The Good: I'm sure it speaks to the base quite well, Includes citations
The Bad: The case Coulter makes is based on analogy that doesn't hold, Point is never explained, Pandering
The Basics: With attacks on public institutions and ideals-some of which are only vaguely tied to liberalism-Ann Coulter sets the criteria for an unconvincing and poorly-argued comparison between liberalism and religion.
Coming off the high of potentially being a target of Ann Coulter's that she may have referenced in her latest book, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, I felt I might try to continue the trend of raising the ire of the conservative commentator by continuing to read her books and review them as objectively as possible. Like Coulter, I like the attention of being referenced by those I consider my adversaries; we apparently both went to the same school of "keeping your name in the press is a good thing." So, when I picked up Godless: The Church Of Liberalism by Ann Coulter, I had a feeling I would have a good time regardless. After sitting down and reading the book, I'm ready for some of that fun I promised myself when I began reading this 304 page argument that liberalism is a religion.
I will no doubt use the word "disingenuous" several times throughout this review, but I wish to comment first on the cover of the book (something I don't believe I've ever done for one of my book reviews!) and use the word "pandering." Ann Coulter's text is an extended argument that is venomous when it is not being flawed, attempting to create an analogy that does not fit given her own criteria. The way Coulter attempts to sell the book is by pandering shamelessly to her base. This is illustrated very clearly as I sit with my copy of Godless out next to the rest of the Ann Coulter library that I have available (it's missing her 2003 release) and look over the images of Coulter on each cover. Yes, it is ONLY on Godless that Coulter is wearing her crucifix. Even her current book does not have her on the cover wearing a crucifix. So, I did a quick check out her website. The thumbnail images are hard to make out for details like a cross, but only on the screen captures from shows on FoxNews does she appear to have a necklace (cross not visible). So here, from the front cover, Coulter clearly establishes that her purpose is not so much to make an unbiased or well-developed argument comparing liberalism with religious devotion, but rather to condemn liberalism and promote Christianity. That she does this in such an obvious and insulting way, including promoting her Christianity in a way that she did not before nor since on her books, is straightforward pandering to her base.
With 304 pages including eleven easy-to-read chapters, cited footnotes and acknowledgments, Godless: The Church Of Liberalism is Ann Coulter's pointed argument with one clear purpose which opens the book and appears on the back cover. Coulter believes that liberalism is a religion, one that she judges to be both antithetical to god, Christianity and America. Stated explicitly in its opening paragraphs, Coulter declares, "Of course liberalism is a religion. It has its own cosmology, its own miracles, its own beliefs in the supernatural, its own churches, its own high priests, its own saints, its own total worldview, and its own explanation of the existence of the universe. In other words, liberalism contains all the attributes of what is generally known as 'religion'" (1). What follows in the ten chapters after that assertion and criteria is the argument that links her definition of religion to the philosophies of liberalism.
Not to poke too harshly at Coulter's argument right off the bat, but her criteria begin her argument on an academically biased footing. The inclusion of miracles, churches, priests and saints are all subjective, biased religious views based on Coulter's own brand of Christianity. There are religions major and minor that do not utilize churches, believe in miracles, organize around a priest, and/or believe in saints or any reasonable facsimile. Even various many denominations of Christianity do not believe in saints! So when one applies religions such as Bhuddism, Shintoism, Judaism, and the religions of most of the indigenous people of North America, South America and Africa to those same standards, none of them fall into the Coulter concept of "generally known" religions. Indeed, a quick check for a definition of "religion" on Dictionary.com citing the Random House dictionary, defines religion much more broadly as: "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. . . " (definition 1) and "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects. . ." (definition 2). Despite this premise which is hardly as universal as Coulter would like her readers to believe, Godless defines this as the formula by which a religion is generally established. So, there needs to be: a cosmology, miracles, supernatural beliefs, churches, high priests, saints, worldview, and explanation of the universe.
The problem with these criteria are that a fair number of competing concepts actually meet the same eight essential criteria. Off the top of my head, organized sports, television programs and, well, constitutional democracy in the United States all would be religions that Coulter neglects to demonize the way she attacks liberals. So, for example, with sports (I'm going with NFL football as an example, so please bear with me I'm not that into sports): those who follow football have teams (with their assorted players), the hail mary pass that connects, rituals involving luck, stadiums, coaches/commentators, quarterbacks, the goal of a touchdown and "life exists for Sunday and Monday night" that meet the same qualifications (okay, the last is a stretch). Television, though, has a slew of programs that are essentially religions to their fans. Take Star Trek, something I am quiet fluent with. Believers in that religion (as Coulter defines it) have the captains and their crews (Star Trek even has a holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy), the rescue of Kirk from the interspace, the Prophets who mystically control the Bajoran Wormhole (or warp drive, either qualifies as supernatural), Conventions and museums, Gene Roddenberry, directors and producers, humanism, and the Big Bang for creation of the universe. Back in 1991 during the 25th Anniversary of Star Trek, the televised special that commemorated the event cited over 50% of people in the U.S. consider themselves Star Trek fans. By Coulter's criteria, this would be an even far greater threat to conservatism and Christianity than liberalism.
The far more serious problem with Coulter's definition and the argument that follows it is that by her own criteria, Constitutional Democracy in the United States would be a far more common and compelling religion than even liberalism. After all, there is a cosmology (three branches of government), miracles (upset elections), supernatural belief (the belief that politicians will overcome human nature and abide by the principles of the Constitution or that voting works), churches (the White House, town hall, Capitol Building), high priests (presidents), saints (snicker, I was going to go with Senators, but let's go with Martin Luther King Jr. instead), worldview (representative democracy works, freedom is essential to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, etc.), and explanation of the universe (people are born free with an inherent right to self-determination, our history). The vast majority of people reading Godless are people who subscribe to this belief system every day and the idea that Coulter does not address this is an intellectual neglect that is staggering in its scope.
But, of course, Godless: The Church Of Liberalism is not intended as an argument that clearly addresses the problems the United States faces today, but rather it is intended as an attack treatise on the beliefs of those who oppose the conservative agenda in America packaged up in a neat structure guaranteed to appeal to Coulter's audience. After all, why simply deconstruct your opponents movement when you can vilify them as a religion? Passion for religion inspires acts of great compassion, to be sure, but in the political arena it is more often utilized as a divisive tool and framing liberalism as a religion contrary to Christianity and conservatism is designed to inflame.
But this is grossly neglectful of the facts, which illustrate that historically many of the most effective liberal causes were aided by people who were devout Christians. When it is convenient for her arguments - none of which appear in Godless - I am certain Coulter would make such an argument, but given that Coulter is attempting to pit liberalism against Christianity with this book, it simply does not serve her purpose. As a result, Coulter's academic disinginuity forces her to neglect the role liberal Christians played in the abolition of slavery, the women's suffrage movement, the end of segregation and the establishment of humane treatment standards for the mentally ill. Regardless of any politics of mine, it is impossible to make an argument that is factually true that divorces liberal philosophy from the Christian morals espoused by the leaders of any of those major movements.
It is a disingenuous argument and one that Coulter utterly fails to make in Godless. Instead, she sacrifices even the appearance of academic honesty and intellectual debate in favor of some of the grossest overuses of logical fallacies to see print. The primary problem with Godless, in the text that Coulter has written as opposed to the myriad of arguments against her basic premise, is that Coulter herself defines what the various aspects of the "religion" of liberalism are. So, for example, Chapter 3 devoted eighteen pages to defining Willie Horton as the martyr of the liberals. Coulter herself speaks for liberals when she writes, "In liberal mythology, Horton is a martyr, but instead of spilling his own blood, he spilled other people's blood" (61). The problem with this whole line of reasoning can be summed up in two easy sentences; first a martyr is traditionally someone who has been persecuted and killed for the cause or religion. Second, I couldn't find a single liberal who would consider Willie Horton a martyr for their cause and, in fact, most young liberals I talked to didn't even know who he was. While preparing this review, I polled ten random liberals at my local library and after determining they were liberal with the question "Do you consider yourself a liberal?," I simply asked, "If liberalism were a religion, who would the martyrs be?" The answers were pretty direct: five people chose Martin Luther King Jr., four chose JFK, and one declared Robert F. Kennedy (in the interest of honest methodology, it is worth noting that those being asked were not together and did not hear one another's answers and one initially answered "Do I have to pick just one?" And I think the person who picked RFK was just being trendy.). None of the three first choices by, admittedly, a limited sampling of self-declared liberals came up with anyone remotely close to Willie Horton. Of course, Coulter's case is going to be made when she stacks the argument toward the targets she's prepared to attack. For the record, there is no mention of JKF, RKF or Dr. King in Godless. But for a book published in 2006, it seems like the argument is a bit of a stretch if she had to go back to the 1988 presidential campaign to pull a martyr. (If "living martyrs" were her point, Al Gore would have seemed like a ridiculously easy one to use!)
Godless: The Church Of Liberalism is sloppy in its application of its own argument. As with Willie Horton being defined as a martyr, Coulter's selection of abortion as the sacrament of liberalism is an utterly fallacious correlation. Sacraments are rituals, actions or bonds that bring one closer to their faith and (in religions with them) their god. For example, baptism, confirmation, marriage, are all consider sacraments in Christianity. In order for abortion to be a sacrament in the religion of liberalism, only women could be truly "holy" liberals, women would have to want to have abortions as a matter of faith and principle, and there would be no stigma against it. Actually, that last part isn't entirely true; if abortion were the sacrament of liberalism, it would become a Constitutionally protected action under the Freedom of Religion. But, again, the connection is inapt as a vast number of liberals never have abortions. To liken abortion to a sacrament and carry it back, the analogy would be that crucifixion is a Christian sacrament.
Whenever Coulter encounters a statement that does not fit her argument or rhetoric, she simply dismisses it. So, for example, while discussing abortion, she cites an interview from "60 Minutes" with a Dr. Hern who declared, about the term "partial-birth abortion," "It's a political term; has no medical meaning" (80). Coulter responds by observing, "This is opposed to precise medical terms like choice and back alley abortions. . ." (80), but the problems here are that no one is claiming choice or back alley abortions are medical terms and it still does not address the fact that Congress is legislating a procedure that does not describe any specific medical practice. The whole chapter with abortion as a sacrament becomes a weak excuse for Coulter to expound on her views on abortion and its evils.
Moreover, Coulter does not allow fact to get in the way of her sweeping generalities. She brazenly declares, "No Republican is so crazily obsessed with any issue as the Democrats are with abortion" (85) which suggests that no Republican has used being against abortion to win elections or legislate to the extent that their competing Democrat used being for choice to win or legislate. This is one of many, many uncited "facts" Coulter declares as if it were gospel truth on no authority other than her word. Ironically, Coulter declares that liberals, ". . .assert that what they assert is true because they assert it" (279), moments after she does exactly the same thing by declaring without citation "Even when liberals are trying to show their moderate, country-music loving side by claiming to oppose having sex with the family dog, they can't formulate a logical argument to explain why not" (279).
This is not at all to say that Coulter does not cite her works. In fact, there are nineteen pages of cited references collected in the back of the book. The problem is, often Coulter is citing opinions of her opposition, allowing her to attack other commentators as opposed to attacking their arguments. So, for example on page 280 when she cites a quote of a black activist, a reader might take it as a declarative statement, when as a check of the footnote reveals, it was a line referenced in another person's editorial. In this fashion Coulter attempts to pawn off an opinion of an opinion as a fact.
And whenever reason and logic fail her, Coulter degenerates into the most insulting form of ad hominem possible. Yes, she calls her opposition names. In explaining why public school teachers are a Hollywood cliche, she states, "In real life, these taxpayer-supported parasites are inculcating students in the precepts of the Socialist Party of America - as understood by retarded people" (148). "Retard" seems to be a favorite of Coulter's in Godless (alas, it does not appear in the index and I'm not about to go back through the book to recount them) as are descriptions of opposing lines of thought as "loony," non-Christian environmentalists as "Druids," and widespread use of the word "nutty."
Coulter declares her premise on page one and three hundred pages later, she is no closer to proving her idea. For sure, she has insulted public schools, Bill Clinton (it's a timely book!), death penalty opponents, scientists, women and anyone who does not subscribe to her narrow view of Judeo-Christian beliefs. But she has not illustrated that liberalism is a religion.
Or more importantly, and here is where the dogma of Ann Coulter presents itself as a given in a way that is easily deniable and troubling; Coulter fails to make the case that the liberal values she derides are bad for the nation. The United States does not have a state religion. As a result, public schools do not teach religious doctrine in their science courses. Outside Coulter's declaration that science is a religion unto itself, she fails to articulate why science courses are so inherently bad and/or acknowledge that there are no restrictions by the government on religious teaching in churches, synagogues or mosques. Similarly, outside her declarations that abortion is bad and "infanticide" (80 - which given the definitions of infanticide, the killing of babies, and baby, an embryo that has been born - is literally untrue) she never makes a clear argument as to why having abortion be safe, legal and available upon demand is bad for the United States other than it grants women "the right to have sex with men [they] don't want to have children with . . ." (84). Coulter is a woman for whom the sexual revolution never occurred; yes, women might want to have sex without having children; Coulter never makes the case effectively in a way that does not simply degenerate into defining actions based on ". . . certain rules based on a book about faith . . ." (280). Her bible tells her so and that's fine, but why she believes the United States must conform to her view of that is never convincingly presented. She neglects the basic premise of defining what is truly so wrong about having a nation where women, gays, and non-Christians are treated with equal fundamental respect under the law and given equal opportunity in the workplace. And yes, she is unconvincing in defining what is truly so wrong about opposing the death penalty.
Instead, Godless is a collection of loosely tied, unconvincing ideas stemming from a central premise that is flawed in a way that the author credibly overcomes. And when the arguments border on becoming complex, she foregoes and sense of scholarly methodology or thousands of years of debating rules and simply degenerates into nasty remarks and weak irony.
Her argument could have been a good one; there are a lot of similarities between religious zeal and sociopolitical philosophies, but she didn't make it. Instead, she uses Godless: The Church Of Liberalism as another cheap platform to make money off her base by cloaking disingenuous attacks in the guise of meaningful discourse.
Both sides of the argument deserve better than that.
For other books by Ann Coulter, please check out m reviews of:
Guilty: Liberal “Victims” And Their Assault On America
If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans
How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must)
Treason: Liberal Treachery From The Cold War To The War On Terrorism
Slander: Liberal Lies About The American Right
High Crimes And Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton
For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.