I returned last Tuesday from a week in Rome, which is always an instructive, and frequently an edifying, experience. From numerous conversations over leisurely meals with Vatican officials, one gets the impression of quiet satisfaction with the pontificate of Benedict XVI after the first two years. The reference is regularly to the first two years, reflecting an operative assumption that this may yet be a long pontificate, although he turned eighty last month. There is regular reference to Leo XIII, who died at ninety-three. But I will reserve further impressions from the trip for The Public Square in the next issue of First Things .
Jet lag is getting no easier with the passing years. I was feeling quite discombobulated Tuesday evening and so pulled out a DVD that was recommended to me with the promise that it would make no intellectual demands. A Face in the Crowd is a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal . Griffith is Larry Lonesome Rhodes, a no-good lay-about with singing and comedic talents who is catapulted to national fame and influence. Drunk with power, and with drink, he joins in the evil machinations of right-wing capitalists to elect their ambitious tool, a Senator Fuller, as president of the United States. There is this between Rhodes and Marcia Jeffries, played by Ms. Neal:
Lonesome Rhodes: This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep!
Marcia Jeffries: Sheep?
Lonesome Rhodes: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers¯everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller.’ They’re mine! I own ‘em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ‘em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president¯and you’ll be the power behind me.
As it happens, I met Patricia Neal, now a gracious lady in her eighties, at a fund-raising dinner last month for the Sisters of Life , a vibrant group of religious founded by the late John Cardinal OConnor. She is steadfastly pro-life, and we talked a bit about the political causes that have a bearing on ones fortunes in Hollywood. We didnt talk about A Face in the Crowd , but it is painfully pertinent to the subject. While pleasant enough in its narrative particulars, the storyline of the film is blatantly partisan. The message is the dangers posed to democracy when ordinary people¯the rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, and pea-pickers¯are allowed to get too close to political power. Exhibit A in this genre of counter-agitprop is Inherit the Wind , both the play and the movie. There are multiple candidates for Exhibits B through Z.
The protection of democracy against the demos is a perennial theme in the products of the liberal imagination. Which, come to think of it, is rather odd, since it is conservatism that is conventionally charged with aristocratic and elitist sympathies. Leftists who champion People Power usually limit their populist enthusiasms to people very much like themselves. For the past two decades or so, this has been much in evidence in the treatment of the religious right. Alarm at the prospect of ordinary Americans presuming to exercise their political rights as citizens reached a crescendo with the recent rash of books about impending theocracy. (See Ross Douthats brilliant review essay Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy in First Things .)
For every action there is a reaction, and the commentariat lives on conflict, change, and novelty. We may be witnessing that now with respect to the religious right. Perhaps it began with the commentary surrounding the death of Jerry Falwell. Not only the man but also the movement with which he was associated was frequently referred to in the past tense. So we were told that the natives, stirred up by Falwell and others, became threateningly restless, but now, like Lonesome Rhodes, they are being forced back to where they came from.
Waiting for me upon my return from Rome was Jacob Heilbrunns review in the New York Times Book Review of Dan Gilgoffs The Jesus Machine , an informed and not entirely unsympathetic book on James Dobson and his Focus on the Family . Heilbrunn concludes with this:
But how much political clout will the religious right continue to wield? Gilgoff seems to suggest that its institutional structure will allow it to remain a powerful force. He points out that the Christian right has begun to seek better coordination by creating the Arlington Group, a secretive society of top leaders that meets regularly to discuss strategy. But as Gilgoff also says in his rather perfunctory conclusion, the religious right remains bedeviled by factional disputes, to the extent that Dobson admonished Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, for drafting and circulating a petition demanding that the Bush administration address global warming . . . . [T]he culture war seems to be petering out, with the religious right far from victory. It may now be demonstrating not the exertions of a virile new political species, but the thrashings of a dinosaur that can do a lot of damage even in its final throes.
Like a dinosaur. Or like the abandoned Lonesome Rhodes in the final scene of A Face in the Crowd , bellowing against his defeat by his liberal betters. Jacob Heilbrunn is a keen reader of the signs of the times, and I expect that the herd of independent minds will be following his lead, providing us in the months ahead with a flow of punditry on the death throes of the religious right. It was a narrow escape, but the threat of theocracy is receding, and the natives have been returned to their proper place at the margins of our public life. It is advisable to keep an eye on them, but they are now more nuisance than danger. Once again, just as in Hollywood Exhibits A through Z, democracy has been saved from government by the consent of the governed.
In truth, I expect such obituaries for the culture wars are an instance of wishful thinking driven by the political hopes of Democrats who were never happy with the idea that culture¯meaning the convictions, and especially the moral convictions, of ordinary Americans¯should be allowed to interfere with politics. The more thoughtful among liberal scribes worried for a time that maybe they were out of touch with the real America. Their sense of relief is understandable, albeit, I expect, quite unwarranted.