After Steve King’s horribly-phrased remarks on white supremacy, an overwhelming majority of conservatives have come out against him. He was promptly removed from his assignments, and the House of Representatives even passed a resolution disavowing his comments.
But this incident has raised an important question: how complicit are fundamental conservative talking points in the phenomenon of white supremacy today? I think the answer is: more than anyone cares to admit.
A recent shift
The political right has pivoted away from an outdated notion of white supremacy into something decidedly more abstract. What’s really at stake now, they tell us, is the coherence of Western values: not the coherence of Western ethnicity. In theory, these values are available to everyone: immigrants of all backgrounds are allowed to come here, provided that they do a minimum of assimilation, adherence to core ideas, and so on.
These are the so-called Judeo-Christian values: those ultimate manifestations of culture and philosophy, the crown jewels of Western civilization. Their uniqueness and prominence cannot be denied. After all, we’re told, why else does net global migration go from East to West? And why do developing countries tend to establish Western-style governments?
This kind of rhetoric suggests that a hard-supremacy of white nationalism has been replaced with a soft-supremacy of Judeo-Christian values. This remains a fairly benign problem for the time being, especially in comparison to actual white supremacist groups existing in America today. But it still deserves a considerable amount of skepticism, considering the fact that positing the superiority of Western culture has an ugly history.
Case analysis: Sam Harris and Islam
The idea of Judeo-Christian values opens up a theological dilemma. How could it be that the religious traditions of billions of people, across hundreds of cultures and thousands of years, simply lacked the ‘spark’ for liberal democracy? Is the Bible truly the ultimate political blueprint, reducing all other scriptures to abject failures with regards to our contemporary moral ideals?
As America’s largest religious minority outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam is strong target of this exclusionary framework. Nowhere is this as clear as in the comments of Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and frequent critic of Islam.
Harris’s central thesis is that Islamic values are inherently opposed to modern-day secular and humanitarian ones. The implication is often that some Muslim countries are still ‘stuck in the past’, unable to achieve a certain level of political or ethical development due to their foundation in Quranic law.
Harris is not a right-wing figure by any means, but his rhetoric on this topic encapsulates the pseudo-Islamophobic elements of the political right. Consider the first two minutes of this clip, featuring Harris on Bill Maher’s show. Maher makes the argument that Democrats are hypocrites for turning a blind eye to Islam’s moral failings:
In the discussion that followed, Harris and Maher justified their remarks as a ‘critique of bad ideas’, and insisted that they weren’t targeting individuals. This did not impress Ben Affleck, who became incredulous and labeled their remarks as racist.
This incident was something of a watershed moment in political discussion about Islam. Many people on the right were horrified that their conversation about ideas could so quickly be conflated with bigotry against people. To the average Harris sympathizer, this kind of talk is nothing more than a level-headed, objective analysis of the faith: far removed from any accusation of ill-will or bigotry.
But this is too simple of an analysis. Although I’m sure his intentions are good, Harris is guilty of painting an essential picture of Islam and framing it in opposition to liberal principles. For Harris, Islam is uniquely and innately opposed to change for the better: the kind of change, for example, that allowed Enlightenment values to permeate Europe.
But this completely ignores the multivariate factors that influence a given scripture’s interpretation. There is no such thing as an ‘essence of Islam’, an objective interpretation that is most ‘reasonable’. Religion develops over time and its interpretation is constructed by social and historical conditions. Ignoring this obvious reality, Harris prefers to speak of an Islam that is innately extremist or oppressive.
The irony is that, by doing this, Harris is actually taking the same position of the worst Islamic extremists: that you must follow the text by-the-letter, that there is only one way to truly understand Islam, and so on.
And that is what makes Harris’s rhetoric a kind of soft-supremacy, rather than simply a ‘critique of bad ideas’. Harris is already presuming that it is the inherent essence of Islam to be more resistant to liberal principles, and by so doing, insinuates that it will forever be inferior to ‘Western systems’.
Ideological supremacy: fodder for ethnic supremacists
I don’t think that the concept of Judeo-Christian values, as a political tool, will be viable for very long. Yes, it has the advantage of providing unity for a large group of White, mostly Christian republicans. Yes, it allows for strong political mobilization against causes deemed contrary to this cherished tradition.
But to reduce the essence of our political prominence to a matter of religious values is both overly simplistic and — crucially — antithetical to our increasingly interfaith and cosmopolitan society. America may have been founded by deists who were inspired by the Bible, but more than 200 years later, its backbone is comprised of people from diverse religious faiths.
Moreover, an emphasis on Judeo-Christian values provides powerful rhetoric for white-supremacists who are looking for a way to mask their bigotry. It allows them to substitute the term ‘our values’ for ‘our race’ in almost every given context, and assume a role of simple objective critic — someone who is simply stating ‘the facts’ about the relative differences between Christians and Muslims.
What this shows, I think, is that the right needs to be more careful with its rhetoric around ‘Judeo-Christian values’. It implicitly reduces the essence of non-Western religious systems into something inherently opposed to to best parts of our society, rather than acknowledging that all religions are spiritual systems that can be ‘open’ to the prospect of liberal democracy. In the spirit of developing religion for a new era, we should be opposed to the scriptural essentialism implied by the advocates of Judeo-Christian values above all else.