenly mushrooms, though, into an Orwellian super-state, with clergy, politicians and morality monitors stalking the internet, censoring rock concerts, and using the power of the FCC and other government institutions to “rein-in” a free-wheeling expression. Led by Sen. Lieberman, for instance, Democrats and Republicans ganged up on the Hollywood entertainment industry for a round of Capitol Hill hearings on violence and salacious program content in the wake of the November, 2000 election. More of the same can be expected if the current Bush “Communities of Character” courtship to AOL-Time Warner and other electronic media giants fails to elicit the sort of compliance the White House is looking for.

* Another communitarian luminary is Kirbyjohn Caldwell, pastor in the Houston, Texas Windsor Park United Methodist Church, who introduced George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in August 5, 2020 and just five months later gave the invocation at the Bush inaugural. Caldwell is an icon in the stern religious communitarian wing, and is a frequent guest (he often gives the invocation) at meetings of pro-voucher groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation. A constant theme in Caldwell’s sermons is the “sin of materialism.” Bush’s Washington address was described by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention as “the most religious inaugural speech in living memory... I believe it is a fearless signal to the media, who pretend that we are a secular nation. We are not. We are one of the most religious nations on earth...” (Associated Press)

* Other names populate the public policy universe which now pervades the White House, and is unpinning both the faith-based initiative and the new “Communities of Character” initiative. Along with Etzioni, Caldwell and Olasky one can include Tony Evans (Promise Keepers); Rev. Eugene Rivers (Boston); Stephen Goldsmith, former Mayor of Indianapolis and a major “faith-based partnership” booster who now heads the federal AmeriCorps program; Don Sider, Evangelicals for Social Action; and certainly Karl Rove, White House Chief who served as political tutor for Bush and guided his campaign through the rough waters of the Southern primaries and the GOP nomination and over the top in November. Rove, like Olasky was a political tutor for Bush, and in the summer of 1998 even called upon writers like David Horowitz and Myron Magnet to make the trek to Austin, Texas to lecture the governor in the roots of social decay. Like Olasky, Horowitz is a former 60’s radical-turned-social/religious conservative who has found redemption in denouncing the old/new left, and dubbing his former cohorts as the “destructive generation.”

One can also find other names such as John DiIulio, the former University of Pennsylvania social theorist who wrongly predicted the coming of a generation of crack-baby “super-predators” ready to run amok in the streets of a defenseless America. (That argument seems to have morphed into apocalyptic screeds warning of rising violence in the mass release of prison inmates incarcerated during the 1970’s and 80’s “wars” on violent crime.) Add to the list Christopher De Muth, Diane Ravitch, Paul Wolfowitz, and a gaggle of other public policy groupies from Heritage Foundation and even Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

Communitarians find their “gospel” in many writings, including Robert D. Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam is comfortable in the more liberal wing of the “civil society” movement, with his thesis of the erosion of neighborhood and community face-to-face organizations. He used bowling clubs as an example. The New York Times described him as “a big, red-faced enthusiastic man with the Amish whiskers and explosive gestures of a 19-th century fundamentalist preacher -- useful characteristics for the ‘hell will get us if we don’t mend our way’ thesis...”

“His message ... is that club memberships, the church committees, the political participation; all the involvements, even the street protests, that make a democracy work -- has declined over the last 30 years.” Putnam and other communitarians employ language terms like “social capital” and “responsibilities.” Unlike many in Bush’s support base, Putnam is heavily “establishment.” He is Stansfield Professor for International Peace at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, former Dean, and even sits on the Advisory Council of Environmental Development at the World Bank. Religious-right communitarians may find it disturbing that Putnam also is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, two groups which often are the subjects of conspiracy musings.

Interviewed by the Post in connection with the Bush “Communities of Character” campaign, Putnam gushed: “We need to connect with one another. We’ve got to move a little more in the direction of community in the balance between community and the individual...”

Putnam also said that at the center of the communitarian ethos “is a notion that years of celebrating individual freedom have weakened the bonds of community and that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the interest of society as a whole.” Critics ask: Who determines the nature of this balance? Who determines the nebulous ‘interest of society as a whole,’ especially in matters so closely linked to individual behavior?

The Communitarian-Faith Based Agenda -- Issues

With a narrative laced heavily with references to “community,” “civil society” and “values,” critics detect the faint whiff of other authoritarian movements. Some even find lingering similarities to the Nazi mantra of “Gemeninschaft,” “Community!” Indeed, it was suggested by Fascist theorists that the good citizens of Germany should voluntarily relinquish personal liberties in favor of “Gemeinschaft,” creating a value-oriented culture. Communitarians are neither Nazis nor fascists, but there are times when their defenses of “the common good” are chillingly totalitarian. Etzioni, for instance, gushed about the potential of Bio-metrics, saying “In very short order your face and hand will become your 100% reliable, unforgivable ID card. Anonymity will vanish, but so will most fugitives from the law, illegal immigrants, welfare cheats, and many others who rely on false IDs.” This may scare some liberals, privacy advocates and even Bob Barr; but Etzioni is also at odds with traditional conservatives. “There is little sense in gun registration,” he proposes. “What we need to significantly enhance public safety is domestic disarmament of the kind that exists in practically all democracies.” Even Bush and Moses may not agree with this “communitarian” goal.

Communitarians,“civil society” advocates and the Bush White House, though, do agree on a considerable number of issues, some of which have already prompted legislative initiatives. More can be expected:

* PUBLIC FUNDING OF FAITH-BASED PROGRAMS. The whole “Communities of Character” project is designed to jump-start the faith-based initiative which, while winning approval two weeks ago in the House of Representatives, faces a rough future in the Senate. Sen. Joseph Lieberman is already talking compromise with Mr. Bush, though, and a communitarian-style faith-based could be the result -- a hybrid between J.C. Watts’ (R-Oklahoma) “Community Solutions Act” and a Lieberman proposal that would permit religious groups to accept public money, while still requiring them to observe local and state civil rights ordinances. Likely on board will be the nation’s black churches which are enthusiastically backing the Bush initiative in increasing numbers. White Protestant evangelicals, fearful of what they perceive to be “government regulation,” could balk and be a problem.

Faith-based funding is already a “done deal,” though in some areas where communitarians like Stephen Goldsmith, and possible New Jersey Gov. Bret Schundler have encouraged state-church “partnerships.”

* SURVEILLANCE, CONTROLS ON THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY. The social and religious conservatives who backed George W. Bush fret about the traditional themes of salacious and violent content in movies, television programs and internet web sites. Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justices hosts workshops for state and local District Attorneys and law enforcement personnel, encouraging them on how to “crack down” on “pornography.” In a recent “700 Club” program, Robertson again excoriated the judicial system for interpreting the First Amendment as a legal shield for morally-suspect images.

This agenda, though, has increasingly percolated through liberal ranks, again thanks to the “civil society” movement which finds itself distanced from what Joseph Lieberman describes as “our traditional friends in Hollywood.” The crusade against rap and “gangsta’” lyrics in the 1990s found a strange bedfellow alliance of traditional conservatives and “New Democrat” liberals. William Bennett joined with Joe Lieberman and former National Black Women’s Political Caucus head C. Delores Tucker in excoriating the burgeoning hip-hop industry. This angst has now spread to other areas of popular culture, even the internet which is portrayed as a dark and dangerous cyber universe placing youngsters “at risk.”

Expect communitarians and “civil society” enthusiasts to find common cause in a White House crusade to pass some kind of Communications Decency Act, crack down on offensive internet web sites, and push stronger content ratings on the entertainment industry. Even more extreme is a “Communities of Character” program which will encourage papers, television networks and other information sources to “increase reporting of good news.” How far would the “encouragement” go? Critics point to a recent scandal involving efforts by U.S. government drug war officials to pressure producers to imbed anti-drug themes in plot lines.

* THE MARRIAGE MOVEMENT is another component in the “Communities of Character” effort to reverse what both communitarians and religious conservatives see as the erosion of traditional family values. Liberals who once scorned Dan Quayle for his strident denunciation of Murphy Brown and single motherhood now echo the mantra that “fatherhood matters.” Bush signaled his commitment to this not only by supporting efforts to abolish the so-called “marriage tax,” but also moving Don Eberly -- the founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative -- into the deputy director slot at the White House faith-based office.

Emphasis on tradition marriage -- between one man and one woman, preferably with the blessing of both church and state -- could divide communitarians over the issue of gay rights and even single moms, though. Homosexuals in the military, same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by gay or lesbian couples is a potential flash point.

* “PUBLIC SERVICE.” One “Communities of Character” document referred to ideological policy that resembled “Clinton without Clinton.” Bush hopes to continue speaking from a “bully pulpit,” but one with ties to the public treasury and the enforcement mechanisms of the state. As the nation’s moral authority, Bush is likely to also renew the emphasis on “public service,” young people taking time to “serve” communities doing everything from picking up litter to working in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Whether this will prove to be a solution to traditional government welfare approaches remains to be seen.

* WIDER ROLES, PROTECTION FOR RELIGIOUS GROUPS. Communitarians, “civil society” interest groups and the Bush administration continue to press for special legal shields involving religious organizations. This includes last year’s passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act of 2000, which effectively immunized houses of worship from many environmental, zoning and land use restrictions. A more expansive version of this legislation has percolated through a number of state legislatures in the form of “Religious Liberty Amendments,” which require governments to use higher and more difficult legal standards when dealing with faith-based groups. A recent New York Times story noted that local communities are ceding more legal authority to churches in disputes involving everything from construction of new facilities to expansion of parking lots.

* CHASTITY, ABSTINENCE-ONLY SEX EDUCATION. Already, the Bush administration has tried to undermine foreign assistance programs which emphasized population restraint and birth control. Look for the administration to use government money, and enlist the participation of private and faith groups in a campaign aimed mostly at young people preaching the virtues and necessity of remaining “pure” and chaste until marriage. Groups like “True Love Waits,” which encourages teens to avoid sexual encounters and experimentation, could even qualify for grants and funding.

What’s left Of The Wall...

This communitarian vision blurs the traditional distinction between political conservatism and liberalism, yet can appeal to both. It has “something for everyone.” Conservatives can support Bush and his communitarian agenda since it expands the role of religious and community groups, and addresses their fears regarding more nebulous issues like moral decline, violent crime, “vulgarity,” and a “breakdown” in the social fabric. Liberals , especially “New Democrats” like Joe Lieberman, see the political side of communitarianism as a way to “take back God” for their party -- one goal in the year 2000 election which saw both Mr. Lieberman and Vice President Al Gore try to match their Republican rivals on issues relating to public faith and morality. Ultimately, all of this is going to require a radical reinterpretation of state-church separation and civil liberties. Already, the distinction between the campaign trail and the tent-revival circuit has dimmed, and in Washington, the prospect looms of a liberal-Democratic “sell out” over the faith-based initiative. The question for many lawmakers is no longer the principle, but the mechanics of using the power of government to fund religion-based programs.

Not all communitarians agree on the details and mechanics of their philosophy, and critics say that communitarians are united only by their shared belief that modern culture, particularly American society, is awash in “too much freedom” and secularism. Amitai Etzioni sees George W. Bush as leading a new crusade to address these evils, though, and praises Bush’s inaugural address as “a communitarian text.” That, the federal faith-based initiative, and now the “Community of Character” crusade may also turn out to be a regrettable assault not only on individual rights, but what remains of a much-battered wall of separation between church and state.

For further information: (Articles, background on the federal faith-based initiative) ("Churches seek special legal protection from suits,"10/31/99) ("Public funding of religion under guise of ‘fatherhood,’" 11/3/99) (House committee boosts role for religious groups in public literacy programs," 2/21/00) ("Drug czar schmoozes with Dobson, praises religious ministries in fight against addiction," 5/14/00) ("White House, GOP congress join to promote faith-based ‘Community Renewal’ legislation," 6/10/00) ("More media stories raise questions about faith-based partnerships," 10/24/01) ("Record prison releases, re-entry programs could fuel calls for religion-based rehab -- at public expense," 1/9/01) ("Fearing freedom -- Pope, bishops, Rev. Moon blast America, Secularism, ‘Individualism,’" 11/30/97)


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