Postmodern is a big, clumsy word, but that fits because the concept is big and clumsy.
The fact is, however, that we are living in this “ism” right now. As Bob Dylan put it at the dawn of that era, “How does it feel? Being on your own with no direction home? A total stranger? Like a rolling stone.” On the surface, Dylan’s song is about a young hippie living on the streets who “once threw a dime to the bums dressed so finely.” But the whole song is also a parable of the plight of postmodern humanity, which is now on its own with no known direction.
Postmodernism is a mindset (and intellectual movement) that challenges and rejects all universal standards, ideologies, stability of meaning, and the idea that there are such things as objective facts and truths. Instead, meaning is determined solely by self-reference, moral and epistemological relativism, and disrespect for any past value or meaning construct, including (of course) religion. This mindset took shape in the 1950s and by the early 21st century had worked its way into nearly every aspect of Western society—from high to low, from college classrooms to boardrooms, playrooms, and even bathrooms and bedrooms. Postmodernism has impacted every aspect of our lives.
Postmodernism, needless to say, places individual freedom at the zenith of human experience and destiny. But another great singer, Janis Joplin, had something to say about it: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Except… there’s a lot to lose — after all, Joplin lost Bobby McGee, that’s the gist of the song: “Nothing and that’s all Bobby left me, yeah.” Everything — one lover, one life, one politics — that based on putting unbridled freedom first will sooner or later leave you with nothing.
This is what the freedom of postmodernism has left in American culture: nothing, nothing to build on, nothing to moor our boat to. And so our ship of state sinks in very rough water. Postmodernism set the stage for Trump.
On the religious front, our constitutional freedom of worship under the First Amendment is being converted from religious liberty to religious liberty — two very different things. It is becoming increasingly forbidden to resort to transcendent, higher sources that help us shape our understanding of morality and truth.
A side note here: a government can easily engage in dialogue and debate with religion without becoming a theocracy – just as I can engage in ongoing dialogue with a Maoist communist without becoming one myself. In fact, progress and human improvement very often come from dialogue. Dialogue is almost always a good thing.
Without a constant dialogue (a dialectic relationship) between “the two powers of church and state”, the state is automatically granted a monopoly of power. By excluding religion completely and shutting down this dialectical criticism of government, citizens might believe they are gaining more freedom. But the opposite is the actual case.
The state, every state, will tend to love postmodernism – even if, or especially if, unconsciously. Because with the denial of any transcendent perspectives for morality and truth, the state becomes the sole arbiter – through its legislative, judicial and especially its executive powers. And their decisions are implemented with the force of the law and the force of arms.
What has become the driving philosophy of the state time and time again throughout history? The answer is clear: pragmatism, utilitarianism, and Machiavellianism. What works is right and the end justifies the means. Will to power is good in and of itself and must be given free reign. The best way to achieve this is through one-party rule and one-man autocracy. All forms of government tend in this dangerous direction.
What is the best protection against this scenario repeating itself over and over again? (And by the way, it’s starting to be repeated here.) As the old adage goes, the best defense is a strong offense. Trumpified Republicans clearly want to see one-party rule in the United States, and they want an all-powerful President. Trumpism has also managed—through religious hypocrisy cynically courting evangelicals—to claim High as the true “Christian party.”
The best offensive move right now for the Democratic Party is to attack the GOP’s religious hypocrisy and attack them hard; to attack their drive to transform America into a one-party theocratic state; to challenge their refusal to recognize the events of January 6 as a failed, treasonous coup d’état; and to attack any form of Christian nationalism as un-American and an affront to our Constitution, our armed forces, and our founding principles. This must be the playbook.
America is in a malaise, and that malaise has a name. That’s called postmodernism. People as a whole may not fully know or understand the term, but they “know when they see it” and they “know what they like” and don’t like. People rightly see this force of postmodernism (named or unnamed) as an unwelcome threat. But right now, too many Americans think the party promoting postmodernism is the Democratic Party. Reality is both parties, and all of our social institutions have to deal with postmodernism, whether they are aware of it or not.
If you think the COVID-19 pandemic was bad, wait until you see that postmodernism will produce a pandemic if it continues unabated, infecting more and more of our collective conscious and subconscious. Needless to say, the internet and social media are the perfect vehicles for the cancerous spread of this malaise.
If anyone is looking for a reason to “get religion,” here’s one of the best: to examine the power of postmodern states, postmodern media, and postmodern corporations—all of which operate with a broken moral compass. But be very careful with religions that want too much political power for themselves and want to put their own candidates in office. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Two realms: the sacred and the secular.
Not only must church and state be kept separate, they must also be kept in constant rhetorical battle with each other – for the good of both and for the good of mankind.
John Nassivera is a former professor who remains a member of Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.