The Tyranny of True Believers

The other day, the former vice president made the observation that he would choose Rush Limbaugh over Colin Powell as a better Republican. Now… Colin Powell has served his country faithfully and well, both as a military officer and as secretary of state. Unlike Mr. Limbaugh, there has never been any taint on his behavior or his character. What Mr. Cheney was saying, however, in effect, was that anyone who does not follow the strict beliefs of the far right wing of the Republican party is not a good Republican. By this token, neither Teddy Roosevelt nor Abraham Lincoln would have been a “good” Republican, Roosevelt especially, since he believed in preserving the environment and putting curbs on big business.

Mr. Cheney, along with Karl Rove and the ultra-conservative Republicans, can accurately be described as “true believers.” True believers exist in every organization and every religious faith. They are the ones who hold to a certain set of rigid values and claim that anyone who does not follow those values absolutely is not one of “them.” In the case of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Limbaugh, as is often the case with true believers, the values they espouse are, to put it mildly, hypocritically inconsistent. They proclaim the sanctity of life by opposing abortions, even those that might threaten the life of the mother, while also opposing aid and support of unwanted and abandoned children. So… is life only sacred until birth? Can a newborn be abandoned or left to be malnourished or abused without violating the “sanctity of life?” Ultra-conservatives avoid this inconsistency by taking refuge behind the principle of fiscal conservatism… which says that, yes, such children should be aided, but not by government, even when it has become more than clear that there are too many such children to be helped by private sources. So fiscal conservatism triumphs except when they’re bailing out multi-billion dollar corporations, which leads one to conclude that the sanctity of corporate profits trumps the sanctity of life after birth, and that government can be used for corporate welfare but not human welfare.

Such hypocritical inconsistency isn’t limited to the American ultra-conservatives, unhappily. The environmental movement has had its share of lawbreakers, in part because whenever the laws of the land didn’t seem to protect aspects of the environment they felt should be protected, they broke other laws to make their point. Let me get this straight. You want laws to protect the environment, and you want others to obey them… but you’ll break still other laws in order to make your point?

The same sort of hypocrisy has pervaded religion throughout history. Virtually all Christian-derived faiths preach mercy and forgiveness, and yet various faiths have shed millions of gallons of blood “defending” or attempting to force their version of the “faith” on others. The same is true of Islam, as well. The Taliban want freedom from such ideas as education for women, in order to keep them “pure,” as well as freedom from the pollution of Western comforts and degradation. Of course, when U.S troops first entered Kabul, they discovered a number of rather palatial [at least by Afghan standards] dwellings occupied by the Taliban religious leaders, furnished with more than a few Western comforts. They also discovered more than a few instances where such leaders had been indiscriminate in their efforts to remove purity from young women.

None of this should be surprising to anyone. What is surprising, and what so seldom is recognized publicly, is that in many, many, cases, life does not present us with clear absolutes, but with situations where any decision at all will compromise one set of values or another, where any solution is “gray,” rather than black or white. Yet rather than acknowledge this rather obvious fact, the true believers endorse hypocrisy by sticking to one set of absolutes. In the case of an expectant mother where carrying the fetus to term will likely kill her, the “sanctity of life” can only apply to mother or child. In the case of fiscal conservatism, history has shown, time after time, that raising taxes to balance budgets [always a staple of fiscal conservatives] when economic activity has declined only makes matters worse and results in even less government revenue.

The problem with the true believers is that they insist on forcing people into black or white boxes, often with rifles, bombs, or ostracism, while insisting that theirs is the only way, hypocritical as their values are — because no set of “pure” codified values can be applied wholesale to the world as it is without becoming hypocritical. In fact, the key test for identifying a true believer is that true believers always place their values over everyone else’s and usually over physical reality. After all, those who burned Giordano Bruno and imprisoned Galileo denied that the planets orbited the sun because it conflicted with their beliefs.