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An American Inquisition
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An American Inquisition

Our partisan factions' hunt for political heretics is growing more mainstream.

Last month, John Cornyn took the stage at the Texas state Republican convention. Over the course of 37 years of service, Cornyn has served as district court judge, associate justice of the Texas Supreme Court, attorney general of Texas, and for the last 20 years—U.S. senator for the Lone Star State. Cornyn has been a loyal Republican, acting as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee from 2009 to 2013, and as Republican whip from 2013 to 2019. During President Donald Trump’s tenure, he voted with Trump’s legislative agenda 92.2 percent of the time. He holds a lifetime Heritage Action rating of 71 percent, which places him higher than Sens. Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Last, but certainly not least, he holds a coveted A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.

Yet, when he took the stage at his party’s state convention, he received boos and vitriol. What caused the party faithful to turn on one of their favorite sons? His role in the development of bipartisan gun safety legislation in response to the Uvalde school shooting in May. The convention formalized his fall from grace with the following resolution: 

“We reject the so called ‘bipartisan gun agreement,’ and we rebuke Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) … ” 

As right-wing provocateur John Cardillo tweeted, “@JohnCornyn is learning just how much normal Americans, especially his Texas constituents, hate Democrats and DC elites like him who sell out to leftists. There is no compromise. You give the left nothing, ever. That is the only option.” 

In this way, Cornyn became the latest target in the nation’s hunt for political heretics.  This hunt is not new to Western democracy. In the early days of the American republic, Noah Webster recognized this phenomenon in our revolutionary cousins in France. In his pamphlet, The Revolution in France, Considered in Respect to its Progress and Effects (1794), Webster observed many regrettable developments across the sea and implicitly warned against their emulation here in America. One of his primary concerns was the role of the new civil religion in France. 

By 1794, French revolutionaries were in the midst of breaking the historic hold of the Catholic Church over the French people; going so far as to adopt a new calendar, alter the length of the week, and remove the Sabbath. These were perceived as remnants of the Catholic faith in daily French life. Saint days were replaced with dates honoring various “objects that make up the true riches of the nation … not from a cult, but from agriculture—useful products of the soil, the tools that we use to cultivate it, and the domesticated animals, our faithful servants in these works.” Evidently, this included a day honoring manure. I kid you not. 

France declared an Age of Reason and for a time rededicated churches, including Notre Dame, as “temples of reason.” They believed they were striking a blow against centuries of “superstition” in favor of “reason.” However, even as they tore down vestiges of the Christian faith, Webster understood the revolutionaries were laying the foundation of their own form of religious orthodoxy, their own idols for worship. He recognized that politics in the French republic was quickly becoming its own form of religion, without any of the moral scruples inherent to traditional faiths. 

By way of example, Webster compared the veneration given to physical manifestations of reason and liberty, such as the iconic red liberty cap, to the devotion the ancient Egyptians gave to cats: 

When we are told by credible historians that the Egyptians, when a house was on fire took more pains to save the cats, than the house, we stare and wonder how men could ever be so weak and stupid as to regard a cat, as a sacred animal. But is not the cap of liberty now regarded with similar veneration? Would not an insult offered to it be resented and call down the vengeance of its votaries? How is this? Why the answer is easy—the Egyptians venerated a cat…and our modern idolaters venerate a liberty cap. The passion of the Egyptians will be called superstition perhaps; the passion of our people, enthusiasm. But it is the object that is changed, and not the principle…Nor is it less an act of superstition to dance round a cap or a pole in honor of liberty, than it was in Egypt to sacrifice a bullock to Isis.

What was true of the liberty cap or cockade in 1794 is true of the MAGA hat of 2022 or the latest outward manifestation of wokeism. As Webster observed, “[T]he cockade became a badge of despotism; everyone who would not join the order, and go to every excess in their measures, was denounced as a traitor.…Yet there is not the smallest connection between a cockade and liberty, except what exists in the fanaticism of the [new] order.” In other words, the revolutionary cockade became an article of faith, a civil sacrament to ignore at one’s peril. 

Several prominent writers, including Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, have studied the rise of civil or political religion. Writing in The Atlantic in 2021, Hamid acknowledged that “un-American is a common slur, slung by both left and right against the other. Being called un-American is like being called ‘un-Christian’ or ‘un-Islamic,’ a charge akin to heresy.” He explained that this phenomenon exists on both sides of the aisle: “On the left, the ‘woke’ take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends.” In other words, in place of eating the forbidden fruit, consider the ill-conceived tweet of one’s youth that cannot be expunged. Where once the pope excommunicated in response to religious subversion, now the mob “cancels” for insufficient professions of faith to the latest cultural orthodoxy.  

Just recently, we witnessed the Washington Post reap the unfortunate consequences of appeasing this new fundamentalism during the David Weigel and Felicia Sonmez saga. In real time, tweet by tweet, we witnessed an acolyte of wokeism rage against her employer and her coworkers, even as the target of her complaint received a reflexive suspension from his superiors. While Sonmez was eventually fired for her own insubordination, her actions highlight the mentality increasingly prominent on the left: Contrition isn’t enough. The faithful demand penitence and public shaming. 

The political religion of the far left mirrors the hypocrisy Webster observed in France. As he notes, “It is remarkable…that with professions of the most boundless liberality of sentiment, and with an utter abhorrence of bigotry and tyranny, these philosophers have become the most implacable persecutors of opinion. …They reject one system to enforce another…The Jacobins differ from the clergy of the dark ages in this—the clergy persecuted for heresy in religion—the Jacobins, for heresy in politics.” 

On the right, orthodoxies of a different sort are increasingly pervasive. At the same gathering where they chastised the heresy of Sen. Cornyn for engaging with Democrats on guns, the Texas Republican convention adopted a declaration that President Joe Biden “was not legitimately elected” in 2020. With plenty of evidence repeatedly showing the frivolity of the former president’s stolen election claims, one can only attribute this as a declaration of pure faith, not a matter of fact. 

Meanwhile, as the Texas Republicans were reaffirming their articles of faith in Trump and his stolen election creed, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republican members of the House select committee investigating January 6, and an outspoken critic of President Trump, publicly shared a letter anonymously addressed to his wife. The letter in part reads, “That pimp you married not only broke his oath, he sold his soul. Yours and Christian’s too! Adam’s activities have hurt not only this country, but countless patriotic and God fearing families. Therefore, although it might take time, he will be executed. But don’t worry! You and Christian will be joining Adam in hell too! We find it blasphemous that you name the son of the devil Chistian [sic]!” 

Christian is the name of the congressman’s 5-month-old son.  

Rep. Kinzinger shared a compilation of expletive-laden, threatening phone calls his office has received. Unidentified callers can be heard threatening Kinzinger, his family, even his mother. In one of the less explicit excerpts, a woman prays, “Wrath of the Lord God Almighty come upon you, your health, your family, your home, your livelihood and I pray if it be God’s will that you suffer.” For the ultra-MAGA, it is not enough for you to retire from Congress; the faithful demand you suffer for your iniquities.

The hunt for political heretics only leads in one direction, toward political violence. Our Madisonian system demands the building of coalitions; it requires compromise. The Founders did not intend for a rotating dictatorship driven by zealotry, with each faction taking a turn at purging the nonbelievers. The Constitution, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, was designed to curb these very passions, not inflame them. One cannot dispute this fact and call himself a defender of the Constitution. Political ideology and dogma are natural and necessary to our system; they represent the competing values of our diverse nation. However, a nation of 329 million people cannot survive without grace and a little bit of compromise. 

If ever there was a wakeup call for reevaluating the religious fervor and passion we as Americans bestow on our politics, it is the chastisement of a public servant for engaging in good faith with his fellow Americans. It is the adoption of a lie as truth. It is the threatening of a baby named Christian, his mother, and his grandmother, because his father does not bow to your chosen idol.

Jacob Becker currently serves as assistant general counsel for the Texas A&M University System. He holds a J.D. from Southern Methodist University, where he previously served as assistant general counsel.