Fundamental fears of a secular world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 November, 2008, 12:00am

How come the United States, which leads the world in science and technology, is also home to so many Christian fundamentalists who reject the ideals of European Enlightenment and the knowledge of science, at least when it conflicts with the literal truths of the Bible?

Of all western nations, the US is unique in having such a powerful home-grown fundamentalism. In this, it may be closer to many developing countries, which have experienced a surge in atavistic, revivalist and fundamentalist religious politics.

By contrast, in most European nations, fundamentalist movements have their roots in their minority communities, which form the fringes of mainstream society. But, in the US, the hardcore religious right forms an important base of the Republican Party which, until this month, has dominated Washington for more than a decade.

The election of Barack Obama may have elated many people, but it is part of the long progressive history of the country, traceable back to the Declaration of Independence, whose ideals and vocabulary were straight out of the Enlightenment. The road has been long and the achievement extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult; but it is not difficult to understand historically.

What may be harder for non-Americans to understand is the rise of Sarah Palin and the kind of hardcore politics she represents. This religious, anti-rational, anti-scientific and, at times, violently xenophobic movement is doubly hard to understand in the world's most advanced economy.

In a provocative presentation at a media and cultural politics conference in Jakarta this week, Australian political scientist Michael Wesley presented an interesting historical schema which considers fundamentalist politics in the developing world as a reaction to the secularist state founded or advocated by anti-colonialist leaders.

Somehow, it seems to me that the schema applies to US history, as well, though I have no idea if he would approve of this extension of his theory. According to Professor Wesley, of Griffith University, Brisbane, far from being the result of people being bypassed by globalisation, science, technology, health care and education, fundamentalists are reacting to them.

He observed that the post-war generation of anti-colonial nationalist leaders in Asia and Africa rejected traditional culture and religion in favour of secularism, which they considered a pre-condition for the modern, developed, independent nations they wanted to build. 'Even new states that adopted a specific religious identity were careful to subordinate the institutions and dictates of religion to the state,' he said.

Certainly, examples abound, such as Turkey, Indonesia and any number of post-colonial states in Africa and the Middle East where new religious movements are challenging state secularism.

'Secular ideals are held accountable for the moral decline that seems so prevalent: unwed mothers, divorce, racism, drugs, and the hypersexualisation of popular culture,' Professor Wesley said. 'The US is seen as the ultimate example of a society corrupted by secularism ... that has lost its moral compass. Many members of revivalist religions see America as the ultimate conclusion of the secularist logic, the destination of their own society if secularism is not checked.'

But, though the professor didn't say it, many American revivalists share the same view of secularism, particularly as it was exemplified by the 1960s radical culture. They see the same moral shortcomings of secularised liberal democracy. What better document than the US Constitution that exemplifies the secular state separated from the church? The constitutional framers, after all, were also anti-colonial rebels who went on to found a secular state. One participant at the Jakarta conference pointed out that people often equate 'the west' with the US. But, in a crucial religious respect, the US may be closer to the 'non-west'.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post