What would American political culture look like without its pervasive moral dramas of sin and redemption, sometimes expressed in forms lofty and noble, but at other times resembling nothing so much as the smarminess and vulgarity of soap opera? One thing can be said for certain: We are not only intensely fascinated by these episodes of political theater, but fully in the grip of them, as far more than mere onlookers. For an allegedly secular society, the United States seems to be curiously in thrall to ideas, gestures, emotional patterns, nervous tics, and deep premises that belong to the supposedly banished world of religion. These habits of heart and mind are evident everywhere we look, and they possess a compulsive and unquestioned power in contemporary American life. It is as if the disappearance of religion’s metaphysical dimension has occasioned a tightening hold of certain of its moral dimensions, particularly so far as these relate to guilt and absolution.
Consider the range of manifestations: The feeding frenzies over malfeasances by public officials, real or imagined, eventuating in obligatory rituals of public confession and abasement before the altar of Oprah Winfrey or some other secular priest or priestess invested with the power to give or withhold absolution. The obsession with our environmental sins, both as an overconsuming society and as individuals leaving carbon footprints, giving rise to such phenomena as “carbon offsets,” schemes that have been decried by skeptics as little more than “green indulgences,” transparent sops to voracious (and credulous) consciences. The almost bottomless reservoirs of racial guilt and recrimination, most recently illustrated by the embarrassingly abject apology proffered by James Wagner, the president of Emory University, for the sin of mentioning in an essay the formulation of the three-fifths rule in the U.S. Constitution as an example of political compromise, instead of condemning the rule with thundering, absolute, and final moral certainty, as so many on his faculty demanded he do, no doubt in the spirit of academic freedom. The similar and related tendency to shout down all unwelcome speech as being a form of bigotry and therefore morally unacceptable: anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, homophobic, un-American, and so on. On many college campuses, the inhibiting fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way to the wrong person has all but rendered vigorous debate impossible. Whatever else one might say of these manifestations, they do not reflect a culture in which easygoing relativism, tolerance, skepticism, and laissez-faire permissiveness reign. It is instead a culture clenched taut with every imaginable form of moral anxiety, seemingly convinced despite its own secular professions that we inhabit a universe that has an inherent and unforgiving moral structure.
Other writers have noticed this as well. Not to mention the interesting irony that the first nation consciously designed in the spirit of the Enlightenment should have retained, on the popular level, such an intense religiosity. Those theological assumptions were only stashed in a Micmac burial ground, so they return with something not quite right about them. The widespread need for mythological structure to human lives doesn’t disappear just because someone points out that the myths aren’t literally true.