Manichaeism in American Politics

by William F. May

William F. May is Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This essay draws on some language and ideas generated by the author and others in the advisory work group on ethics for the White House task force on health care reform. The opinions expressed do not, however, purport to represent the positions of the Clinton administration, the task force or the ethics advisory group. The author accepts sole responsibility for the views expressed.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, May 2, 1966. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


William May reviews Richard Hofstadter’s published series of essays on the Radical Right entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Knopf). May suggests that Hofstadter is actually discussing the “Manichaean” style of our politics since the metaphysical and moral presuppostions of the Radical Right are Manichaean to the core. The Manichaeans were dualist, reducing all distinctions to the cosmic struggle between two rival powers: Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter, the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness.

Richard Hofstadter has published a series of essays on the Radical Right entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Knopf). He might just as well have called his book The Manichaean Style in American Politics, since the metaphysical and moral presuppositions of the Radical Right are Manichaean to the core.

The Manichaeans, of course, were dualists. They reduced all distinctions to the cosmic struggle between two rival powers: Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter, the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness. Hofstadter is not the first to note the element of dualism in American politics. Christian moralists have long bemoaned the tendency to reduce the complications of politics to the simple terms of a TV western, in which the forces of righteousness are pitted against satanic power.

In the Church this Manichaeism often expresses itself in the somewhat self-pitying struggle of "good church people" arrayed against the politicians. In the political Right Wing it generates—and anoints—a whole series of readiness committees, Minutemen and freedom evangelists pitted against the Communists, fellow-travelers and dupes in American education, press, church and government.

Although Christian moralists have recognized the analogy between the ancient Manichaeans and the Radical Right, for the most part they have left the analogy unexplored beyond references to a militant dualism. For this reason certain oddities in the behavior of the Radical Right have been only partly illumined. Why, for example, did Senator Joseph McCarthy hound and harry the relatively powerless domestic Communists and pay so little attention to the Kremlin and its power—if he were truly dedicated to a cosmic struggle against the Communist foe? Or again, why did the Goldwaterites in 1964 conduct a Presidential campaign so ineptly as to hand a massive victory to the liberal Democrats—if they were seriously opposed to "Socialistic" forces in the United States?

These oddities, of course, admit of certain ordinary political explanations. McCarthy in the Fifties saw enormous personal advantage in investigating domestic communism. Although he might not be able to touch the power of the Kremlin, he could be extremely effective in discrediting the power of "Socialistic" Washington. The Goldwaterites in the Sixties, on the other hand, were so absorbed in high revenge against the liberal wing of the Republican Party that they refused to undertake those reconciling actions essential to party unity and election victory.

But these explanations only beg for a further accounting of the obsessions that made such behavior seem plausible. McCarthy, after all, lost out eventually, and to Washington, not the Kremlin; and the Goldwaterites lost, not simply the election but control of the party. The behavior of the Right Wing has been altogether too contradictory for a solely political explanation of its strategies to give satisfaction. Perhaps a certain important feature of historic Manichaeism can shed some light on these peculiarities.

The Manichaean understanding of the three epochs into which cosmic history is divided is just as important for purposes of social analysis as their dualism. These stages were distinguished from one another entirely by the varying relations that obtained between the Kingdoms of Good and Evil.

(1) Originally the two kingdoms were separate from one another, but their separation was somewhat uneasy and unstable. The Kingdom of Darkness—out of envy, greed, resentment and the like—initiated acts of aggression against its rival.

(2) A consequent period of confusion and commingling occurred between the two forces. This confusion and commingling of Spirit and Matter, Light and Darkness, characterizes the created world that we know and its ongoing history. Since this epoch represents a net gain for satanic power, the created cosmos and its continuing life are not the work of the good God but rather a device of the devil to perpetuate his victories. Man, of course, is at the center of this confusion, inasmuch as he is an admixture of both spiritual and material powers.

(3) In the final, apocalyptic stage of history, a radical separation will occur once again. This stage will be distinguished from, and superior to, the first in that the forces of darkness will be shorn of their power of initiative and will retreat—wholly impotent and inert. The realm of Spirit prepares itself for this final stage of history by acts of purification in which it rigorously disengages itself from Matter. This disengagement entailed for the historic Manichaeans an ascetic ethic. It meant specifically the renunciation not only of sexual intercourse (as carnal) but also of its fruits in offspring. Children guaranteed to the devil the perpetuation of this present evil age.

Obviously the worst stage for the Manichaean is the second: the present era of confusion. The term "evil," in effect, has a double meaning. It refers primarily to Matter, Darkness and Flesh, but it also refers to the confusion of this Kingdom of Evil with its opposite. A clear-cut conflict between the two kingdoms is more tolerable than a state of affairs in which they overlap and blend.

Manichaean dualism and its consequent revulsion against the jumbling together of opposites is a metaphysics inhospitable not only to marriage but also to the Western sense of politics. Both marriage and politics presuppose the possibility of some kind of community or agreement between parties distinct from one another.

But the metaphysics of the Manichee does not allow for a fundamental distinction between beings or for a community between beings so distinct. There is either absolute identity (as Spirit without distinction is divinely good) or opposition (as Spirit and Flesh are anathema to one another) or confusion (as Spirit and Flesh overrun each other), but there is no community between entities in their distinction.

We have only to mention Christian metaphysics on the subject to sense the degree to which Manichaeism perforce is unfriendly not only to the ordinance of marriage but also to the development of political institutions. For the Christian there is a fundamental distinction in the Godhead between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and yet an indissoluble bond between them; there is a radical distinction between Creator and creature, Savior and sinner and yet a bond of covenant between them. Derivatively, there is a creaturely distinction between soul and body, and yet a unity; between man and woman, and yet the covenant of marriage is possible; between various human groups and communities, and yet certain kinds of agreements, bartering of interests and ties are possible between them.

The Manichaean, by contrast, wants metaphysical apartheid. The best state of affairs inevitably is that in which the Spirit, by virtue of its warfare with the Flesh, has won its final separation from the Flesh and its ties. (It would be interesting to know whether the Manichaean—and his successors—opposes commingling because he finds something evil or whether he finds something evil because it forces him into commingling. The relations may be reciprocal and reversible.)

Put in this way, it is quite obvious why a metaphysical abhorrence of marriage betrays itself in the very language that the Manichaean uses to describe the second stage of history: Spirit is "trapped" in the Flesh, or again, Spirit and Flesh "commingle" with one another. Both metaphors have overtones that are familiar to this day in the language of those revolted by sex and marriage, for whom marriage is a "trap" and the sexual act is a repugnantly intimate and messy commingling.

Just as surely as he opposes marriage, the Manichaean must abhor the realm of politics. From the vantage point of his simplicities and purities, politics is the realm of the imprecise and the confused, the impure and the compromised.

Perhaps this revulsion against commingling throws some light on the question of why Senator McCarthy and his followers were so obsessed with the domestic Communist while disinterested in practical measures against international communism. I do not think the explanation lies in the direction of the late Elmer Davis’ interpretation, an analysis that Hofstadter cites and criticizes. Davis argued that the Radical Right compensated for its sense of insecurity before an international foe by attacking its more helpless domestic counterpart. W. H. Auden characterized this type of persecution rather succinctly when he observed:

Shameless insecurity

Prays for a boot to lick

And many a sore bottom

Finds a sorer one to kick.

Hofstadter revises Davis’ theory. He does not believe that the general insecurity of the nation before international communism accounts for the emergence of the Radical Right as much as the more special insecurities (over status) felt by those who are marginal within American life. Rootless and without status, certain folk (especially certain ethnic groups) flock to the superpatriots, who will confirm their identity as Americans at the expense of the Socialist, Communist, New Dealer and fellow-traveler.

The theories of insecurity, however, fail to explain the passionate moral outrage that energized the McCarthy and Goldwater movements. (Hofstadter in a sense revises his own theory in favor of this moral factor when, in a later essay, he credits "fundamentalist Christianity" more than ethnic and status factors for the fervor of the Goldwater movement.) This moral outrage, like all Manichaean vehemence, is doubly compounded. Communism itself is evil, but even more evil is its confusion with our national life. A clearly defined enemy in the Kremlin is not half so upsetting as the obscenity of the Communist or Communist dupe in our midst. This is the intolerable confusion of which our national life must be purified, even to the neglect of measures taken to protect the nation against an admitted foe.

An abhorrence of commingling produces not only an obsessive and ritualistic persecution of the "traitor" but also a certain incapacity for the ordinary agreements, compromises and alignments that characterize political life. McCarthy, toward the end of his career, and the Goldwaterites after him proved themselves to be remarkably apolitical. (The indifference of the Right Wing to the development of a foreign policy in any political sense of the term is perfectly consistent with its incapacity for political agreements on the domestic scene.)

Hofstadter has persuasively detailed all this in his account of the unbending and rigid—indeed frigid and infertile—Presidential campaign of 1964. Goldwater’s advisers were unwilling, from his nomination onward, to negotiate in any form or fashion with the progressive wing of the Republican Party; they did not treat the selection of a Vice Presidential candidate as a marriage of convenience dictated by the political needs of the campaign; they refused to move to the center for strategic purposes to recover the independent voter (it is difficult for a dualist to take a "neutral" with enough seriousness to yield to him on many issues) they were insensitive to the full impact of Goldwater’s speeches upon groups beyond the assembly of believers in his audience; for prudential reasons, they kept Goldwater from mingling with the press, but they also saw to it that the poor, the crowds, the slums and the ghettos were assiduously avoided. (See Robert J. Donovan, The Future of the Republican Party, p. 55, quoted by Hofstadter.)

All these stratagems were pursued relentlessly to their dismal conclusion in a massive election-day defeat and the consequent cascade of liberal social legislation that poured out of the 89th Congress. Meanwhile, the movement itself remained pure, unadulterated, uncompromised and unconfused—and to this degree undefeated!

The use of language from the sexual sphere is not altogether forced. Being consistent, Goldwater’s campaign reached one of its climaxes with his address in the Mormon Tabernacle. There he talked about the safety of our women in the modern city—a legitimate issue, to be sure, but not one that he proposed to solve by action other than the moral example set by the occupant of the White House. Obviously he chose the issue not because he had political solutions for the problem of violence in the city, but because sexual violence offered symbolic statement for everything profoundly feared in the way of commingling by the movement and its followers.

Perhaps this general account of the passional presuppositions of the Right Wing also throws light on why the arguments and rhetoric of racial Manichaeans inevitably take on a sexual cast. Though the liberal may be talking about housing, education and job opportunities, the racist inevitably climaxes the argument with the sex question, "Would you want your daughter to marry one ?" And if this question is not terrifying enough, the racist continues with dark prophecies concerning the mongrelization of the white race. The liberal is baffled by this apocalyptic leap from politics to sex, but for the Manichaean it only brings these broader social questions to their repellent but intrinsic consummation.

Hofstadter is careful to point out that the Radical Right is not truly conservative. While seeking to dominate our more conservative political party, it is actually pseudo-conservative. It seeks to root out and not to conserve, to purify and not to nurture, to deny rather than to preserve much of the American heritage.

However, the corresponding question is never raised as to whether this movement in its spiritual content might not, with equal justification, be called pseudo-Christian rather than Christian. Instead Hofstadter uses the terms "paranoid style," "fundamentalist Christianity," "Christian apocalypticism" and "Manichaean dualism" somewhat interchangeably.

At best, he takes only marginal note of the existence of a Protestantism and Roman Catholicism distinguishable from this religious phenomenon. Undoubtedly there is some warrant for this identification. Manichaeism has intruded itself into certain reaches of Christianity. But no one sophisticated in the Christian tradition from Augustine onward can deny the difference between this faith and Manichaeism, no matter what Manichaeans in later ages may choose to call themselves.

This question as to whether the two can be distinguished from one another is more than a matter of academic objectivity or of Christian patriotism. For the secularist concerned with the health of the political order it has certain practical consequences for his attitude toward Christianity.

If the Christian faith and dualism are, in fact, inseparable, then the secularist would have good grounds for fearing the influence of the faith on American culture. Specifically he would fear its presence and influence in the sphere of education, and through education its impact upon political life. Conversely, he would hope for an increasingly "secularized" education as a means of purging American life of a dualism whose influence is deleterious.

Hofstadter is not without leanings in this direction. Puzzling over the fact that Birchites have usually attained more formal education than their fellow Americans, he raises the question as to whether they were educated in the great cosmopolitan colleges and universities or in denominational colleges. The hint is that a more secular and cosmopolitan education might help to rescue Americans from the influence of this pernicious movement.

In the absence of all the facts, one might offer a quite different conjecture. The John Birch Society and other radical movements from the Right (and Left) are notoriously strong precisely in those regions in which education is dominated by the modern state university. For the most part, until recently, theological studies have been absent from the curricula of such institutions. Consequently in many states the choice offered to college students is between religious fundamentalism (which is admittedly Manichaean) and religious illiteracy. To this degree it has been correspondingly difficult for clerical leadership to develop a theologically sophisticated laity, a laity that would find it more difficult to confuse the Christian faith with a primitive Manichaeism.

Obviously it would be foolish to exaggerate the political consequences of educational oversights. Nevertheless, there is a certain poetic justice in the predicament of the secular professor who opposes vehemently the teaching of religion at state institutions but confronts in his state an unholy alliance between the Right and a fundamentalistic Christianity. In a sense, he gets what he deserves.

While Hofstadter may be faulted for his failure to distinguish carefully the two religious traditions, he can only be admired for the objectivity, imagination and compassion with which he enters into the passional life of the Radical Right. He does not assume that there is no objective warrant for some of its fears or that a conspiratorial interpretation of events is invariably wrong; he enters compassionately into the insecurities and aversions that help to produce its mania. In this regard, Hofstadter offers an admirable model for the Church’s own mode of relating to such movements. Even though the Church opts for action aligned with the political liberal or the revolutionary Left, it cannot afford to do so (even when it must do so decisively) in such a way as to produce from its side a sterile impasse. It will do little good if the Church only matches the paranoia from the Right with a paranoia from the Left. (No one can read certain Leftist journals without recognizing that a paranoid element can develop in its literature as well. See Staughton Lynd, "Waiting for Righty: The Lessons of the Oswald Case," Studies on the Left, Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1964, pp. 135-141.)

It will also avail little if the Church simply looks down upon the Right (and the Left) from the smug vantage point of a liberal establishment. If its contribution to the political sphere is to be health-giving instead of self-satisfying, the Church will have to do more than seize upon the inadequate formulations, inconsistencies and omissions in the argument of the Radical Right for the sake of winning a debate. The Church will need to understand Manichaeans in their passional life better than they understand themselves.

But to do this, the Church may have to divest itself of some of its diagnostic assumptions about the modern world. Increasingly theologians have assumed that the modern age is secular and secular without remainder. This is a diagnostic error of major proportions for which the presence of Manichaeism in the Right Wing is only secondary evidence. No adequate exposition of the passional elements in this movement will be forthcoming if the Church does not recognize that the Radical Right (and much else in modern life) cannot be understood in secular terms alone. The movement actually reeks of religion.

It should be a cause for some gratitude then that Richard Hofstadter, a secular historian, has painstakingly reminded the Church of this fact.