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« The Crisis of Governance and the Courage of Reason | Main | The "Decline" of the Public Intellectual (?) »

January 15, 2014

The Cleric as Public Intellectual

If there’s any truth to the old adage that religion and (liberal, democratic) politics don’t mix, it isn’t because they are polar opposites—an ideological oil reacting against a metaphysical water. Rather, it’s because they are, more or less, alienated kindred vying for the same space in the human imagination. It is not difficult to see why: religious experience and democratic politics make overlapping—and often competing—claims to the deepest meanings we attach to our humanity. First, both make a sacred obsession of the operations of individual conscience. Whether it is in the prayer tower or the voting booth, each pivots on a private, solemn, even mystical moment when the individual summons all the resources of their inner being in a single act of “self-transcendence.” Second, both religion and democracy draw the individual into a larger cosmic or social order—then define obligations that go along with one’s place in that order. Both, in other words, offer a vision of personal identity that is derived from beliefs about how we should relate to everything around us. The struggle between the spiritual and political forces of our imagination is older than such things as red states, the Christian Coalition, or the Moral Majority. It’s been a continuing drama for nearly four hundred years of American history. But following the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, the old drama acquired a new cast of characters and a snappy new production.

The Roveian strategy of playing to the religious right (under the mainstream media’s radar, as it turned out) tipped the balance in small-town Ohio and central Florida. Consequently, for a good six weeks or so, the post election punditry was consumed with talk about either the unsavory role Christian fundamentalists played in the campaign, or the “illiberal ways” the faithful were treated by critics. (A debate, incidentally, that seems to have further inflamed an overt and growing anti-religious campaign. See Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens; and for an “anthropological” response, see Scruton)

But for all the sound and furry, the debate occasionally struck deeply resonate historical chords. Responding to a number of Christian conservatives and their supporters who complained that liberals engaged in “anti-evangelical bigotry,” Peter Beinart of The New Republic made a provocative claim about the language of public debate. “This isn’t bigotry,” he said of the charges.

What these (and most other) liberals are saying is that the Christian Right sees politics through the prism of theology, and there’s something dangerous in that. And they’re right. It’s fine if religion influences your moral values. But, when you make public arguments, you have to ground them—as much as possible—in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise you can’t persuade other people, and they can’t persuade you. In a diverse democracy, there must be a common political language, and that language can’t be theological.

Beinart’s call for “dialogic neutrality” (as it’s sometimes called) certainly seemed reasonable. But Reason has its own set of problems: First, there is America’s own liberal history. In many ways, American political history is the history of activist theologians from the right and the left. These men and women have been intellectuals of a special kind—people whose religious training and experience shaped their vision of a just society and required them to work for it. They have been key players in some of our most important reform movements, from abolitionism, the labor movement, and civil rights to the peace movements of various generations. And second, there is a kind of absurdity to Beinart’s reason. As Hugh Heclo puts it, the insistence that people of faith sanitize their political rhetoric of any religious assumptions “amounts to a demand that religious believers be other than themselves and act publicly as if their faith is of no real consequence.” It’s not only absurd but unfair, some argue, to ask religious intellectuals to disarm their political speech of its fundamental moral rationale.

One of the great ironies of this debate is that historically, public intellectuals in America are a product of both our secular and religious traditions. Indeed, our entire liberal, secular democratic tradition is an extension of our religious origins. The story begins in 1630, when a prosperous lawyer by the name of John Winthrop and a band of English Puritans left the security of their English homes, migrated to the new American wilderness. There they launched one of the most daring experiments in Christian civil government the old world had ever seen. The Colony at Massachusetts Bay was to be a place where, as Puritan historian Cotton Mather put it many years later, “we would have our posterity settled under the pure and full dispensation of the gospel; defended by rulers who should be ourselves.” Winthrop himself described his theocracy more poetically: “wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.” Winthrop’s phrase has echoed through nearly four centuries of American history—and acquired meanings that transcend even the lofty goals of that early Puritan colony. Presidents, poets—and public intellectuals--have invoked his words to remind Americans of something fundamental about themselves: that they are a people defined not by race, not by ethnicity, but by moral purpose. As we now hear it, Winthrop’s notion of a “city upon a hill” is the keynote expression of that sacred national mission that sets us apart from every other people on the globe.

His harmonious theocracy, however, only lasted about five years.

It began to crack in 1635, when a young upstart preacher by the name of Roger Williams took it upon himself to scold the Massachusetts civil authorities for administering civil oaths (such as an oath of loyalty to the King of England) secured by the words “so help me, God.” Moreover, he thought it improper that those same authorities were enforcing strictly religious decrees. Williams was something of purist concerning matters of doctrine, and argued that government should restrict itself to enforcing the “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments, which concerns itself with such non-religious issues as murder and theft. It was the clergy’s responsibility to handle “first tablet” violations of religious law. As he wrote some time later, there should be a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” Not surprisingly, those same civil authorities branded Williams’ views “erroneous and very dangerous” and they sent him packing. One year later he founded an alternative Christian community he named Providence, in the new colony of Rhode Island.

Though Williams is justly credited with inaugurating the church / state debate on New World shores, the particulars of his argument is frequently overlooked. To be sure, Williams wrote much about the importance of “liberty of conscience,” but he was no “relativist,” no apologist for the secular state, no believer in tolerance for the sake of tolerance. He was a theologian, deeply concerned with the health and vitality of the church. Williams began with two fundamental assumptions: first, that that the church gets its authority from God; second, that civil society gets its authority from the People (including, of course, sinners and heretics). What follows from these facts should be enough to frighten any true believer: By linking church and state, you don’t put God in charge of civil society but put the People (sinners and heretics included) in charge of the church. Or as he phrased it, you take “God and Christ and Spirit of Heaven, and subject them unto natural, sinful, inconstant men.”

Roger Williams and John Winthrop each had a grip on the opposite ends of a paradox that has haunted American politics ever since. On one side, Winthrop knew that deep personal faith always implies an equally deep sense of the mystic and moral bonds that connect that person to others—bonds profound enough to be the basis of law. This is not just a Christian ideal; it’s an important historical motivation. Nearly every significant movement for social reform in American history was either started or nurtured in the church. Labor reform, the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, women’s suffrage, public welfare, prison reform, the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty—each of these began as matters of conscience for early supporters. Moreover, Winthrop’s “City upon a hill” reminds us that we even use spiritual terminology to describe the “secular” democracy. Winthrop teaches us that a people deeply committed to a religiously inspired vision of society will inevitably try to make that vision law. And our history teaches us that American democracy would not be nearly so liberal or humane if they hadn’t. In the American experience, in short, religion and civil society are political codependents.

For Roger Williams, however, this codependency had a dark side. He recognized more clearly than most of his contemporaries that when entangled, religion and civil society are mutually destructive. The dangers for society were dramatic: enforcing religious strictures through the law was “the greatest occasion of civil war” and, as history has shown, resulted in “the destruction of millions of souls.” He knew that deep religious conviction did not permit negotiation or compromise—that zealots almost always prefer death (their own or that of some “heretic”) to a spiritually imperfect society. Indeed, Williams’ insight goes beyond eighteenth century politics: Modern democracies are, by culture and by design, a way of life in which decisions are made by process, persuasion, consensus, and accommodation. In such societies, all or nothing, religiously inspired political zealotry is poison. When activists are moved to establish God’s kingdom on earth, democracy is no longer an intrinsic value, but, at best, a convenient tool to be discarded when something better comes along.

But Williams’ deepest—and most prophetic—concern was for the way that, in spiritual terms, entanglement with government amounts to a double suicide: One, it kills the living essence of individual faith—the sense of an immediate connection to God. Two, it erodes the churches institutional credibility. On this score, he anticipates a long line of theologians and social critics who warn about the dangers of making the church and its doctrines a kind of “public property,” subject to the political needs of secular powers. It’s a point Alexis de Tocqueville would make two centuries later. He wrote “any alliance with political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion.” When religious leaders become politicians, he argued, they must sometimes “defend allies who are such from interest rather than from love.” “Hence religion cannot share the material strength of the rulers without being burdened with some of the animosity roused against them.” Or as the Christian conservative writer, Cal Thomas, puts it: When Christians “grasp for the immediate and lesser power of partisan and necessarily compromising politics they make a Faustian bargain for something that rarely changes hearts and minds.”

There is a truly wicked paradox here. It is that the beneficiary of that Faustian bargain that Thomas worries about—and that Williams predicted—is liberal democracy itself. The argument would go that American political life has thrived more or less on the religious energies alive in the culture—but only “parasitically.” That is, American politics “uses” religion in the sense that it draws something vital out of it, redefining it in the process as something secular, essentially social—and not at all dependent on the belief systems of particular faiths. In short, liberal democracy takes from religion what it cannot supply on its own: a deep sense of belonging. This may be the great political lesson of William James’ insight that our most profound religious instincts pull us out of ourselves and give us certain, yet unutterable, evidence that we are a part of the whole human family—with duties and responsibilities to match. So it may be that democracy’s common language of facts and reason and logic that Beinart longs for is, like Latin for Catholics, the language of death.

American democracy has always depended on public figures—and public intellectuals—whose work has been animated by strong faith. Billy Graham’s efforts to promote racial harmony during the 1950s, and Reinhold Neibuhr’s work for economic justice throughout his career come quickly to mind. A deep religious sensibility has the power to make us feel a real kinship with others. And kinship tempers self-interest. This kind of “democratized” religion enlarges our sense of justice, moving it beyond a concern for individuals alone toward a personal investment in the well being of our countrymen.

For those, like Peter Beinart, who are concerned about the use of religious rhetoric in democratic debate, a more important challenge would center on how religion is being used, not whether it is used. Or, not whether they are talking politics, but who they are talking politics to. Just as enlightened religious thinkers have used the terms of their faith to build a sense of a larger American community, it has also been used to insulate particular Americans within the cultural walls of more narrow communities. Purity, after all, is the virtue that Puritans chose as their defining aspiration. The heart of sectarian bigotry is all the doctrines and dogma of particular churches (all that James thought was incidental to the religious impulse) that function as codes to authenticate tribal membership. And when terms of identity become the focus of intellectual practice within a religious community they give us tangible evidence of just how “special” our group is—and how unspecial, ungodlike, or un-American everybody else is. Rather than connecting us to one another, this sort of religion makes a virtue of alienation.

Posted by stevemack at January 15, 2014 12:21 PM


"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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