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From the June, 2003 issue of Touchstone


Practical Atheism by S. M. Hutchens


Practical Atheism

by S. M. Hutchens

There has been much response to Touchstone’s April issue, in which the Democratic party was characterized as godless, and portrayed as having developed in recent years into something no Christian can in good conscience support. Subscriptions have been angrily canceled and declarations that we will be prayed for received. More attention has been given to this issue than any other we have published. The most common criticisms are that Touchstone, a religious magazine, is now dabbling in politics, where it has no business, and that the April issue was in fact a Republican party tract in which the editors displayed their political preferences more than their Christianity. What, one suspects, some of our off-put correspondents wished to see in subsequent issues is some kind of muted apology that we were in some places a bit rough and high-handed, along with a good-natured admission that good Christians can have varying opinions on these matters. But we don’t think they can. Things have gradually but surely come to the point where we must say that to the degree Christians have been co-opted by the Democrats, they are no longer good.

The April 2003 Touchstone was, to be sure, out of the ordinary, as James Kushiner indicated in the introductory material. It is true that we normally “don’t do politics,” at least not directly. But the senior editors agree that the Democratic party has in the last generation undergone changes that make it impossible for a knowledgeable Christian to support it in good conscience, just as it was once impossible for a knowledgeable Christian in Germany to vote in good conscience for the Nazi party, whatever good that party may have done, and however many religious allies it might have had. (Remember the smiling bishops of Deutsche Gemeinde and the grim joke about making the trains run on time.) As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Jerzy Popieluszko, Corrie Ten Boom, Maximilian Kolbe, and a host of other witnesses remind us, there are “political matters” about which Christians sin if they remain silent and passive. It is true that the Church and the State are two distinct sovereignties; it is not true, nor has it ever been, that the churches are obliged to remain silent when the state or its organs, such as its political parties, devote themselves to evil purposes.

When one says what we did in the United States, with our two-party system, the more conservative party gains by default. We assure our readers that we have our doubts about the Republicans as well, as the April editorial indicated. We would turn against it just as quickly and vehemently if it took the same line on moral issues that the Democrats have. Touchstone is not partisan in the sense of intentionally for any party—but it is against what the Democratic party presently espouses. There is a difference, and the difference is the Democrats’ choice and the Democrats’ fault. We did not force them to become what they are, and would have had nothing to write about them if they had not made themselves into the party of abortion, anti-family feminism, and homosexuality. In these matters we are only reporting what we see, and would appreciate it if those who disagree with our observations would stick to the facts instead of bloviating on our nasty and unspiritual disposition.

I believe we are encountering in angry letters to the editor stung consciences, attempting to return the blame—a very heavy blame—that we have placed on them by condemning their support, usually in the name of charity, for the party of child-murder and moral license. One of the most effective ways to do this is to accuse us of partisanship, to allege that we are merely conservative Republicans attacking Democrats with a religious bludgeon. That is not true. We are Christians, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, denouncing the Democratic party as constitutionally anti-Christian. “Equal treatment” will not be accorded the Republican party for its sins because in our judgment that party has not become godless in the same way the Democratic party has, yet. While liable to criticism on a number of issues, not least the ambivalence of its practical support for the pro-life cause, the Republican party has not crossed the line that would make a similar attack necessary.

One of the most common defenses for Democratic loyalties is to assert the moral equivalence of the two parties, to claim that their respective errors leave the Christian to vote for the one he thinks most Christian, or least unchristian. If the Democrats endorse abortion, sodomy, and the like, Republicans cut social programs for the poor. This is a plausible and attractive argument except for one thing. We know with certainty that abortion and sodomy are evil, but we do not know with any certainty whether any particular disbursement of funds for the poor is good or bad or mixed. Our faith directs us to give alms, quietly and generously, and to bless and care for the widows and the fatherless, but it also tells us that those who will not work shall not eat. Distinctions, often difficult ones, must be made in our policies between who should be marked as poor and who should not, and on how collective monies should be spent or not spent for their relief, the kind of distinctions that have historically marked differing party philosophies, and upon which Christians have historically had differences of opinion. A Christian may think the Democrats’ social, economic, or environmental programs are superior to the Republicans’, but he knows that the Democrats’ moral policies are aggressively ungodly.

In the United States one doesn’t attack God by declaring himself an atheist and establishing a party on the principle. God is, after all, like the eagle, one of our national emblems. If one wishes to make a political point of unbelief, he will doubtless be happier in France. The way to do away with God here, in a country with a consensual history, even among its non-Christians, of Christian principle, is incrementally to make Christianity immoral. Lift up A Woman’s Right to Choose or Every Child’s Right to Be Wanted as unexceptionable points of public piety, so making Christians’ historical opposition to infanticide mean-spirited and un-American. Represent their conviction that homosexuality is sinful as hatred for the homosexual and an attempt to deprive him of his civil rights. Make Christian belief that fornication is sin and illegitimacy is an evil society should make every effort to discourage into a perverse, bigoted desire to assert moral superiority and grind the face of the poor. Make attempts to bring natural law or universally accepted moral principles to bear on public discourse a covert attempt to establish religion. Enlist dim and compromised Christians by representing to them that the party standing for all these things is the party of Christian charity because the public resources it uses to assist in killing some children are used to feed others. Do these effectively, and one can talk as much about God and be as religious and true-blue American as one pleases. The threat of the real God has been effectively removed, while the party that has accomplished this feat can claim both civic and religious virtue, enlisting any number of liberal ministers for its barkers.

There is, I suspect, no way one can convince devout Democrats, especially those who identify themselves as theological conservatives, that the April issue wasn’t a politically motivated attack on their party by the Republican religious right, but that is because they, who claim to be both Christians and Democrats, have no choice but to see it that way. They simply cannot read it as it was intended to be read: as a Christian protest against the sinful and shabby habits of mind that allow them to support the Democratic party. If we are correct, their right to believe themselves Christians is called into serious doubt by what is said in this issue, and they know it. That is why we are hearing, along with congratulations, a great many screams. Our call is not to vote Republican, but to think and act like Christians in the political arena as much as any other. We doubt this can be done in cooperation with the Democratic party any more than it can be done with Nazis or Communists, for we recognize little substantive difference between explicit and practical atheism.

—S. M. Hutchens, for the editors

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Practical Atheism” first appeared in the June 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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