Kristol and the Uses of Religion

In my previous posting, I noted that Irving Kristol had a utilitarian attitude towards religion, viewing it as a necessary instrument of social control. For readers who might want more detail, I recommend this review of Kristol’s book Neoconservatism by Steve Vieux in New Politics.


As Vieux notes:


Kristol is consistent in little but his politics. His main loyalty is to the latest tactical twists and turns of the Republican Party and the right. Hence the extreme versatility of his conclusions. Populism is bad (321) but right-wing populism is good. (362-363) The welfare state is good for capitalism (308) but the welfare state causes a “long train of calamities.” (365) It is impossible to plan or design a good society (272) except when it comes to religion. (379-380)

What is true of this collection is also true of his career as a whole. Take the issue of secular humanism. Encounter was a hard- core cold war journal backed by the CIA, and secular humanist beyond a doubt. In his 1950s’ contributions, for example, Kristol often favorably contrasts the secularism of the West with the religious impulse at work in fascist or Communist regimes and movements. In one wild article called “The Shadow of the Marquis” Kristol denounces French left-wing intellectuals and the Marquis de Sade as “religious maniacs.” He remarks: “In Paris one speaks of la Revolution, quite simply, with that frisson which only the Holy can evoke…” In another piece entitled “Politics Sacred and Profane,” he runs on at length about the religious roots of totalitarianism and the danger that such movements may impose the “yoke of salvation.” These are aggressively secular arguments. Encounter was so relaxed about religion that Kristol felt free in one review to make some wisecracks about the Holy Trinity. Good clean fun of course, though one doubts that Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed would be amused.


After a couple of decades and the rise of the Christian Right, Kristol comes to believe that the humanist secularism which was a core feature of the civilization of the West in struggle against the Communists has itself become the slippery slope to liberalism and socialism: “It is secular humanism that is the orthodox metaphysical-theological basis of the two modern political philosophies, socialism and liberalism. The two are continuous across the secular-humanist spectrum, with socialism being an atheistic, messianic extreme while liberalism is an agnostic, melioristic version.” (447) Kristol has dramatically changed his tune here: he originally used secularism as a weapon against the left; now he’s convinced it’s a weapon of the left. Of course, people change their minds. But Kristol claims, in a 1995 piece, he’s never changed his mind about things religious: “There was something in me that made it impossible to become antireligious, or even non-religious. …I was born ‘theotropic.'” (4) This is an almost comical rewriting of his own past in order to pander to the Christian Right.


In David Frum’s Dead Right, there is a telling anecdote about Kristol lecturing conservative intellectuals on the need to be use the language of theology. Terry Teachout asked Kristol whether “intellectuals who lack religious faith can effectively advocate it for others.” To his extremely pertinent and pointed question, Kristol replied with what Frum describes as a “nervous” yes.

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