Leo Strauss and the Grand Inquisitor

Article excerpt

There is a certain irony in the fact that the chief guru of the neoconservatives is a thinker who regarded religion merely as a political tool intended for the masses but not for the superior few. Leo Strauss, the German Jewish emigre who taught at the University of Chicago almost until his death in 1973, did not dissent from Marx's view that religion is the opium of the people; but he believed that the people need their opium. He therefore taught that those in power must invent noble lies and pious frauds to keep the people in the stupor for which they are supremely fit.

Not all the neoconservatives have read Strauss. And those who have rarely understand him, for he was a very secretive thinker who expressed his ideas with utmost circumspection. But there is one thing that he made very clear: liberal secular society is untenable. Religion is necessary to provide political society with moral order and stability. Of course, this is a highly questionable claim. History makes it abundantly clear that religion has been a most destabilizing force in politics--a source of conflict, strife, and endless wars. But neoconservatives dogmatically accept the view of religion as a panacea for everything that ails America.

Using religion as a political tool has two equally unsavory consequences. First, when religious beliefs become the guide for public policy, the social virtues of tolerance, freedom, and plurality are undermined, if they are not extinguished altogether. Second, the use of religion as a political tool encourages the cultivation of an elite of liars and frauds who exempt themselves from the rules they apply to the rest of humanity. And this is a recipe for tyranny, not freedom or democracy,

There have always been those who deluded themselves into thinking that they were akin to gods who are entitled to rule over ordinary mortals. But no one has described this mentality more brilliantly than Dostoevsky, when he created the figure of the Grand Inquisitor: In his short story of the same title, Dostoevsky imagined that Jesus has returned to face a decadent and corrupt Church. As head of the Church, the Grand Inquisitor condemns Jesus to death, but not before having a long and interesting conversation with the condemned man. Jesus naively clings to the belief that what man needs above all else is freedom from the oppressive yoke of the Mosaic law, so that he can choose between good and evil freely according to the dictates of his conscience. (1) But the Inquisitor explains to him that truth and freedom are the sources of humanity's greatest anguish and that people will never be free because "they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious." (2) He declares that people can be happy only if they surrender their freedom and bow before miracle, mystery, and authority Only then can people live and die peacefully, "and beyond the grave, they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity." (3) The Inquisitor explains that the "deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie." (4) But in the end, "they will marvel at us and look on us as gods." (5)

To say that Strauss's elitism surpasses that of the Grand Inquisitor is an understatement. Undeniably, there are strong similarities. Like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought that society must be governed by a pious elite (George Bush the second and the Christian fundamentalists who support him fit this role perfectly). Like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought of religion as a pious fraud (something that would alarm the Christian fundamentalists who are allied with the neoconservatives). And even though Strauss was sympathetic to Judaism, he nevertheless described it as a "heroic delusion" and a "noble dream." (6) Like the Grand Inquisitor, he thought that it was better for human beings to be victims of this noble delusion than to "wallow" in the "sordid" truth. …