Okay, maybe it does pay to follow everything, no matter how unlikely the source. And this month, down in Austin at the annual South by Southwest conference – the seminars and trade show that goes along with the big music festival – Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote address. And he let it rip – “We live in a post-authentic world. Today, authenticity is a house of mirrors.”
Of course he was talking about rock music and all its many variants, and all the pop music that now isn’t really rock at all, and folks forever arguing what’s good and what’s pure crap – and how “no one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore.” He said he hardly knew what to say, so “there is no keynote – there is no unified theory of everything.”
It was an anti-keynote speech, and Springsteen riffed on a theory from the late rock critic Lester Bangs – the idea that “we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” Maybe so, and the center will not hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and all that sort of thing. But then he smiled and told those about to perform to not worry about any of it – it’s only rock ‘n’ roll after all. Accept the post-authentic world. Just play your music.
And then then festival then got underway. And each year it’s much like the Cannes Film Festival – basically a trade show with lots of good stuff and lots of schlock, with folks hoping to land a lucrative distribution deal, in this case a record deal, for their creation, whatever it is. It’s just business, of interest only to the industry. It was covered in the trades, not the mainstream media.
But that’s too bad, because Springsteen was really onto something, something beyond pop music. We do live in a post-authentic world. Coke is not the real thing, and those alligator boots don’t make you a cowboy, and quoting Woody Allen doesn’t make you an intellectual, and that giant pick-up truck doesn’t make you a virale stud – and beating your wife and sneering at the poor while quoting Jesus doesn’t make you a Christian – just an asshole. And of course the hapless singers on American Idol and the shows like it aren’t the real thing, nor are the clunky contestants on Dancing with the Stars. They’re all wannabes. And we wouldn’t know the real thing if we saw it. This is a nation that thinks Donald Trump is a brilliant businessman, worthy of our greatest respect. Well, he does tell everyone that is so, that he’s the real thing. But that works because we don’t know the real thing anymore, about most everything. The fake Rolex will do fine – people will be impressed. And Bill O’Reilly – fabulously rich and pathologically nasty – is a man of the people. He says so.
And then there’s Mitt Romney, fresh off his victory in the Illinois primary, where he trounced Rick Santorum, and is now the presumptive Republican nominee, the real thing. Maybe he is, as the statistician Nate Silver claims it’s all over now:
At the betting market InTrade, Mr. Santorum is now given just a 1.5 percent chance of winning the nomination – lower than the combined total for a series of dark-horse figures like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin and Chris Christie, who together have about a 3 percent chance. The race will continue on until Mr. Romney clinches or everyone else quits, but the only real question is whether Mr. Romney could somehow beat himself.
The main reason, I suspect, is that the Republican Party is extremely unpopular. The Bush years deeply discredited the GOP, and while Republicans were able to make gains in 2010 by default, as the out party during an economic crisis, they did nothing to rehabilitate their image. Indeed, they have embraced even more unpopular positions than the ones that George W. Bush advocated. Romney has taken up the banner of cutting Medicare in order to make room for lower taxes for the rich, and that’s an incredibly unpopular trade-off.
But maybe for the Republican base that’s the Real Thing. But Ross Douthat suggests Romney isn’t the Real Thing:
The problem wasn’t just that Romney kept putting his foot in his mouth with comments in the “I like to fire people” vein. It was that even when he wasn’t blundering, he didn’t have clear and fluent answers to entirely predictable questions about Bain Capital’s business practices, his own taxes and investments and other wealth-related subjects. Presumably the Romney camp didn’t expect these kinds of questions until the fall campaign, but that’s a poor excuse for a candidate who’s been effectively running for president since 2007.
He’s a wannabe, pretending he’s a real candidate, but actually getting away with it, as he has scads of money and a tight and effective organization and all that stuff real candidates have. No one knows where he really stands on anything, but then no one can tell a fake Rolex from a real one either. We live in a post-authentic world. And he’s the master of that world. And now he’s even fooled Rush Limbaugh – “So maybe the conservative alternative to Romney is Romney.” Limbaugh is trying to wrap his head around the idea that it’s all over – this is the guy his side is going to run against Obama. Maybe a fake Rolex is as good as the real thing. He’s tying with that idea.
But then there was Romney’s senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom on the campaign’s message now that the general election is the next challenge – “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again…”
Ah, that is what you do in a post-authentic world. Of course that didn’t go down well – see Emily Schultheis in Politico with Etch A Sketches Hit the Trail and Ron Chusid with Opponents Quickly Take Advantage Of Romney Campaign “Etch A Sketch” Admission Of Changing Positions for the details of how everyone pounced on this – and Steven Benen has more.
But everyone always says they want the Real Thing, and the Romney camp is with Springsteen. There is no Real Thing anymore – not since Elvis. Get over it.
Well, that’s not quite their position, as Romney did the usual damage control – he’s really a true conservative who won’t “change course” in September – but there’s no way to judge the authenticity of that assertion either. That’s what people who still believe in that quaint notion of the Real Thing want to hear – so he said it. They won’t know the difference. No one knows the difference anymore. Elvis has left the building. And Elvis was a white guy singing like a black man anyway.
But Rick Santorum may be authentic – strange and radically puritanical and a little scattered – but authentic. That’s his selling point, and Alex Altman at Time’s Swampland says that’s why Santorum may win the next primary, the one in Louisiana, as Santorum has lined up true believers:
Santorum has braided together a powerful coalition of national Evangelical leaders with a committed grassroots army – anti-abortion activists, home-school groups, Tea Partyers, and so on – who are drawn to his faith-laced message. …
Throughout the primary, Santorum has collected an outsize share among the Evangelical communities – a fact some observers attribute as much to his competition as to his charisma. “The deep rooted suspicions of Mormonism trump vestigial suspicions of Catholicism,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of religious history at Barnard College. Santorum’s favor among this network of pastors – the “grass tops” – has been critical. Their support filters down to the grass roots in communities where churches are the backbone of social interaction.
For Santorum, God is real, and so is Satan. And so are good and evil, and heaven and hell. There’s nothing contingent here. This is the authentic world, the world you might find in the streets outside the courthouse during the Scopes Trial in 1925 in rural Tennessee, with folks banging their Bibles while that damned (literally) theory of evolution was on trial inside. This is not the Springsteen-Romney post-authentic world.
But James Eng reports here that it’s just not 1925 anymore:
In an election campaign season in which issues such as birth control and gay marriage have made headlines, a growing number of Americans think political leaders are talking too much religion, according to a new national survey.
The survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds signs of uneasiness over the mixing of religion and politics.
Nearly four in 10 Americans (38 percent) say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders – an all-time high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago. Thirty percent say there has been too little.
Most Americans (54 percent) continue to say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics.
This is the third consecutive poll in the past four years that shows this, and back in 2006 fifty-one percent of Americans believed churches should “speak out” and forty-six percent said they should “keep quiet” – so something changed. And it’s oddly subdivided:
The view that there is too much expression of religious faith by politicians remains far more widespread among Democrats than Republicans, and there are also divisions within the GOP primary electorate. Fifty-seven percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Mitt Romney (a Mormon) for the presidential nomination say churches should keep out of political matters. By contrast, 60 percent of GOP voters who support Rick Santorum (a devout Catholic) say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions. And while more than half (55 percent) of Santorum’s supporters say there is too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, just one in four (24 percent) of Romney’s backers agree.
And Eng cites Kimberly Conger, a political science instructor at Colorado State who has studied these things:
“It’s clear from the breakdown of religious and political groups that Rick Santorum ought to keep talking about religion as long as he’s fighting for the Republican nomination. But if he were to win the nomination, he’d have to start appealing to independents, a key voting group that’s uncomfortable with candidates’ religious talk,” she says.
“They key challenge in the general election will be for Republicans to broaden their appeal by toning down religious talk…”
There goes your authenticity. Welcome to Bruce Springsteen’s world. And just a minor note from Politico:
Santorum’s unapologetic language on religion and values might have hurt his campaign before critical primaries in Michigan and Ohio. Santorum led in both states before his comment that Obama has a “phony theology” on the environment took center stage. Santorum ended up losing both primaries by a narrow margin.
Even in the primaries this is now trouble. And now, as Andrew Sullivan sees it, folks like Rick Santorum are actually breeding atheists:
The way in which the next generation has been exposed to Christianity this past decade has been toxic to the faith. Christianism isn’t just corrosive of our political order; it is deeply destructive to Christianity itself. Go to any college campus and ask the uncommitted their views of Christianity. What I hear is intolerance, anger, anti-gay prejudice, sexual obsession, and hatred of Islam. How many people Rick Santorum has scared off Christianity for life is beyond reckoning. And the bile directed at gay people has been deeply damaging in getting across to people what Jesus’ message really was: which is, in many cases, almost the opposite of that of his current most prominent representatives in the media.
And Sullivan goes on to cite Peter Berger in The American Interest with this review of God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both – which is the feature article in Foreign Affairs, that publication of the Council of Foreign Relations that won’t let you read their stuff online unless you pay big bucks. So what David Campbell of Notre Dame and Robert Putnam of Harvard have to say is filtered through Peter Berger:
At the core of the article is a phenomenon that has drawn considerable attention for a while – the sharp rise in the number of Americans who declare themselves in surveys as being without religious affiliation. People who study religious statistics, and who also have a sense of humor (the two qualities are not necessarily contradictory), call this demographic “the nones”. In the 1960s the “nones” comprised 5-7% of the population; by the mid-1990s they had grown to 12%; in 2011 the percentage was 19%. According to the invaluable data on religion posted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the incidence of “nones” is highest in the age group 30-49. A possible explanation, of course, could be that younger people have always been less religious than their elders (the so-called “life cycle effect”). The authors reject this explanation: Today 33% of young people are religiously unaffiliated, as compared with 12% in the 1970s. In other words: Youth as such is not the only factor in making individuals flee the churches. What is more, this flight of the young is rapidly accelerating: In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90% – a truly remarkable difference.
And there is an explanation for this:
The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right. According to their data, between 2006 and 2011 Democrats and progressives were more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than Republicans and conservatives. These data are supported by those of the Pew Forum: “Nones” are 23% of those who say they are Republicans or leaning toward the Republican party, but 55% of Democrats and those leaning toward that party. There is an even higher discrepancy among younger “nones”. They associate Republicanism with intolerance and homophobia. And they don’t like this. We know from many other sources that the young are much more liberal on issues of gender and sexuality. On empirical grounds, one may conclude that, whatever else has happened in America in recent decades, the sexual revolution has achieved victory on most fronts. If one wants to use this hackneyed phrase, those who take a stand against this development find themselves on “the wrong side of history.”
There you go. The world has changed. But Berger has this hypothesis of his own:
Most “nones” have not opted out of religion as such, but have opted out of affiliation with organized religion. Among Christians (the great majority of all survey respondents) there are different reasons for this disaffection. The two authors are very probably correct that, broadly speaking, those who are turned off by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics do so because they don’t like the repressive sexual morality of those churches (the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has not helped).
But the “nones” have also exited from mainline Protestantism, which has been much more accommodating to the liberationist ethic. Here, I think, there has been frustration with what my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann long ago called “secularization from within” – the stripping away of the transcendent dimensions of the Gospel, and its reduction to conventional good deeds, popular psychotherapy and (mostly left-of-center) political agendas. Put differently: My hypothesis implies that some “nones” are put off by churches that preach a repressive morality, some others by churches whose message is mainly secular.
And Sullivan adds this:
So Christianity in America… is undermined by both the political temptation and degeneracy on the evangelical right and the failure of mainline Protestantism to advance a Christianity that is both at ease with modernity but also determined to transcend its false gods of money, celebrity, and power, and to require more from its adherents.
And he recommends Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion:
Writing for an era dominated by recession, gridlock, and fears of American decline, Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of the nation’s political and economic crises. He argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it is bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
These faiths speak from many pulpits – conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual” – and many of their preachers claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity – not the real thing. Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.
Ah, the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses – welcome to the post-authentic world that Bruce Springsteen identified in pop music. It’s also the world of Rick Santorum, and certainly the world of Mitt Romney. And it’s our world now. And by the way, would you be interested in a first-rate fake Rolex? No one will ever know.