Absolutism, Relativism, Clintonism

Mr. DeLay Had It Right
Absolutism and Relativism Were At the Heart of the Clinton Matter

David R. Williams   
March 7, 1999; Page B2 Washington Post

Before we leave the subject of the recent unpleasantness in Washington, an important point needs to be made–a point that helps reveal the essence of the impeachment battle and why this political war is not going to end any time soon. For President Clinton’s impeachment was not about perjury or obstruction of justice, as many Republicans maintain. Nor was it about sex or the efforts of right-wing zealots out to get a liberal president, as many Democrats contend. These interpretations are too narrow, too specific, too tied to the fleeting concerns of the moment. What we had here was nothing less than the most recent outbreak of an argument that has echoed through Western civilization at least since the Reformation. Itis an eternal debate between two irreconcilable points of view about the nature of reality and the veracity of human perceptions.

Nearly every time he got a chance, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) would declare, “This is a debate about relativism versus absolute truth.” Few of his colleagues picked up on this. Neither did the news media–or if it did, it most likely dismissed his words as the fanaticism of a right-wing Christian. But DeLay was not the only one to cast the debate in these terms. The more moderate Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) used similar language in imploring the Senate to convict Clinton: “Americans,” he pleaded, “are hungry for people who believe in something. You may disagree with us but we believe in something.”We believe in something. This is the battle cry of the Absolutists. They disdain relativism. They are certain that there is a truth in the universe, and that they know what that Truth is. Theirs is a world with clear differences between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood. In that world, there is no ambiguity about Clinton’s guilt.With this certainty comes, logically, a belief that everyone else must share the same perceptions–that the truth is obvious to all. Hence, the Republican managers’ constant appeal to “common sense” and the black-and-white morality of children.The relativists, on the other hand, accept no absolute truth. In fact, they even question their own perceptions. They suspect, as Albert Einstein once said, that common sense is nothing more than childhood prejudice. If there is some truth in the universe, they are certain only that they do not know it. Like the poet Wallace Stevens, they can imagine 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. And they can imagine 13 reasons why Clinton has committed no crime worthy of tossing him out of office.The larger context for Hyde’s oratorical appeal can be found in his party’s determination to act as a bulwark against what it sees as a disintegration of traditional values that began in the 1960s. In the Republican narrative, the hippies and the “counterculture McGovernites” abandoned the faith of their elders to follow their own whims. As a result, say the Republicans, the dominoes of social stability began to fall. Abortion, sex, drugs, violence burst into American life, threatening to destroy the country. And William Jefferson Clinton, like the white whale from “Moby Dick,” became the symbol of all these things. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?But the clash between the Republicans and the Clintonites was itself but an echo of a greater struggle between liberty and law, anarchy and structure that has been with us for centuries.Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this historic struggle is the Protestant Reformation, which drenched Christian Europe in blood in the 16th century and led zealots like England’s Oliver Cromwell and New England’s Cotton Mather to wage holy wars in the 17th. The central issue of the Reformation was one of authority. Did it flow from the top down–from the institutions of church, state and society, to the faithful below? Or did it, as Martin Luther proclaimed, flow from the bottom up, from the hearts of the believers?For Catholics, the slogan of the Reformation–sola fides (“faith alone”)–was a call for anarchy. To them, faith alone represented a rejection of absolute rules in favor of personal inspiration; it meant a turning away from traditional authority in favor of obedience to some whimsical spirit within.And the sacraments of the competing faiths reflected this division. Catholic dogma insisted that the wine and the wafer of communion were the literal body and blood of Christ. Not so, said Protestants like Luther and John Calvin. The wafer was just a symbol of Christ, not the real thing.Then as now, this was a fight of absolutism versus relativism–whether rituals and words have some true presence at the core, or whether they are merely symbolic and hence subjective and uncertain.Even within Protestantism, absolutists and relativists fought it out. Thus, in the Radical Reformation, rebellious peasants claimed that they had gone beyond uncertainty and experienced the truth of Christ subjectively; upon those rocks they intended to build a new world. Many of those enthusiasts fled Europe to build their new world in the wilderness of America.In the Puritan colony of Massachusetts, Gov. John Winthrop warned his “antinomian” colonists–the term refers to those spiritual anarchists who believed in faith alone, rather than obedience to moral law–that they must respect communal authority and not follow their own whims. But the antinomians believed that they carried in their hearts the real presence of God, not whims. The debate was a familiar one, with Winthrop afraid that human perceptions were the tool of the devil and the antinomian Anne Hutchinson convinced of the holiness of her own impressions.This debate doesn’t exist only in theological and political circles. American academics have embraced what is called “postmodernism,” a theory that preaches uncertainty and absence instead of certainty and presence. The postmodernists claim that there is “nothing outside the text” that suggests words have no true meaning–they are only symbols that point to other words, which themselves are only symbols.There is no rock in postmodernism upon which to build a church. Nothing is absolute. Language itself has no fixed meaning. It is all a web of deception and lies serving human self-interest. It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is.As in Protestantism, many of the academic postmodernists are not in fact as committed to relativism as their theory proclaims. Heirs of the ’60s, many are still committed to moral stances–against racism, against sexism. Underneath the postmodernist talk of absence and uncertainty and humility are many Cromwells ready to take up the sword or Cotton Mathers willing to see their enemies hung by the neck. Like the Puritans of old, they would purify society of evil and enforce their own moral code.The words and actions of conservative Republicans such as DeLay and Hyde must be seen in this light. They fear that a significant portion of the American population, whether they know its name or not, has fallen for the siren call of postmodern thinking. Like Winthrop, they see this antinomianism as a danger, and they are frustrated that the American public does not share their certain view of the world.But the American people, having been there before, seem to understand that there are two sides to this debate. There is certainly a danger in 1960s-style antinomian anarchy. But on the other hand, there is a real danger in 1690s-style religious zealotry. Americans are, as Hyde said, “hungry for belief in something.” But whose beliefs and in what? Between the old-fashioned religious zealots of the Christian Right, and the postmodern zealots of the radical left, Clinton seems like a reasonable compromise.One of the ironies of this is that the GOP, the party of laissez-faire capitalism, has become dominated by moral absolutists, while the Democrats champion a social laissez-faire that includes no absolutes and allows the party to flow with the whims of public perceptions. And that is where the American public historically has been most at home–not on the side of structure from the top down, but of subjective perception from the bottom up. Sola Fides, faith alone.Perhaps the whole American experiment, from Anne Hutchinson on, has been a holy mistake. Perhaps we shouldn’t trust our whims. But we self-reliant Americans, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, want the freedom to follow our whims. In this instance of the great debate, with the country strong and the economy humming, Americans have–as they often have in the past–come to side with the relativistic, solipsistic freedom of the spirit.But our need for structure also is strong. And that’s why this debate is far from over.

David Williams, an adjunct professor of English at George Mason University, has a degree from Harvard Divinity School and is writing a book on theology and the ’60s.