Fox News, the Enlightenment, and G. K. Chesterton

I’m about as familiar with the Fox News Channel as I am with golf: I know that people watch the former and I’m aware that people play the latter and when I go to the local YMCA I wind up in a locker room with people who do both. We all get along, because (1) we’re naked and (2) the Red Sox have stopped drinking beer and eating fried chicken in their locker room and are back to their usual trick of convincing us that This Might be the Year.

Given my limited contact with what goes on at Fox, it was with considerable trepidation that I clicked a link in an email from a fellow historian that took me to a “Fox & Friends” broadcast. The email read: “Thought you might be interested in this (rather bizarre) reinterpretation (???) of Dialectic of Enlightenment.”

Happily, Fox wasn’t doing cruel things to the book that everyone loves to hate. Unhappily, the link took me to a clip of Steve Doocy interviewing a woman named Penny Nance about imagesthe decision by Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, to issue proclamations making May 2 not only a “Day of Prayer” but also a “Day of Reason.” Doocy and Nance had no problems with the former proclamation, but were quite annoyed about the latter. fox_ff_nance_reason_130502i-615x345-1 Nance, it turns out, is “CEO and President” (there’s a difference?) of something called “Concerned Women of America,” an organization whose “Statement of Faith” goes a long way towards clarifying her reservations about the “Day of Reason”:

• We believe the Bible to be the verbally inspired, inerrant Word of God and the final authority on faith and practice.
• We believe Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, rose bodily from the dead on the third day and ascended into Heaven from where He will come again to receive all believers unto Himself.
• We believe all men are fallen creations of Adam’s race and in need of salvation by grace through personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
• We believe it is our duty to serve God to the best of our ability and to pray for a moral and spiritual revival that will return this nation to the traditional values upon which it was founded.

It turns out that point three is the important one for Ms Nance’s take on the Enlightenment (I have no idea which, if any, of these concerns matter to Mr. Doocy or, indeed, if Mr. Doocy has views on the Enlightenment’s relationship to the Holocaust).

Mayor Foxx’s rationale for proclaiming May 2 Charlotte’s “Day of Prayer” was that May 2 is the “National Day of Prayer” and, perhaps, he thought that the good citizens of Charlotte needed an additional reason for observing it. Among the reasons for the proclamation of a “Day of Reason” (which can be seen below) was the conviction that “The application of reason, more than any other means, has proven to offer hope for human survival on earth.” No one should be surprised that there is also a “National Day of Reason” that, even less surprisingly, also falls on May 2.

charlotte_2013Fox’s interest in Foxx’s proclamation (stuff like this is enough to make me wonder whether theologians overlooked the most compelling proof for the existence of God: the universe is ruled by an all-powerful intelligence with a wicked sense of humor) might seem momentarily puzzling. Why are these Foxites so worked up over this particular Foxx when there so many other foxes trying to sneak into the great national hen-house? But everything became perfectly clear to me once Mr. Doocy kindly explained that Mayor Foxx is President Obama’s pick to become Secretary of Transportation. Fox News, of course, is interested in everything that President Obama does — indeed, so insatiable is their interest in his doings that they sometimes have to make them up.

Had Mr. Doocy or Ms Nance recalled John Locke’s distinction between ecclesiastical and civil interests (after all, Ms Nancy is a graduate of Liberty University and perhaps the Letter Concerning Toleration is part of the curriculum; I have no idea what Doocy has read), they might have looked more kindly on Mayor Foxx’s double proclamation: those concerned with the care of their souls can pray in the manner they judge most efficacious for their salvation while those concerned with “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body” can spend the day reasoning. But Ms Nance was concerned that a pursuit of civil ends without the leavening of faith ends in disaster. This is where the Enlightenment comes in. Thus spake Ms Nance:

You know, the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust… Dark periods of history is what we arrive at when we leave God out of the equation.

I suspect that friends of the Enlightenment can take a little comfort in Ms Nance’s use of the phrase “gave way” rather than “gave rise.” But I’m afraid that what she really meant was “gave rise” (but was kind enough not to say it).

Either way, Ms Nance’s argument isn’t quite the same as Horkheimer and Adorno’s. For them, the problem was that enlightenment kept collapsing back into mythology. For her, what’s bad about the Enlightenment was that it greased the slippery slope that culminates in “moral relativism.” During her three minutes on Fox Ms Nance didn’t have time to explain whether she believed that Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Smith, and the rest were moral relativists or whether the problem is that their moral philosophies were so deeply flawed that they provided no viable alternative to it — perhaps she’ll clear this up by giving a talk at the next conference of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Nance’s point has more in common with the position staked out in 1940 by the historian Carlton J. H. Hayes than it does with Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.  Hayes argued:

For two centuries some of the classes, especially intellectuals, have been repudiating our common religious heritage, but indifference or hostility of the masses towards it, of the rural as well as the urban masses, is a strictly contemporary phenomenon. How this has come about, I shall not here attempt to suggest. I merely remark the fact, which seems to me self-evident, and pass on to an important consequence. No man, whether he be Western or Eastern, lives by bread alone. Everybody must have faith, a faith in some mysterious power outside of one’s self, a faith attested by feelings of reverence and expressed in external acts and ceremonials. When a man loses faith in one religion, he naturally attaches himself consciously or unconsciously to another object of worship. It may be worship of Christ; it may be worship of totem or fetish; it may likewise be worship of science or humanity – provided these concepts are written in his mind with capital letters.1

Among the possible objects to which men turn, especially in an age of disruption, are authoritarian movements. Unfortunately, Hayes failed to spell the relationship between these “self-evident” facts and what was regarded by some as his cozy relationship with the Franco regime during his stint as FDR’s ambassador to Spain (as the moral philosopher Bob Dylan once observed, in what might serve as a fair summary of Professor Hayes’ argument: “you gotta serve somebody.”)

There was a rage for these sorts of explanations of fascism during the late 1930s and early 194s, presumably because the idea that the Enlightenment might, somehow or other, have paved the path that led to National Socialism is less obvious — and hence — more noteworthy than arguments that attributed fascism to German nationalism, the imperatives of monopoly capitalism, or anti-semitism, a.k.a. “the socialism of idiots.” In intellectual history as in competitive figure skating, the degree of difficulty counts for something.

In those days, what Ms Nance calls “moral relativism” was characterized as “nihilism” and Leo Strauss, recently arrived in America but not yet schooled in the subtle art of concealing his punch lines, gave a lecture that he probably wished he hadn’t given that explained at some length how the Enlightenment led to a nihilism that was so pervasive that even intelligent young Germans came to view National Socialism as a plausible remedy.2 I suspect that Ms Nance is probably not a Straussian (though it does seem that Strauss was, if only temporarily, some sort of fascist).

Having explained the relationship between the Enlightenment and the Holocaust, Ms Nance went to show that she was not someone to be underestimated by quoting a bit of G. K. Chesterton (was this, perhaps, the first G. K. Chesterton shout out in the history of Fox News?):

You know, G. K. Chesterton said that the Doctrine of Original Sin is the only one which we have 3,000 years of empirical evidence to back up. Clearly, we need faith as a component and it’s just silly for us to say otherwise.

As I was listening to Ms Nance explain this to me, I was struck by two things:

  1. She says “you know” a lot — perhaps she’s trying to be kind to those of us who are utterly clueless about the sorts of things she claims to be true.
  2. She probably doesn’t want to go around quoting Chesterton: he’s not a reliable friend — he’s more like a frenemy.

For example, a careless reader might think that the following passage from Chesterton’s images-1What I Saw in America provides some support the last of the four concerns on the Concerned Women of America’s statement of faith:

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.

I can imagine that when Ms Nance read this (for, of course, we can be sure that she has her Chesterton down cold) she was nodding along right up to the part about the condemnation of atheism and the clear naming of “the Creator” and go so excited with this that she overlooked those last two sentences where Chesterton starts making things complicated again.

And I suspect that perhaps she was so taken with the idea that Chesterton saw original sin as an empirical fact that she missed this tough little nut from his Orthodoxy, which is not very gentle with those people that Fox & Friends like to call “job creators.”

If we wish to pull down the prosperous oppressor we cannot do it with the new doctrine of human perfectibility; we can do it with the old doctrine of Original Sin. If we want to uproot inherent cruelties or lift up lost populations we cannot do it with the scientific theory that matter precedes mind; we can do it with the supernatural theory that mind precedes matter. If we wish specially to awaken people to social vigilance and tireless pursuit of practise, we cannot help it much by insisting on the Immanent God and the Inner Light: for these are at best reasons for contentment; we can help it much by insisting on the transcendent God and the flying and escaping gleam; for that means divine discontent. If we wish particularly to assert the idea of a generous balance against that of a dreadful autocracy we shall instinctively be Trinitarian rather than Unitarian. If we desire European civilization to be a raid and a rescue, we shall insist rather that souls are in real peril than that their peril is ultimately unreal. And if we wish to exalt the outcast and the crucified, we shall rather wish to think that a veritable God was crucified, rather than a mere sage or hero. Above all, if we wish to protect the poor we shall be in favour of fixed rules and clear dogmas. The rules of a club are occasionally in favour of the poor member. The drift of a club is always in favour of the rich one.

Chesterton is just too complicated to be Fox’s kind of Christian. Which explains why we are treated to the spectacle of Ms Nance explaining the finer points of the doctrine of original sin to a less-than interested Mr. Doocy.

It’s not surprising that she simplifies the passage about original sin  that she pretends to have read. Here’s what Chesterton actually said in Orthodoxy:

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact.The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or not could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. … The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. …In this remarkable situation it is plainly not now possible (with any hope of a universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did, with the fact of sin. This very fact which was to them (and is to me) as plain as a pikestaff, is the very fact that has been specially diluted or denied. But though moderns deny the existence of sin, I do not think that they have yet denied the existence of a lunatic asylum. We all agree still that there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakable as a falling house. … For the purpose of our primary argument the one may very well stand where the other stood. I mean that as all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.

J. G. A. Pocock argued that there was a “magisterial enlightenment” as well as a radical one. Passages like the one I just quoted from Chesterton make me think that this was a good thing: beginning with a shared conviction that, as Voltaire insisted, there was evil in the world, these two enlightenments could keep each other honest.

The National Day of Reason is every bit as idiotic as the National Day of Prayer and the republic would be much happier if its trustees would spend their time trying to remedy actual wrongs rather than telling the faithful to pray and the rational to reason and acting as if these are two separate interest groups with no overlap in membership. I hope that Mayor Foxx will soon be freed from the need to engage in nonsense of this sort and — once the now-obligatory hearings, holds, filibusters, and faux outrage on the Fox News Channel are over and done with — he can get to work on dealing with the legitimate “civil interest” of moving citizens from point A to point B without their killing each other or burning up the planet.

As for Fox, of course, there is no hope. Looking at Mr. Doocy and Ms Nance as they chatter at each other I am glad to follow Chesterton’s advice and refrain from speculating on the state of their souls. But, you know, they’re both nitwits.

  1. Carlton J. H. Hayes, “The Novelty of Totalitarianism in the History of Western Civilization,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 82, no. 1 (February 23, 1940) 95.
  2. Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism,” ed. David Janssens and Daniel Tanguay, Interpretation 26, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 353-378

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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One Response to Fox News, the Enlightenment, and G. K. Chesterton

  1. Pingback: Whose Buttock? Which Enlightenment? – Thoughts on Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters | Persistent Enlightenment

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