In Ann Coulter's latest book, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," the conservative author sees liberalism much as political theorist James Burnham saw it--as a philosophy of Western suicide. Except Coulter thinks "philosophy" doesn't quite do it justice. "Liberalism," she explains, coming out of the gates, "...has its own cosmology, its own miracles, its own beliefs in the supernatural, its own churches, its own high priests, its own saints, its own total worldview, and its own explanation of the existence of the universe." It is, in short, a cult--a religion.

The book aims to show that liberalism is both a false religion and America's unrecognized official religion. Because liberalism does not advertise itself as a faith, the argument runs, it hasn't had to make the case for itself, as traditional religions must, in order to gain the assent of the devout. Furthermore, it is not hamstrung by the usual church/state separation issues that it helped to raise against its competitors, so it can always count on state sponsorship as well as the support of the upper crust of American society. This unfair arrangement has given liberalism unfettered access to spread its ideology in public schools and colleges, Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and the press, Coulter claims. In fact, in her telling, liberalism is so engrained in American life that it's almost impossible to challenge its dominance without sounding like, well, a crank, or at least a Republican. You have to tug at so many deeply held assumptions at once that most people are incapable of giving the case against liberalism serious consideration.

That doesn't stop Coulter from giving it the old college try. With chapters explaining liberalism's impact on crime, abortion, education, the cult of the victim, science, and evolution, she uses every bit of her legal training, as well as her ferocious wit, to convince readers that liberalism is just as much of a religion as is her own Presbyterianism. She wants American liberals to recognize this fact and to renounce their faith.

Coulter devotes four chapters to her belief that those people who believe in evolution through natural selection do so because of their faith in a progressive world (think Marx's "History" or more vague notions of material progress brought about by benevolent government action), not because of the evidence. She argues that her own faith would be left unshaken if the generally accepted evolutionary scenario proved true, but says that liberals absolutely need it to be true for their worldview to remain coherent, and so she mounts a sometimes-tedious challenge to their presuppositions.

Why go on at such length over the point? That's like writing a book about Mormonism and spending 40 percent of the text on Joseph Smith's sacred stones. If liberalism is a religion, as Coulter claims, then it would certainly benefit from the creative license that believers allow for reinterpreting creation myths.

The real fireworks that "Godless" has set off center on Coulter's intemperate remarks about several women who were widowed by the events of Sept. 11 and have become political activists. Specifically, she wrote, "I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much." Tough words, yes, but the uproar about them helped to prove Coulter's point. That is, grief is not an argument, and it can be put to bad ends. Widows may deserve our pity and our charity, but they do not deserve unlimited deference if they choose to involve themselves in the political process. To argue that they should be able to criticize without being open to criticism is wrong and undemocratic. Reason has got to take hold at some point.

That's a useful criticism of any ideology, so it's a shame that Coulter fails to apply it to her own "Apocalypse Now" conservatism. Her impetus for going after liberals in "Godless" and her writing since Sept. 11 is all about grief and rage. She was the pundette who penned the memorable column that began as a tribute to her dear friend Barbara Olsen, who died on Flight 77, and then quickly turned into a call for total war against "anyone anywhere in the world who smiled" in response to the events of that godawful day.

The enemy, she wrote, was a "fanatical, murderous cult" that had "invaded" the U.S. and used our own good faith and tolerant ways against us. Our government should work hard to root out terror cells here, with tools including racial and religious profiling. And it should strike at the real root of the problem. To wit, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." Muslims were the enemy without in this great struggle and Coulter has come to see liberals--with their protests against Iraq, campaign against President Bush, and niggling concern for civil liberties--as the enemy within. She accuses those Democrats who want to withdraw troops from Iraq and avoid further entanglements in the Middle East of giving aid and comfort to the Enemy, and shrugs off the fact that the war skeptics have been proven mostly right. America's deeper involvement in the Middle East is making more wars more likely and giving a hand up to radical Islamic elements that might finance more terrorism in the future.

Granted, many of Coulter's arguments against liberal ideas are dead on, but her broader criticism misses the mark. On crime, abortion, and education, she proves that a lot of people have bought into daft notions, and should rethink them. Punishment beats any of the other approaches for dealing with crime; abortion cheapens life; and public education is more about indoctrination and creating cushy public jobs than teaching Johnny and José to read. But her points don't prove that liberals are members of some mystery religion. They only prove that, like Coulter, liberals are fallible.

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