“The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

~from Paradise Lost

“This is not a political war at all,” Rick Santorum told Catholic students at Ave Maria college. “This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age. There is no one else to go after other than the United States and that has been the case now for almost two hundred years, once America’s preeminence was sown by our great Founding Fathers.”

More of the transcript here.

Santorum’s 12th century rhetoric is par for the course when it comes to the conservative movement during culture war season. Blending religiosity and politics is as old as either, but one still can’t help but cringe a little when you listen to the former Senator from Pennsylvania and his alleyway doomsday sermons. Perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a long bout of fiscal conservatism that the emergence of good old fashioned culture war trash-talking is a shock to the system.

So I won’t talk about the culture wars. I’m more interested in the right’s incoherence than in its issue-arsenal at the moment.

What I don’t understand – what just baffles me endlessly – are these dueling notions of America as the greatest, most super-fantastic nation on Earth and America as an immoral, decayed society under assault from all sides. We are God’s people but we’re also so vulnerable to Satan himself that we need a super-hero, super-holy president like Rick Santorum to save us.

The cult of American exceptionalism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, comprised by the same people who make up the cult of American decline. There’s an insecurity about it that I think shines a little light onto the conservative movement and the Republican Party. The pretense of toughness; the rah-rah-rah nationalism; the sense of victimization, of being endlessly put-upon. These are all forms within the language of American conservatism, or at least mainstream movement conservatism, that give shape to the broader dialogue on the right.

The “rebel complex” that Michael Brendan Dougherty described movement conservatives as having, forces its members to walk the thin line between American greatness and American decline. You can’t be a rebel against the Big Liberal Machine if everything is peaches and cream; but you have to manage this without being counter-cultural at the same time – without sacrificing that patriot street cred.

Now, you might argue that it’s not really contradictory to say that America is at once great and threatened with decline. But that’s not really what conservatives are doing. The juxtaposition of greatness and decay isn’t necessarily framed as your every day existential threat. Rather the two fraternize in tandem, complimentary and contradictory all at once.

America is invulnerable and yet deeply fragile.

We are the most morally superior people on the planet, but that morality is brittle.

Gays and leftists and secret Kenyan communist presidents threaten to shake and rend the very fabric of our at-once-mighty and yet oh-so-frail society.

Barack Obama is a socialist even though he governs like a moderate Republican.

We need less government (and of course government can never create jobs or do anything right) but we also need a savior in the White House who will yank us back from the brink and, while he’s at it, create jobs.

So we get a movement that is full of paradoxes; a movement that wants to shrink government without shrinking any of the really big, expensive parts of government like defense or Medicare. The result, just a couple years after the 2010 Republican sweep, is a natural, not-so-bewildering transformation of the Tea Party into Rick Santorum leading in the polls, of fiscal conservatism transforming into social conservatism.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled may have been convincing the world he didn’t exist. But I’m beginning to think the GOP is giving him a run for his money when it comes to pulling the wool over our eyes.

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