Monday, March 18, 2002
Religion again. Peter Beinart (my favorite liberal) has a piece in the latest issue of The New Republic (which he's done wonders for - have I mentioned he's my favorite liberal?) about the Bush Administration's consistent ecumenism and its equally consistent ignoring of non-believers. It's a very good statement of an argument that Beinart has been developing for some time in that space. In essence, he argues that the Bushies - and religious conservatives generally - so equate faith with morality that they are unable to make the case for coexistence with those without religion, or even for the existence of people without religion.
What's good about this argument as that, well, it's true. The Bushies do ignore non-believers, and on some level they seem to think that non-believers don't even exist. They do tend to equate religion with morality (for this reason, they've had a hard time coming to grips with the role Islam - a religion - plays in our current war; see Franklin Foer's piece from several months ago). And they often seem to suggest that our political tradition is incomprehensible from a non-religious perspective. They suggest, for example, that America believes in freedom of religion because freedom is good for religion, not because we believe in freedom.
But just because Beinart is right about the Bushies doesn't mean that the Bushies are wrong about our political tradition. In fact, we believe in freedom of religion both because we believe in religion and because we believe in freedom. And Beinart does not make as strong a case against this religious reading of the American system of government as he thinks. In part, I think, this is because the Bushies - and moderates among the so-called theocons generally - do not distinguish between two related but distinct religious understandings of our political system.
If we grant that we believe in freedom as a fundamental value, and that this is the foundation of our political tradition, why do we do so? Where does freedom come from? And if we don't need to answer this question, how are we to understand what freedom is? The American political tradition arguably springs from two European wells: a liberal constitutionalism that starts with Locke and a conservative pragmatism (avant la lettre; the term is an anachronism) that is exemplified by Burke and Montesquieu. To vastly oversimplify, in the former freedom comes from the Creator and in the latter freedom comes from tradition; in the former it is deduced from first principles, and in the latter it is observed in the behavior of society.
At first glance, it would seem that Beinart, who wants a non-sectarian defense of freedom, would prefer the latter. But things are not so simple. In many parts of the world, after all, there are no traditions of freedom to be observed. Indeed, commentators like Pat Buchanan or John Debyshire who deny the universality of the Western political tradition do so precisely for this reason. Where Western culture is alien, they predict, Western institutions like republican democracy will fail to take root or, worse, will yield profoundly illiberal results. An articulation of American freedom that is fully open to pagans or non-believers may be closed to those without Western cultural roots.
The compassionate-conservative crowd wants a way to talk to a culturally divided America. It is for this reason, I think, that they have so embraced a kind of mushy neo-Lockean universal religion: under this umbrella, they can articulate what they think is superior about the Western tradition without explicitly saying that it is Western at all. And, more important, they articulate a reason for Western religious communities to remain loyal to the American Constitution, something no longer to be taken for granted now that our culture has become ever more fragmented.
I suspect that in fact Beinart believes in the former, Lockean notion of freedom, grounded in innate rights that accrue to us for being human, but that he would reject Locke's premises; he would like to find a pragmatic, non-religious basis for the notion of fundamental, inalienable rights. Perhaps a convincing statement of such can be made; it has certainly been tried. But I think Beinart is kidding himself if he thinks that such articulations are truly neutral, or even ecumenical. In practice, a fundamental-rights understanding of freedom that is not pragmatic or religious has become a kind of crusading secularism. Believers can happily be loyal to a state that asserts no fundamental values, only contingent ones. They can also plausibly be loyal to a state that bases itself on a set of fundamentals that are compatible with or derivative of the fundamentals of their faith. But where the state makes certain beliefs fundamental to the political order, and these beliefs are incompatible with the fundamentals of a believer's faith, we've got a problem. The Bushies potentially run into this problem because their universal religion may be incompatible with some religions - indeed it may be incompatible with all. But Beinart runs into this problem as well, because his notion of fundamental rights will likely conflict with many believers. This is the essence of the culture war: the conviction by many believers that our government is not neutral between beliefs but has strong, fundamental beliefs, and that these contradict and interfere with the fundamental beliefs that traditionally religious people hold.
It is not a trivial problem, the problem we face. We have good, pragmatic reasons to believe that the American political tradition is the pinnacle of human achievement in politics. Western and non-Western peoples alike have reason to look at America and say: how can we make that work for us? For Christian societies, the great American political compromises - such as our radical religious freedom - are intelligible, even if they may be foreign. It may take work to convince Christians to support a state that is not explicitly Christian, but at least there is ample precedent, and a set of arguments that are native to the Christian world to defend such an arrangement. But for non-Christian societies - particularly for Muslims, but also for Jews - they appear to contradict deep-seated assumptions about how their religion works. Islam actively seeks to colonize the state; a proper government is a Muslim one, and proper law is Islamic law, enforced by the state. Judaism is more equivocal, in that the state itself is viewed with suspicion by much of the tradition, but there is no equivalent in Judaism to the maxim: render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. We answer, in all things, to a higher authority than the state. It is not an easy thing to domesticate such long-lived traditions to an American-informed system of government. And it is not clear to me whether a doctrine of natural religion or some alternative of Beinart's is a better way to do so. I give the compassionate-conservative crowd credit for tackling the problem, though I am skeptical whether their approach will succeed (and I believe in natural religion, so I'm a pretty sympathetic audience).