Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Stanley Kurtz gives us another strong piece, this one about Church/State relations in the context of the recent voucher and Pledge decisions and the moral foundation of our current war. I agree with basically everything he says and have little to add to his argument. But I would like to embed it in a larger context, one with some significance for our current war and for our internal debates about religion.

I have blogged on the subject of liberalism and religion before (for example, here and here). I'd like to advance my ideas a little further, and then return to Kurtz's piece and the three topical questions it touches on.

To rehash: liberalism has a problem with religion. The problem is: liberalism, while ostensibly value-neutral, in fact presumes certain goods. Thus, since liberalism is based on the presumptive existence of autonomous individuals, it will necessarily reward individuals that think of themselves as autonomous. Moreover, it will seek to reproduce such individuals in order that they be best prepared to operate within and to defend the liberal order. Thus, liberalism, while professing to be value-neutral, becomes substantive, and even totalitarian, and inexorably comes into conflict with all forms of religion, whether traditional or fundamentalist, that subordinate the individual to an external authority (whether that authority is socially structured and traditional or textual, timeless and radical).

This is precisely the dynamic observed in the voucher decision dissents. Because religion teaches truths, it is presumed to be dangerous to democracy and polarizing. Unaddressed is the equally obvious fact that secularism teaches truths, and is therefore presumably equally likely to bring on polarizing conflict - unless, of course, religion is first extirpated and dissent from the secular order abolished or, at a minimum, reduced to a grudging tolerance.

What are the solutions to this problem? How can liberalism be reconciled to religion? I think there are three solutions, all problematic in different ways. I would typologize them as follows:

(1) The foundationalist (or Lockean) position: liberalism is in fact rooted in religious principles, originally Christian but arguably universal, and therefore these principles are established, even if religion is not, and religions that uphold these principles may be favored by the state.

(2) The pragmatic (or Burkean) position: a liberal political system is not fundamentally "true" but is merely a "good idea" adopted by societies with prior institutions and commitments, such as the family and religion, and these prior institutions and commitments must be respected if the liberal order is to be legitimate.

(3) The classical (or Straussian) position: the liberal order is an updating of the classical republican order, and therefore operates as a kind of civic religion in its own right, which revealed or traditional religion may not, in the final analysis, be permitted to contravene.

All three of these come in "conservative" or "progressive" flavors. Thus, John Rawls and Michael Novak are each instances of the foundationalist argument. Both would argue that the liberal order has its origin in faith, that the notions of natural liberty and equality are Christian ideas at first, and that this has consequences. For Rawls, it implies that the liberal order has a right to overrule sectarian Christian commitments, in effect supplants them since it stands on an equal basis with sectarians in religious authority and has a greater legitimacy because of democracy (this is my interpretation of his argument, obviously, not his argument in his own words). For Novak, (ditto), it implies that sectarian Christian commitments must be given an extra measure of respect by the liberal order, over and above other sectarian commitments, because undermining Christianity undermines the foundations of the liberal order.

That these two can come to such different conclusions from very similar premises either suggests that the premise is strong (it is large; it contains multitudes) or weak in explanatory power. Personally, I think that the foundationalist argument is quite coherent, but effectively moves the ground of dispute from one between religion and secularism to one between different interpretations of religion. Rawls's position does nothing to mitigate the conflict between the state and dissenting religions, and Novak's position logically implies state favoritism for Christian denominations. (In fact, and in spite of Novak's Catholicism, his argument is more congenial to Protestantism than to Catholicism; a species of this argument was a staple of anti-Catholic argument about religion and state in American history.) Traditional Jews and Muslims, much less non-Western religions, differ from Christianity on certain key fundamentals; among them, freedom means something rather different to each religion. If Novak takes his own argument seriously, then he must favor religious discrimination by the state - not necessarily discrimination against adherents of a non-Christian religion, but certainly discrimination against non-Christian faiths themselves.

The pragmatic position is one I have advanced before. It denies any foundational truths to liberalism, denies that individuals are sovereign or autonomous, denies that the state can arbitrate among conceptions of the good. All it says is that the liberal order is the most efficient means of mediating among different conceptions of the good. Free speech, freedom of religion, universal suffrage: these are not rights that spring from God or our nature as rational individuals but are pragmatically useful concepts that enable society to find solutions to value conflicts with a minimum of violence and a maximum of happiness. My pragmatism is highly conservative, however, recognizing that a concept must be useful to someone; it cannot be useful in the abstract. That "someone" is not some abstracted man understood only by the intellectual vanguard, but the society as it existed prior to the dawning of the liberal order, a society resplendent in its Burkean complexity and contradiction. All the elements of that order, then, are prior to the liberal state, and have some measure of authority. But none have more authority than religion and family, which originate their claims very fundamentally: in God or in nature, respectively. This pragmatism demands a humility on the part of the state (in that sense, it might be better described as Oakeshottian than Burkean), a willingness to concede that being value-independent (mostly) means accepting that value-carrying, organic institutions - like religion - are prior to and, in some sense, independently sovereign of the state.

This is not a reformulation of the traditional wall of separation, with religion relegated to the private sphere and the state sovereign in the public sphere, never the twain meeting. Indeed, since religion claims sovereignty in every sphere, such a division is practically impossible. It is better described as the conviction that the purpose of the Establishment Clause is to buttress the Free Exercise Clause. In other words, the reason why we have prohibited the establishment of a particular religion is that we want to ensure that the state does not, through that establishment, interfere with the free exercise of adherants of that religion or other religions, all of which are prior to the state. That does not prohibit the state from making ample room for religion in the public square, but only from putting the state's monopoly of force behind religious dictate. This is the pragmatic liberal conclusion: that force is damaging to religion, whether used to promulgate it or to suppress it, and therefore the state is forbidden to bring force to bear in religious matters, and in all other ways must be solicitous of religious proclivities, and not stand in the way of their promulgation of their notions of the good.

The problem with this position is that it is uncomfortable establishing when religious freedom transgresses the bounds of order and, indeed, in establishing when an endeavor is authentically religious. An oppressive cult and a politically subversive religion would equally and differently pose a challenge to the pragmatic, restrained liberal order that I outlined above. This is a topical concern in the case of Islam, as many of the clerics who promulgate Islam in America have a decided political agenda, and one antithetical to the state. How America can police this kind of subversion without entangling itself in the inner workings of religion is a very difficult problem. Similarly, how a value-neutral political order might deal with religious practices that offend normative morality without being obviously assaultive and therefore illegal: the use of mind-altering drugs, the institution of plural marriage, the practice of ritual slaughter or circumcision, the refusal of medical attention to children, etc., etc. A foundationalist has little trouble answering these questions. To a Novak-style foundationalist, the question is whether these practices are part of the Christian religious spectrum; if so, they may be tolerated even if they deviate from secular moral intuition; if not, they are subject to a stricter scrutiny. To a Rawls-style foundationalist, the question is whether they offend secular moral intuition; if so, they are out, regardless of their origin, though (ironically) they may be more likely to be tolerated if they are non-Christian in the spirit of diversity, recognizing that the state, with its Christian foundations, may more appropriately rebuke Christians than non-Christians under its sway. But to a conservative, anti-foundationalist, it is difficult to draw the lines. He can, of course, be pragmatic about it: if the threat is serious enough, repel it by force; if not, tolerate it. This is not terribly principled, however, and ultimately amounts to a reliance on the judgement of the governing class and the citizenry as a whole as to what constitutes a serious threat to order.

And so we come to the question of how this judgement is to be taught. All agree that the liberal order depends upon the virtue of its citizenry for its perpetuation and defense. To a secularist, proper virtue is inculcated in the next generation through a liberal education, an education in autonomy and freedom. As such, religion is the enemy, to be extirpated. To a foundationalist, proper virtue is understood to have a religious foundation; to a Novak-style foundationalist in particular, this means that Christian religion is to be supported by the state. To a pragmatist, the inculcation of virtue is to a great extent outsourced to "civil society" - and to religious institutions in particular. This, in good liberal fashion, is presumed to produce the best result in the marketplace of ideas. Trouble is, these groups may not have the same conception of virtue as is necessary to preserve the liberal order. While the best ideas are taking their time, winning in the marketplace, a generation (or part thereof) may rise without commitment to liberalism, and indoctrinated to seek its overthrow. Is there an alternative to the establishment of Christianity, the establishment of liberalism as the successor to Christianity, or resignation that the charge of raising a virtuous citizenry is laid upon institutions for whom the word "citizen" is at least potentially alien.

This is the strength of the classical position. The classical republican declares that the liberal order is of a piece with the republics of old: liberty is not paradigmatically freedom from the state but responsibility for the state, held equally with the rest of the citizenry. Our republic may be a liberal one, devoted to upholding individual freedom, but that is the peculiar ethos that we have chosen for it, and not the most important thing about it. Republics classically understood have their own civic religion, in the Straussian mode: the worship of the republic itself as a semi-divine order; and virtue is promulgated by devotion and service to that order. Madison, for example, labored to make the American Constitution an object of sacred veneration; he felt that the health of the republic and the virtue of its citizens would be anchored by the near-religious regard for the founding moment and document; so anchored, ordinary politics could be conducted on more liberal and less classical lines. He succeeded so well in this project that Lincoln - the man responsible for the greatest constitutional revolution since the Founding - declared in the 1840s that it would be a sin and a crime to even consider amending the Constitution, a process for which there is of course provision in the document itself. In another mode of veneration, Joseph Smith declared that the Constitution was a divine document.

A liberal yet classical republican would be broadly tolerant of religion. The liberal order that our Republic established, after all, holds dear the principle that religion is a private matter. But in the public sphere, limited as it is in a liberal order, the religion that would dominate is the civic religion, with its pagan virtues. That doesn't mean that, for example, religious institutions could not get public support, but that such support would necessarily come with strings attached: the expectation of service to the Republic. And this necessarily would entangle the state in the inner workings of religion, potentially subverting them in the process. Moreover, it is likely that a very severe and honest monotheist - a Stanley Hauerwas, say - would view a classical republican order as essentially pagan and therefore evil, not to be cooperated with in any way. And even less severe ones would be unable to give themselves wholly to the service of the Republic without subverting it in a foundationalist direction, consciously or unconsciously.

Each of these formulations solves part of the conflict between the liberal order and religion but leaves another part unsolved. The foundationalist fortifies liberalism by putting it on a religious footing, but this puts it in conflict either with the dominant faith (in an attempt to supplant it) or minority faiths (because it favors the dominant faith). The pragmatist establishes a new kind of separation between state and church - between force on the one hand and education on the other - but does so at the cost of leaving the state vulnerable to subversion from fundamentally illiberal religious groups. And the classical republican assures the propagation of liberal virtue not through the extirpation of religion and the atomization of the individual but through the restoration of pagan virtues and the establishment of a civic religion, but at the cost of inevitable conflict with all groups - whether from the dominant faith or more marginal ones - that take their faith to be of fundamental importance.

Our own political tradition partakes of all three of these modes. The pledge of allegiance is best understood through the classical mode. Its wording notwithstanding, it is not a declaration of the religious foundations of the state (Lockean mode) but the arrogation of divine Providence to the nation (Straussian mode). The Cleveland voucher program is an example of the Burkean or Oakeshottian mode, putting religious institutions to work producing virtuous citizens while leaving the state independent of the propagation of specific values. The two greatest risks are, of course, that the mode will turn Straussian, interfering in the workings of religious groups to ensure their compliance with republican requirements; or, alternatively, that it will not, and that illiberalism will thereby be subsidized. And Bill Bennett's book is, self-evidently, an exercise in the Lockean mode, proclaiming the religious foundations of the state as justification for our war on evil. These are all more legitimate modes of thinking about liberalism and religion than the anti-religious ideologues of the Ninth Circuit or the New York Times. But they are not mutually consistent, and the tension between them will continue to generate new insights and new conflicts, abroad and at home, as we prosecute our essentially religious war.