Us vs. Them vs. Us
Ann Coulter’s Godless and Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty
By Ann D. Braude
Two women in black stare off dust jackets of books on this summer’s best-seller list addressing the relation of religion to politics in contemporary America. Both sport gold jewelry of Christian symbols, and each portrays Christian faith as formative to her moral outlook. Both insist that religion is the key to understanding contemporary politics. Both see abortion as a central domestic policy issue and the relation of Christianity to Islam as pivotal to American foreign policy and international affairs. And that’s where the similarities end.
Ah, to live in the world according to Ann Coulter. In case you haven’t heard, we are living in a feminist utopia. Really, we feminists are a lot more powerful than you thought. Not only do we control the curriculum of both public schools and great universities, but we also dominate the Supreme Court. The New York Times, CNN, and CBS’s 60 Minutes are only a few of our many media outlets. Indeed, our views are so widespread that they form the core of a new faith: the religion of liberalism. Who knew?
Perhaps stranger even than the above startling intelligence is the fact that a member of the Harvard Divinity School faculty would devote part of her precious summer vacation to the work of a journalist who proudly cultivates shock and offense through ad hominem invective. A former attorney now a syndicated columnist and favorite of conservative talk shows, Coulter aims to be provocative. Godless made headlines for calling the 9/11 widows known as the “Jersey Girls,” “the witches of East Brunswick.” “These broads are millionaires,” Coulter writes, “lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much.”
It worked. I am provoked—provoked to explore Coulter’s choice of religion as the framing concept for her latest political diatribe. Some may rightly object that I have too easily fallen for the bait, as professors in general, and Cantabrigians in particular, come in for some ripe censure. After all we are “zealous pagans,” “the most cosseted, pussified, subsidized people in the U.S. workforce.” One HDS faculty member even merits direct rebuke (would you believe James Luther Adams?). But when Coulter put one of my current research interests—the (I believe erroneous) use of the National Organization for Women to epitomize the secularizing impact of modern feminism—on page one, I was hooked. And when she went on to claim that as an American Christian she had common cause with Jews and thorough enmity with Muslims, I needed to know more.
Liberalism, according to Ann Coulter, “contains all the attributes of what is generally known as religion.” Evolution is its creation myth, public school teachers its high priests, victims its saints, and abortion its sacrament. Coulter uses “liberals” and “Democrats” interchangeably, finding that both adhere to “a comprehensive belief system denying the Christian belief in man’s immortal soul.” Because they view humans as no different from endangered tree frogs, they are science-hating, victim-loving Darwinist “Druids” who embrace an ominous constellation of environmentalism, feminism, and the ACLU.
A remarkable footnote explains that the term “Christian” includes “anyone who subscribes to the Bible of the God of Abraham, including Jews and others.” This capacious, if confusing, definition reflects the way Christianity itself must be emptied of content if it is to be the mirror image of “godless liberalism.” Although Coulter is Roman Catholic, Catholic teachings are absent from the book, as are any distinctive doctrines that might fracture the monolithic Christianity of Godless.
“Godless” was a term of great utility during the cold war when, as Madeleine Albright reminds us in a different context, “western leaders gained political advantage by deriding ‘godless communism.’ ” Writing for a postcommunist world, Coulter, following in the tradition of Pat Robertson and others, harkens back to the “red scare” of the 1950s and the “Culture War” of the 1980s to discern a conspiratorial web of interlocking organizations committed to undermining God, country, and the American way. Indeed, Coulter devoted an earlier book, Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, to redeeming the reputation of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who she views as a vigorous patriot unfairly demonized by liberals. Her admiration for McCarthy is evident in the modus operandi of Godless, which uses broad brushstrokes to demonize groups of people and to separate “us” from “them.”
In a telling rhetorical flourish, she uses the “us versus them” formula to frame a series of bullet points outlining her own religious outlook by contrasting it with the liberal faith. The list begins: “Our religion says that human progress proceeds from the spark of divinity in the human soul; their religion holds that human progress is achieved through sex and death” (one of Coulter’s ubiquitous references to abortion). The entire liberal agenda flows from the purportedly religious outlook she describes. She imagines a cohesive liberal coalition united in support of the Democratic Party—another fantasy that might appeal to liberals, but is distant from the political realities of the last 25 years.
Once Coulter has described the black-and-white set of options separating liberals from “Christians,” she proceeds through 10 additional chapters, each titled with a religious category. But once we get past the titles, the notion that the topics being discussed constitute a religion gets short shrift. In “The Holiest Sacrament: Abortion,” the metaphor of sacrament is used to mean that support for legal abortion is non-negotiable in the Democratic political platform, that it cannot be questioned. “Abortion is the sacrament and Roe v. Wade is holy writ,” Coulter writes in an allusion to the importance of questions about acceptance of Roe as a precedent in judicial confirmation hearings. The use of support for legal abortion as a litmus test by liberals is a subject worth dissecting, and parallels to religion might be helpful in understanding it, but no such exploration follows. The rest of the chapter rehashes familiar political controversies over abortion, gravitating toward marginal examples like “partial birth” abortions and steering clear of the diverse motivating circumstances that make abortions the subject of debate.
While Coulter generates publicity by antagonizing detractors and energizing her base, Albright aims straight down the middle.
Other chapters likewise introduce religious concepts because of the shock value of joining them to issues or events Coulter assumes her loyal readers will view as immoral. “Liberals’ Doctrine of Infallibility: Sobbing Hysterical Women” argues that liberals shield themselves from debate about national security by taking shelter behind victims: the 9/11 widows, Iraq war mother Cindy Sheehan, or wounded war heroes like Congressman John Murtha.
Another hint about Coulter’s choice of religion as the frame for her book comes from where she draws the line between “us” and “them.” Jews are in. “Crazy Muslims” are out. In response to September 11, Coulter suggested that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity” (“This is War,” syndicated column, September 12, 2001). Throughout Godless, Islam is equated with terrorism. So there are actually two different “thems” opposing Coulter’s “us”: liberals and Muslims.
Further down the summer’s best-seller list, the dove of peace bedecks Madeleine Albright’s suit and earrings, suggesting her roles as ambassador to the United Nations during the first Clinton administration and secretary of state during the second.
Like her colleagues in the diplomatic community, Albright began her career assuming that religion was no longer relevant to international affairs. Unlike the majority of them, she reached the conclusion that not only was this assumption inaccurate, it was one source of the failure of some aspects of American foreign policy over the last 50 years. As we allied ourselves with the enemies of “godless communism” around the world, we often supported regimes whose repression of religion undermined both their stability and the moral stature of their American allies.
In Vietnam, the United States supported the Saigon government of President Diem, who repressed Buddhism, “the largest noncommunist institution in the country.” When several Buddhist monks set fire to themselves in a successful attempt to turn local and world opinion against America’s military role, Diem declared martial law and arrested Buddhist leaders. “This was hardly the way to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people,” Albright observes.
America’s first born-again president, Jimmy Carter was determined to redeem America’s international image after Watergate and Vietnam by insisting on the morality of its policies. Nevertheless, his administration’s ignorance of Islam hampered its ability to understand what was happening in both Iran and Afghanistan. In the final years of the cold war, both world powers failed to comprehend the emergence of Islam as a factor in global politics, leading the Soviet Union to underestimate the mujahedeen as a military foe in Afghanistan, and the United States to make the mistake of later choosing the Taliban as an ally.
The doves adorning her portrait notwithstanding, Madeleine Albright describes herself as a sometime “hawk” who, like Ann Coulter, supports U.S. military intervention (as a last resort) to advance both national security and American values. When Albright entered public service, she “believed firmly in America’s goals for the cold war.” Her anti-communist views and appreciation of America’s international leadership were shaped by her childhood in Czechoslovakia. There, she witnessed the benefits of American military intervention in stopping Hitler’s march across Europe, and the benefits of democracy when the United States welcomed her family after the communist take-over of Czechoslovakia. But when she returned to government in the Clinton administration, the cold war had ended and a new set of foreign policy realities was beginning to take shape.
Albright sees the events of 9/11 as a turning point in American foreign policy:
That day . . . marked the full emergence of a new and complex challenge to the national security of the United States. Unlike the “godless” communists, this enemy claimed to be engaged in holy work. In responding, America would need to be inventive not only in devising the means by which further attacks might be prevented, but also in developing a message that would successfully erode the enemy’s base of support.
That message, according to Albright, must take religion into account. During the cold war the U.S. could argue for the superiority of capitalism over communism by displaying better-quality electrical appliances as well as democratic ideals. Now, Albright argues, morality must become explicit in a successful foreign policy, but without arguing for an exclusive religious position. “Justifying U.S. policy in explicitly religious terms . . . is like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” she wrote about President George W. Bush’s public statements about the invasion of Iraq. Faith does not always lead to wisdom, she is the first to concede, but ignorance of other people’s faiths and a lack of moral language can lead to disaster.
Given the new reality that threats to U.S. security come accompanied by religious claims, religious literacy will be key to successful diplomacy in the twenty-first century. Albright commends Bryan Hehir’s advice that diplomats “develop the ability to recognize where and how religious beliefs contribute to conflicts and when religious principles might be invoked to ease strife.” This requires literacy both in the faiths of Americans and in those countries we hope will be our partners in diplomacy. Albright practices what she preaches in the central section of the book, “Cross, Crescent, Star.”
Here she offers primers on just war theory (the Iraq war fails the test), the Arab/Israeli conflict (there are merits on both sides), and the basics of Islam. The last receives special attention, reiterating much of an introductory guide Albright’s state department prepared for persons traveling on behalf of the U.S. to countries with a Muslim majority.
Clearly, Ann Coulter has not read the primer. While Coulter raises the false binary to a new art form in an eager attempt to generate publicity by antagonizing detractors and energizing her base, Madeleine Albright aims straight down the middle. Fighting terrorism, she believes, requires unity both within the country and beyond it. She looks for points of agreement, and she finds that the increased presence of religion in U.S. foreign policy has the potential to bring the extremes of the right and the left together because of shared concerns for religious freedom, alleviating poverty, and ending genocide.
Whatever one’s political views, any reader who takes religion seriously will find Albright’s book more satisfying. Besides those who welcome her call for religious literacy, Catholics in particular will find her text closer than Coulter’s to the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “God Is Love,” with its emphasis on charity and humility. Coulter uses religion to bolster a polarizing political agenda, flattening faith into a one-dimensional cleaver to separate those she agrees with from those she doesn’t.
While some may find Albright’s program for unity naïve, all will learn from seeing how a seasoned diplomat who places pragmatic goals before ideology arrived at the conclusion that terrorism can only be vanquished through a world united by respect for diverse religious values.
Ann D. Braude is Senior Lecturer on American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School and director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program.