The US is a culturally religious and politically secular nation, which creates a unique dichotomy in civil society. This complicates the nature of religious discourse and the ways law and policy decisions are made. Dr. Jean Elshtain discusses the features of American civil society in relation to the connections between religion and politics, speaking on religious pluralism, the increasing individualism of U.S. culture, and the vibrancy that religiosity contributes to public life. William McGurn emphasizes the importance of language in discussions of religion. This lecture is a thoughtful reflection on the difficulties faced in a diverse American democracy, where freedom of speech offers both possibilities of positive communication and compromise, and fuels divisiveness and conflict.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Jean Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She has written many books, the most recent of which is Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities. Earlier titles include Political Mothers, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, and Democracy on Trial. She previously taught at Vanderbilt, where she was the first woman to hold an endowed professorship.
DR. JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Let me begin with a brief autobiographical note. I didn’t start out with the intention of thinking about religion and politics. I grew up as a Lutheran in a little village in northern Colorado. When I got to undergraduate school I was a deist for about two weeks. It didn’t work; I just didn’t quite get the point of deism. Then for a while I decided I was an agnostic, a very anguished agnostic. When I got to graduate school the issue really was forced upon me, for two reasons. One was that in working through the canon of Western political thought I realized that something peculiar was going on with the texts of Hobbes and Locke and others: a lot of their scriptural referencing was eliminated from the editions we would read. It was as if the scriptural texts were completely unimportant to the arguments these political philosophers were making. And in the case of Hobbes, sometimes a whole last half of the book was left out, the section that Hobbes calls “The Kingdom of Darkness.” That contains Hobbes making a theodicy argument, political theology quite explicitly, but it was considered unimportant. Furthermore, such apparently “minor” figures as Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Calvin didn’t appear at all in the canon of Western political thought as I was taught it. In political science the emphasis was on people’s preferences. Values were considered entirely subjective; there was no rational warrant for people’s values. But if we knew their preferences, we could concentrate on those and figure out what motivated them. That outlook dominated empirical political science. At the same time, on the normative side we find an approach that left out the religious questions. All this seemed odd to me.
Then I got involved in feminist issues. There I was confronted by one wing of feminism — and I don’t mean this as a blanket criticism of feminism in general — that was very powerful during the late sixties to mid seventies. It was a radical separatist wing that engaged in vicious attacks on religious traditions and on people who had religious views. Much of my reconsideration of some of these issues, then, was entirely defensive. I wasn’t so much concerned on my own behalf, because I wasn’t sure where I was on many of those questions, but I was thinking of all those unnamed men and women who were trying to live decent lives, to do right by their families and their communities, to live with some dignity, and who were sustained in that by their faith; suddenly they have opprobrium heaped upon them. I decided that I needed to rise to their defense. That was considered a dangerously heterodox thing to do — that and my insistence that men were not necessarily ontologically tainted creatures all slated to become rapists!
Then my first book came out: Public Man, Private Woman. The book is a reconsideration of the tradition of Western political thought with feminist questions in mind. One of the reviewers suggested that there was some closet religious conviction at work in it. So at one point I said, “What the heck? Maybe it would be better to start dealing with these questions explicitly.” That’s the circuitous route by which I came to these issues. I worked in political science departments for twenty-two years until the University of Chicago Divinity School decided I belonged in their midst, and I’m happy to be there.
That’s the full disclosure statement, and now I’ll move on to my theme. Americans are rightly associated not only with rights talk but also with God talk. American culture and politics are indecipherable if you sever them from the panoply of religious conviction. It’s also the case — and none of this is new news to anybody — that much of our political ferment, both historically and currently, flows from religious commitments. Sometimes this happens directly. At other times it happens through a kind of translation process whereby people turn convictions deriving from religion into civic commitments that appeal to others who don’t necessarily share their religious beliefs. The vast majority of Americans continue to profess belief in God — though it’s not always clear exactly what that means — and an extraordinary number claim membership in a church or a synagogue or a mosque, though the number who attend regularly is much smaller. Without this feature we just wouldn’t have American political and civic life as we now know it.
Tocqueville’s great book Democracy in America helped to capture the tone and texture and temperament of a fledgling republic over a century and a half ago. One of the things that most intrigued him was that in America one found both separation of church and state and a rich intermix of religion and politics. When Tocqueville wrote his observations on the Jacksonian era, he proclaimed that religiously formed and shaped convictions brought a tremendous energy to the American democratic enterprise. He realized that the associational enthusiasm he saw around him derived substantially, if not largely, from these religious convictions.
What Tocqueville was observing in operation is what we now call civil society. Discussions about civil society have been out there for a decade now, inaugurated, some claim, by Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” essay, now a Bowling Alone book in which Putnam lays out more of the data behind his conviction that there has been a turn in America away from associational activities — clubs and political parties and bowling leagues and the like — toward private, individual pursuits. When we talk about civil society we’re talking about the many institutions that human beings create to sustain work and family life, to promote domestic peace and security, to propagate their faith, and to attain various other ends and purposes. For Tocqueville, this associational enthusiasm was the heart of the American democracy.
What he was observing — although he didn’t put it in quite these terms — was the connection between confessional pluralism and social pluralism. Confessional particularities usher in the social and civic manifestations of these faith commitments. Confessional pluralism is what we usually call freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief; social pluralism refers to the maintenance and accommodation of a plurality of associations, many of them in order to foster religion or to make religious belief manifest in institutional forms. Tocqueville was most interested in what he called the “habits of the heart.” These determine what drives people, what makes up their individual and collective identities. And for him this social pluralism, derived mainly from confessional pluralism, was essential.
Tocqueville was a Catholic whose family had narrowly escaped complete devastation during the Terror, so he understood — and he has a long discussion of this — what happens culturally when a people’s religion is violently wrenched from them. It is not a pretty picture, he says. Why? Because this wrenching out of a religious tradition enervates and depletes a culture. It destroys the intermediary associations that help to give people social power when they’re confronted with the power of the state. When those are wrenched away, people don’t become more robust democratic actors; instead they become more available for mobilization by the nation-state apparatus, which is certainly what had happened by the time of Napoleon.
“The view that we should have politics with as few conflicts as possible doesn’t make sense to me. The notion that you have to strip people of the markers of their identities, so that they’re sexless, nameless, religionless, and then they can make the best decisions about the principles of justice and how to govern a society — that just seems wrong.”
Tocqueville also observed that in the United States the Constitution didn’t require that people relinquish the communal dimensions of their faith, the external signs of their faith commitments, as the Napoleonic Constitution had, for example, demanded of French Jews. In order to be full citizens, the French Jews were told, they needed to forsake a lot of what made them distinctive — their characteristic dress, their dietary regulations, Hebrew schools, all the public markers of their confessional difference. And just to underscore the point, Napoleon called the meeting to decide many of these issues on a Saturday, so that the leaders of the Jewish community who wanted to attend in order to help to pave the way for equal citizenship had to violate the Sabbath to do so. This is a point made in an essay by Michael McConnell. That, Tocqueville said, is not what the American Constitution requires of people. Americans are free to make their faith commitment socially explicit.
Tocqueville also said that you couldn’t understand the extraordinary civic currents rushing through the United States without being aware of the Christian insistence that all persons are equal in the eyes of God. Once people take this idea seriously, he said, the logic of it will start to manifest itself politically. It may take a long time to work out, but he was convinced that, for example, slavery couldn’t last. The manifestation of that religious conviction required communal institutions and the communal expression of religious faith.
With regard to one other claim Tocqueville made, it is harder to argue for his complete prescience: he thought that religious conviction would restrain some of the striding individualism and the ambition that an energetic, prosperous, commercial republic would generate. Religious notions of covenant, stressing mutual accountability and the responsibility of persons one to another and before God, would help restrain what he called the “excessive and explicit taste for well-being” that human beings acquire in an age of equality. Religion would help to forestall a slide into a world totally dominated by self-interest. Here he put a lot of faith in Catholicism because of the strong ecclesiology of the Catholic tradition, the strength of its sacramental and liturgical tradition, its language of solidarity. Tocqueville reported on some labor rallies he had attended where a priest got up and addressed working men and women, championing the rights of the poor to organize. This sort of thing would play an ongoing essential role, he thought, and help to check the rushing tides of individualism. He also hoped that over time religious conviction would help to prevent people from falling into what he called indifference, a lack of concern about one another. If taken seriously, the religious obligation to love and serve your neighbor would counteract this indifference and have a salutary civic effect.
A few months back USA Today published a report on contemporary America religiosity that said this: “Where once a community of believers shared a common vocabulary, many feel free now to define God by their own lights.” That is a lot of lights. If you define religion that way rather than providing some barriers to the rush of libertarianism and individualism, religion becomes part and parcel of the individualist cultural project. We each have our own little individual light rather than a communal calling, a membership, a form of covenant and solidarity. This notion better comports, obviously, with individualism and also with a kind of indifference, a kind of “Whatever” attitude. The USA Today piece quotes Bishop Wilton Gregory, vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who in response to the finding that people are much more comfortable with spirituality or religiosity than religion said, “Well, what do they mean by spiritual? That they watched two episodes of ‘Touched by an Angel’?” A question I would pose is whether we’ll see the loosening or loss of religion in a robust sense in favor of a kind of spiritual individualism that much better comports with the rise of libertarianism in this country, on both the right and the left.
One of the worries of people who argue strongly in favor of pluralism is that too much power is reposed in centers of power, and there is not enough power at the periphery. We can find that argument in all sorts of political thinkers, many of whom were not religious. Hannah Arendt often made this point about the importance of animating the peripheries. She was thinking not just of the state — though especially that, given that she was a German Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany — but also about the centers of corporate and other power. Defenders and theorists of democracy have argued for a long time that in the absence of strong social institutions, strong formative institutions other than the state, it will be very difficult over time to sustain civic freedom. That freedom requires that people have concrete ways of manifesting their civic identity. It’s not just an abstract thing; it’s the notion that there are things I can do, there are all sorts of mediating possibilities available to me, to enact my civic membership.
Most of us, when we were taught the scope of Western history, were taught that liberal constitutionalism forced a regime of toleration on religion. Faith communities, we learned, were paradigmatic instances of what are now called “sectarian groups” that, if they had their own way, would immediately oppress other people or start killing one another. There is obviously some historical support for the argument that religion represents a potential menace, and that if it’s not held in check it can get out of hand. But if you look at instances of the persecution of believers around the world today, you see that much of the danger now comes from overweening state power that routinely violates religious freedom, rather than from religious believers intolerant of the faith of others. And of course if you were to do something as unseemly as a body count, the non- or anti-religious ideologies of the twentieth century would win hands down.
Why do people always return to the Inquisition and the wars of religion in any discussion of toleration? Part of it, I think, is the degree to which Locke’s famous “Letter on Toleration” has seeped into our understanding of things. It’s worth going back once in a while and rereading that great essay, considered a signal turning toward religious toleration. Of course, Locke argues that atheists and Catholics are not to be tolerated, they’re not part of the deal: atheists because you can’t trust them to keep an oath, since they don’t have a higher power to help enforce it, and Catholics because they’re going to be loyal to some power other than the magistrate, so you can’t trust them either. But for everybody else you have toleration.
There’s a price to be paid for this toleration. Locke insists that, as a precondition for civil government, very sharp lines must be drawn not just between church and state but also between religion and politics. Fine. But then he extends that logic to say that religion belongs in one sphere, politics/government in another, and you can be a citizen of both realms so long as you don’t ever attempt to blend the two. In the religious realm you can answer God’s call and do what your faith requires (if you’re a Protestant, that is). But when you step out of that domain you enter the civic realm, and then your religious convictions cannot figure directly anymore. Your civic fidelity is pledged to the sovereign, to the magistrate. So religion is seen as a potential danger to the civic realm, and that’s why we need this rigid line between religion and politics. Religion becomes irrelevant in a public sense. It is privatized; it’s reduced to the subjective well-being of each individual practitioner.
The 96th American Assembly held in March 2000 produced an interesting document called Matters of Faith: Religion in American Public Life. The American Assembly was founded by Dwight Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia University. It’s run out of 475 Riverside Drive in New York, which is sort of the heart of liberal Protestantism in America, but they did ninety-five of these assemblies over almost fifty years without touching on the question of religion in American life. Fifty-seven men and women attended this one, representing something like sixteen different religions. I will quote four sentences from this document:
We reject the notion that religion is exclusively a private matter relegated to the homes and sacred meeting places of the faithful, primarily for two reasons. First, religious convictions of individuals cannot be severed from their daily lives. People of faith in business, law, medicine, education, and other sectors should not be required to divorce their faith from their professions. Second, many religious communities have a rich tradition of constructive social engagement, and our nation benefits from their work in such varied areas as social justice, civil rights, and ethics.
This suggests, in an understated way, a logic for engagement in the civic realm, or suggests at least that we need to develop some terms of engagement. A view still very dominant in the academy — I hear it all the time in political philosophy — and associated with the work of the important political philosopher John Rawls, is that your religious convictions need to be translated into a strictly secular civic idiom if you’re going to base any argument on them in public life. You have to make that translation or you’d better stay quiet. Part of this position is an insistence that there is a single vocabulary that is standard, and that arguments have to be made in these terms. There’s a single vocabulary of political discussion, a single understanding of authority. Fortunately, since all this is mostly on the level of political philosophy, there aren’t many people who are going to take it seriously, but it is very dominant in the academy. Certainly it has made its way into jurisprudential thought; I’ve seen law-school articles that extend the logic of it to suggest that religious institutions be pressured to conform to what democracy looks like, and what one-person-one-vote looks like.
Let me mention a couple of religious responses to this and to the whole tradition that I’m associating with John Locke. The first I’m calling “full-bore Christian politics,” which is the belief that the fullness of your religious belief and commitment and witness has to enter the public sphere, and precisely on religion’s terms. When you go public you’re obliged to make the whole thing present. That can lend itself to the notion that there’s a Christian position on almost everything. One of my worries about this position is that it can court parody. Is there really a Christian position on term limits? Certainly there is such a position on war questions, on issues of abortion and euthanasia, on the kinds of questions that are at the heart of what theologians call “anthropology,” the understanding of the human person. If issues concerning the common good are at stake, then a person with religious convictions is obliged to bring those convictions to bear in a very energetic way. But on a lot of other issues, contrary to “full-bore Christian politics,” there is not a “Christian” position.
Another strong view in this area is the one associated with Stanley Hauerwas: the view that Christians signed on to a rotten deal when they agreed to the regime of liberal toleration, and so when persons with religious convictions engage politics, they are bound to do so on the world’s terms. Having accepted a lousy deal, now they’re going to have to perpetuate it, to accept civic peace on those terms. The essential worry is not what happens to politics but what happens to Christianity, to the Church. I call this “radical dualism” — the Church is the Church, and what happens to the world is not a central concern.
My own position is rather complicated and difficult to articulate, and is compatible with the tradition of Catholic social thought. Let me just outline some of its guidelines. When you’re thinking about the form that religious convictions should take when they enter civic discourse, you have to ask yourself certain kinds of questions. What are the stakes? Who are the key players? What areas of social existence are touched upon here? Is this a question of the common good or some other kind of question? Your response to questions like these should determine the way in which you engage, and your understanding of what it is you’re doing when you engage.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you very much, Jean. Bill McGurn is the chief editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal. He’s a graduate of Notre Dame, and he spent twelve years in Europe and Asia as a journalist with Dow Jones. Formerly he was also the Washington bureau chief of National Review.
MR. McGURN: The role of religion in public discourse is a subject that I’m particularly interested in as an editorial writer and as a practicing Christian who does not believe his job is to proselytize in print. Much of this question is considered to be a clash about how we conceive of God. In Jean’s latest book, Who Are We?, she makes the point that without a strong anthropology there is no sturdy rationale for drawing and defending limits in regard to human dignity and human rights. That really cuts to the heart of what we’re considering here: in terms of this kind of debate in the public square, it’s not so much how we view God as how we view man.
Having returned to America from abroad, I’m struck by the realization that in the United States, despite our interaction with many different religious groups, we tend to talk in rather abstract terms of “Christians,” or “believers,” or “faith-based communities,” and “non-believers.” In other cultures they don’t use such broad terms. We’re not just Christians — we are Southern Baptists or Methodists or Irish Catholics or Hispanic Catholics. In public discourse the culture you’re addressing really does determine a lot of your choices of language and framework and references.
When I was an editorial writer with the Far Eastern Economic Review I lived in Hong Kong. I had no political rights there, absolutely none; yet Hong Kong was the freest place in Asia, I think, at that time. Its government was very hospitable to a wide variety of religious expressions. This seemed similar to the dress code in our office: national dress. For a white guy from America “national dress” meant a suit and tie, but it was very different for a Muslim from Pakistan or a Singaporean. What people wore was considered a very natural expression of who they were, just as their religious expressions were considered natural and not proselytizing.
In the publication that I worked for, we were trying to articulate a set of beliefs and principles about Asia that were not necessarily just a reflection of an American view of the world. This meant that we were really thrown back on first principles. In a debate over human rights you may find that your opponents don’t believe in human rights — they believe the concept is an example of Western romanticism. If you use these terms — human dignity, inherent rights, equality, and so on — that we Americans all agree to here, they have no resonance. They sound like Western bleatings, because though you think you’re appealing to a universal standard, that standard is not accepted here. They’re highly charged words. A lot of people in other countries don’t believe in democracy. The whole notion of human rights, individual rights, the notion that the individual has a right not to be crushed by the community — I wouldn’t say that these things are all disrespected, but they’re certainly not taken for granted. You have to argue for them. You have to go back to first principles. And where there’s so much disagreement on religious expression, you’re left with an anthropological vision of man.
I also have a domestic example of the importance of language. In my state of New Jersey a year or so ago there was a move to have schoolchildren recite fifty-five words of the Declaration of Independence, the part that begins, “We hold these truths to be self evident . . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . to secure these rights governments are instituted. . . .” You would think this wouldn’t be a contentious thing. Well, it ended up being very contentious, and eventually it was defeated. There were three main types of opposition. The feminists opposed it because women didn’t have the vote at the time when men prepared it; women were not equal citizens then. Some African-Americans opposed it because of Jefferson’s affairs with his slaves and because of slavery itself. A third group was concerned about introducing the word “Creator” into the classrooms. So there were three sorts of opposition to this our founding document, which one might think would constitute the lowest common denominator of acceptable language.
The people who opposed the recitation of these words from the Declaration of Independence ended up on the side of Stephen Douglas, who viewed the Constitution and Declaration in the same way. In his first debate with Lincoln, Douglas said, “I believe this government was made on a white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and for their posterity forever, and I am in favor of offering citizenship to only white men forever.” So the irony is that a lot of these groups came down on the side of Stephen Douglas as opposed to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. This is a dangerous place for people to go. If you do not accept any religious authority on which to base the view that there should be equality of races and genders, and then you exclude the constitutional basis also, your position has no basis. It’s a very vulnerable position.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, Bill. Before I open up the discussion to everyone else, I want to put a question to Jean. I’m struck, Jean, that neither you nor Bill mentioned natural law. Did you intend to?
DR. ELSHTAIN: There’s a natural-law basis, obviously, for constitutional thinking and for the Declaration. The presupposition that all human beings have access to reason, to certain sorts of standards, the warrant for which we can articulate in language — that’s definitely part of the backdrop here. When people sit down to reason together on some issue, they might not come up with absolute unanimity, but they should be able to arrive at some commonality on how people are to be treated, or at least how they are not to be treated.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has two categories or parts. One is the positive things that governments are enjoined to do to make available to people a rich and full life. This part is very controversial, because there are different cultures that say, “Wait a minute, I don’t agree that government can or should do this or that.” Then you’ve got the list of what governments are not to do. There’s much more agreement on things in this category, such as unjust imprisonment and torture. So you start to build negatively, but working underneath there is some basic understanding of the human person, and you wind up with a lot of commonality.
MR. CROMARTIE: I have a list going of people who want to speak, but let me first pose another question. When we were planning this seminar the “George Bush’s favorite philosopher” controversy had just come out. If you were an adviser right now to candidate Bush, what would you say to him about how he ought to talk about his faith in the public arena? What public language is available to express faith in a way that that’s both sincere and not offensive?
DR. ELSHTAIN: He’s an evangelical Christian, and there’s a language in which evangelical Christians speak about the experience that was decisive for them. If you’re talking specifically about your own faith commitment, there may not be another way to describe that. But if you’re talking about the rationale behind certain kinds of policy initiatives, then I think there are other ways of describing it. Don’t you think Bush has done that? In talking about charitable-choice provisions and so on, he’s not saying, “My personal relationship with Jesus Christ tells me that this is a good policy.” He talks about why civically this makes a lot of sense, which is the way that Gore talks, too. That strikes me as entirely reasonable. I’m not super-keen on having people make a public confession of faith. Part of that, I suppose, goes back to the fact that Lutherans are a very buttoned-up kind of people!
DR. LEO RIBUFFO, George Washington University: This picks up on something Bill said but gives it a somewhat different edge. I would suggest, Jean, that you sever the normative argument from the historical/semi-historical argument. Let me give you a list of names, contemporaries. Mary Baker Eddy, Brigham Young, Henry Ward Beecher, Archbishop John Hughes, Charles Taze Russell, who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the 20,000 Spiritualist or Theosophist groups in the United States. Now it’s all very well, if you’re building a usable past, to say that these all reflect a common religiosity in nineteenth-century America. But the people involved didn’t think so, and I think it’s indisputable that when Americans took religion more seriously there was more religious conflict. It seems to me that someone will make that point to you with less sympathy with your normative position than I have. And it strikes me that cultural conservatives have to bite that bullet. If you want more religiosity –religion taken more seriously, and thus more conflicts — you shouldn’t be surprised that the theological liberals and the secularists are going to fight pretty hard, too.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I think we have become astonishingly conflict-adverse. It’s not as if those conflicts threaten to rip the country apart. There are all kinds of interesting debates that reflect different sorts of commitments. In the past, accommodations got made; the conflicts didn’t lead to total war.
DAVID VAN BIEMA, Time: Jean, it was sort of discouraging to learn that I was a Rawlsian and to learn that you didn’t like Rawlsians all in one lecture! My comment is this: Over the brief period I’ve been reporting on religion I’ve come to a respect for what evangelicals mean when they talk about their faith. But it does have a feeling of the whole enchilada about it, that it’s a whole package and we either take it or leave it. It’s not arguable.
You spoke about the importance of having power distributed along the periphery. But these groups on the periphery that help to keep the power in the center from becoming absolute often themselves speak in very absolute language. That’s one of the reasons why I feel uncomfortable with them. As long as they’re on the periphery, it’s okay for them to speak in absolute language; but if I take them seriously, then I have to take seriously the notion that at some point they might be in the center and their power might be applied. I want to speak up for all the secularists and the Rawlsians, if that’s indeed what I am, and say that this prospect is a bit scary.
DR. ELSHTAIN: The Rawlsian position holds that civic argument must be free from the taint of religious conviction — and that position becomes a kind of absolute. The absolutists I run into are the Rawlsians. I just don’t think it’s possible for people to sever religious commitments from civic positions in this way. And I don’t think such a requirement should be the price of civic admission.
That said, let me respond to the concerns you expressed. If someone says that his or her position is scripturally enjoined and that therefore there’s no counterargument, while that person may claim unassailability, it’s just not going to hold. Somebody else — not necessarily our Rawlsian protagonist but somebody with strong religious convictions who can also do the scriptural proof-texting — is going to say, “I don’t interpret that passage that way at all.” So you’re not creating a completely unassailable position. Argument over interpretation of Scripture is going to continue no matter how many people might want to fix and freeze it. How that translates into civic and political commitments is an enormous issue. And effecting that translation means you inevitably are going to enter the world of political jousting and debate and that dirty word “compromise.”
I was in Prague right after the changes, and I was talking to Martin Palous, a friend of mine who is now deputy foreign minister in the Czech Republic. He’s a political philosopher, and he said something like this: “One of the things we have to understand now that we have a democracy is that compromise is a principle. In the old regime, to compromise was to be compromised. Now compromise is a principled way that people have to learn, given that you just can’t always get everything you want. You can’t expect that whole translation of your views into a civic outcome.” I think that’s something that anyone who enters the civic arena realizes straightaway.
Often the role of a prophet is a tragic role, because while you’re the one who stands on the mountaintop and raises the alarm, you’re like Moses: you can’t make it to the promised land. The promised land isn’t of this earth, in a sense; you can’t realize it politically. We shouldn’t be so afraid of people who are playing the prophet’s part. There will always be those who say to them, “Well, now, wait a minute. You might be absolutely right, but you have to get your plan through Congress or through the state legislature. You have to find a way to do this. Sometimes that’s going to mean holding your nose and doing the best you can.”
As soon as the periphery seeks to engage, it’s transformed. It can’t remain isolated and impermeable. My worry is the argument from those who say that independent sites of social power ought not to exist unless people reason a certain way, think a certain way, argue a certain way, because otherwise they are civically irrelevant or even dangerous.
MR. McGURN: Some people think that these controversies that divide our society should be settled through the judicial process. But I’m not sure that the solution is to have such questions adjudicated by the least representative part of the government so that the answers rest on a legal case — all or nothing. That seems very absolutist. I think legislators would love to have the courts settle these issues. When the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade they probably thought they had settled the matter. The question is not what people say, what they demand, but what people will settle for. And I don’t mean that in bad way. My ideal version of America and what I’m prepared to settle for, and even be content with, are two different things.
MR. VAN BIEMA: I think there is, with evangelicals, a vocabulary that is still very much of a piece and self-referential and not particularly open. When evangelicals bring that vocabulary into these sorts of arguments, they shouldn’t be surprised that people who are not privy to that circle of words become a little exercised over it.
DR. ELSHTAIN: People are going to react, and that’s fine. The kind of principled modus vivendi that Bill and I are talking about is in fact anathema to the Rawlsians, who would argue that you need to have a sort of overwhelming normative theory of democracy, so that everyone is reasoning in the same way and talking in the same way, that a modus vivendi isn’t enough. I think a principled modus vivendi is a hell of a good deal when you look at the other possibilities for politics out there.
STEPHEN CARTER, Yale Law School: I want to do something that will surprise at least Jean and maybe some others: I want to speak up on behalf of John Rawls. Years ago Don Fehrenbacher in his book about the Dred Scott decision was asked why so many people were complaining about slavery but were not doing anything about slavery for fifty, sixty, seventy years. It was because while the slaveholders had an interest in keeping slaves, there was no interest in freeing them, although there was sentiment for freeing them. This is one of the things that the Abolitionists used and one of the things that religious advocacy does: it persuades people that they have an actual interest in ordering things to fit what was previously just a sentiment, so that now they want to change what has no direct effect on them.
“Our options seem to be either to shout somebody down or just to walk away. There is a therapeutic mentality in which a strong argument is thought to undermine people’s fragile standing. The ability to engage in democratic argument comes from practice. Too often people think that if you attack my position you’re attacking me. That isn’t so. People need to realize that you can stand outside yourself to have an argument.”
So Rawls comes along — and in my view Rawls’s most important antecedent in the twentieth century is John Dewey — and says that we’ve got to tame these passions. We have to construct a way to have civil discourse where we’re not ruled by passion, where we’re ruled by reason. Now what Dewey said earlier is that we need to find a way to teach people from a very early age to reason, even if this takes them away from the views of their parents. We have to teach them what it means to be an American. And a lot of Rawlsians, even more than Rawls himself, would say, “You know, this is exactly right. We need to teach people very clearly that to participate in public life, what’s most important is not so much the values you hold but the way you engage with other people. Can’t we come up with a way to avoid impasse, to avoid passion, to avoid people’s sense of being frightened or oppressed by the words of others? Can’t we design a public square in which we will be able to have conversations that have commonalities, where we’re all speaking in effect the same language?”
The models fail, but why is the project not admirable? Why is it not admirable to say, “We do have a lot of passions — religion, ethnicity, and so on — and we’re going to tame all of that by coming up with a common language for the public square, so that we don’t always have this warring of interests, with everything up for grabs every couple of years”?
DR. ELSHTAIN: Because it would shut down Martin Luther King and anyone else who’s talking specifically in a language of advocacy that could not be what it is without the commitments drawn from religious faith. The problem is not the advocacy of reason; it is, instead, a far too narrow definition of what constitutes reason. Rawls isn’t as bad as some of the Rawlsians, as I’ve been categorizing them, but there’s a very, very narrow view of what counts as deliberation. There is the presupposition that people with strong religious convictions cannot be considered people of reason because they haven’t deliberated about this — as if their convictions are an unthought thing, so that whatever they say has the epistemological status of a grunt.
This is a narrow view of reason and of deliberation, and one frightened of conflict. What is politics about if not the way in which we adjudicate these conflicts? The view that we should have politics with as few conflicts as possible doesn’t make sense to me. The notion that you have to strip people of the markers of their identities, so that they’re sexless, nameless, religionless, and then they can make the best decisions about the principles of justice and how to govern a society — that just seems wrong. You have to start where people are, with their passions, their interests, their convictions, and then politics is a way that those get molded, get civically filtered. We have ways of doing that. Half the time I don’t understand what the problem is here, because there are ways in which we do that.
JOHN LEO, U.S. News & World Report: I’m interested in the way this stuff gets into the popular medium. I only became aware in the last year — possibly under the influence of Jean’s writing — of how widespread among ordinary people this hostility to religion is. Even Mayor Giuliani, of all people, was lecturing the Catholics not to push too hard on abortion because not everyone shares their principles. Well, you discuss the issue as best you can and then you vote; that’s what America is all about. I have a folder bulging with clips of common, ordinary people reflecting the attitude that there’s something illicit about religion, and this is new. It has been around forever as an intellectual idea, but now it’s in the culture. The cultural left has opened a broader assault on religion. You can see it in images on TV or comedy skits or Dumb and Dumber — type movies that are filled with a mockery of religion. The ability of gays to derecognize evangelicals at three or four colleges—that’s something new, too. So something is going on here outside the intellectual arena. It has become respectable and ordinary for people to say that religion has to shut up. Am I just belatedly coming to recognize this or is it indeed a new thing?
DR. ELSHTAIN: Let me reply first from within the academy. What happens there, what kinds of student groups are considered acceptable and can make their presence felt as RSOs, Registered Student Organizations, varies widely from campus to campus. The kind of thing you’re talking about in the Tufts case or the Grinnell case, where student Christian groups were denied access or were kicked off campus because they didn’t have the politically correct position on some issue or another — I think that’s a minority phenomenon. More common is what so many campus spiritual advisers have commented on: they’re seeing in many of the students a renewed interest in religion, a concern that they’re ignorant of their own traditions and want to find out about them. The students are leading the way on this, which makes some of the university powers-that-be very uncomfortable.
There’s a notion in some quarters that religious convictions are incompatible with the pedagogical mission, that somehow religious belief just doesn’t comport with learning how to be a critical thinker, whereas other forms of advocacy or of identity claims are thought to be entirely compatible with the pedagogical mission. Where all that comes from I’m not entirely sure. I think that certain strands in popular culture, in portraying religious people as dummies, have had an effect. But I also think there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the popular culture that doesn’t deserve to be blasted and is engaging people of religious convictions. Some movies where you wouldn’t expect it speak to suppressed theological and religious concerns. It’s as if these ideas are yearning to breathe free and can’t quite do it, but they’re there and they’re worth teasing out.
MR. CROMARTIE: Vincent Carroll is writing a book on this subject. You’re next, Vincent.
VINCENT CARROLL, Denver Rocky Mountain News: The book is going to be a defense of Christianity from various popular indictments. It’s something only a journalist would do; no historian would be so reckless. It’s a defense of the historic role of Christianity in terms of the things that the vast majority of Americans would agree are positive, whatever their political convictions, and whatever their attitude toward Christianity. So it’s vast in scope.
One of the things it deals with is conflict, and it strikes me that there seems to be a widespread view that religious views tend to lead to conflict more often than non-religious views, that they are less grounded in reason than non-religious views and less subject to debate. I don’t believe that’s obvious at all. I don’t think it is obvious that the wars of religion in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds were necessarily more savage than the secular ideological wars of the twentieth century, and yet it is almost conventional wisdom to think they were. Garry Wills wrote a column not long ago that started out with this notion, taking for granted that religious conflict is more vicious, more visceral, more brutal. I don’t believe it’s true, and I think the historical record is quite clear about this. We have this vision of the Crusades as somehow being worse than Tamerlane’s brutalities. They weren’t.
Anyway, in my job I get hundreds of letters to the editor every week, and I can tell you that arguments not generated by faith-based beliefs are no less passionate and indeed may be more passionate than faith-based arguments. The most hostile sort of reaction to anything that I’ve written over the years has come from gay militants. Not reasoned discussion but denunciation. In Colorado right now, ever since Columbine, the issue that is most passionately argued, viscerally argued if you will, is gun rights.
So I absolutely reject the idea that religious-based advocacy is any more passionate or less subject to reason than non-religious-based advocacy. There is something attractive about idling discussions down and being able to engage at some level, no matter how far apart the two parties are, rather than just shouting at each other. Nevertheless, in the purely secular arena a lot of discussion is simply shouting, and no different from the most extreme religious sectarian shouting that has occurred throughout history.
DR. ELSHTAIN: That has certainly been my experience, too, of just how ardently views are held and how passionately they are expressed. That radical separatist feminist position I mentioned earlier was often couched in the most extreme language, and it was almost impossible to have a reason-based discussion about it within the framework of feminism — not as an anti-feminist but within that framework.
KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: Is there a cultural failure to all of this that wasn’t there before? Look, I think there is a moral equivalent of war, namely, reasoned argument over issues of fundamental importance to society and to all of us as human beings. But from where I sit it seems that the only kind of religion that creates a problem for secularists is a religion that makes judgments, insists on distinctions that secularists preclude or ignore, and is seen as threatening to society by the sheer weight of numbers. That’s why, historically, Catholics have been perceived as a political and social threat in American society. But as American Catholics dissipate in various political and social directions, they are now seen as less threatening, with the possible exception of the abortion issue. My contention is that what leads us to discuss this question now is the emergence of evangelical Protestants as a movement of social and political consequence. If we removed these people from the scene, I don’t think we’d be having this discussion.
On the contrary, what passes for “real religion” for many Americans who are otherwise disconnected from any religious formation or tradition is what goes by the name of “spirituality,” and this dimension of American religion has so far been missing from our discussion. If you look at the bestseller list, you find the most innocuous kinds of religion, airy, meditative, Celestine Prophecy stuff that isn’t going to make any judgments. I think that as a religion writer I have been a little too dismissive of this trend. It is all over the place, and those of you who are parents of young children are going to run into it a lot. “Why aren’t we more spiritual, Mommy? Why do we have to be just religious?” So it’s only the religious people who make judgments, and who look as if they might be able to make those judgments prevail over others, who are feared and fought against. Religion these days is very acceptable, even in political campaigns and at dinner parties, as long as it speaks the language of personal discovery, recovery, or spiritual quest.
DR. ELSHTAIN: The heart of politics is making judgments, distinguishing what should be done from what shouldn’t be done. Now we get this dominant view, in the name of spirituality, that judging is anathema. If making relevant distinctions and assessments is considered by definition something that only intolerant people do, then politically we’ll just get dumber and dumber. Learning how to make reasoned judgments is at the heart of the civic community.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: I think that some of the really rending issues like abortion or homosexuality have not been scrutinized very deeply within certain faith traditions. It’s as though theologically these issues are absolutely decided. I find myself wondering, am I at fault within my own faith that I haven’t come to a decision? For instance, I don’t find overwhelming scriptural evidence to prove certain positions on homosexuality. I think one of the fears about the entry of a powerful evangelical point of view into public discourse is that it will silence reasonable discussion, that there is a kind of absence of serious engagement of faith with reason. We’re facing the prospect of kids who are not allowed to study even the possibility of Darwinism. If we have a public that more and more finds evolution an inadmissible subject of discussion, that’s a little frightening.
DR. ELSHTAIN: There are precious few places where such discussions can go forward as it is, and it might be that the upshot of some of the evangelical Christian claims in this area, their argument that Darwin shouldn’t be taken as scripture, will be to force a discussion to occur rather than close one down. Certainly it has forced a discussion from some of the defenders of evolutionary theory like Stephen Gould, who will say, “Wait a minute. Orthodox Darwinism — there are real problems with that, too! Now, I’m an evolutionist, but I’m not that kind.” So they start to nuance the view from science, which is good.
One of the things we need to be concerned about is the automatic authority that the hype of science confers. The Human Genome Project has people shouting hosannas and flipping cartwheels and thinking that in three years we’re going to cure cancer. There’s a utopian cast to a lot of what is coming to us in the name of science. First of all, the scientists and science writers shouldn’t be making such grandiose claims. Second, these are issues that have to be discussed in other arenas, where people are not shot down with the notion that if you don’t have the full scientific apparatus to bring to bear, you’re out of the discussion. When the American Catholic bishops issued their 1983 pastoral on nuclear strategy, the reaction from some quarters was, “What the hell do the bishops know? They’re not experts in throw-weights of missiles, so they shouldn’t be in this discussion.” That’s a way of saying that ordinary citizens can’t talk about these things because they’re not experts.
So challenging the automatic authority of science is a good thing. Having a public debate about science and its claims is like having a debate about religion and its claims. Both are important debates.
LYNN NEARY, NPR: I want to talk about reporting on a particular story, the Southern Baptists’ decision to proselytize specifically to Jews. I had a certain moment of clarity as a reporter and an individual when I spoke to a Southern Baptist leader who explained the decision something like this: “We don’t have a choice. This is our mission. We are evangelicals, and evangelization is what we’re about. If we don’t bring people to Jesus Christ we feel that we’re doing harm, because the way to salvation is through Jesus Christ.” So my question is, what happens when that primary goal — that we all should be Christian, and a very specific kind of Christian — hits politics or hits the public forum?
I was an educational reporter at one time, and I think the fear of this gets played out a lot in the schools. People worry about what’s going to happen to their kids, and that’s why you get cases like Santa Fe in the Supreme Court. [Santa Fe School District v. Doe, June 2000, held that student-led prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause.] The people who brought that, as I understand it, were Catholics. So we’re talking about people who would certainly think of themselves as Christian but who resented having a certain form of Christianity imposed upon their children. I think there are lots of communities around this country where people of a majority religious belief see no problem at all with having elements of that belief infiltrate many areas of public life. That to me is a fundamental part of what’s going on, the fear that somebody else’s idea of what religion should be is being imposed upon me or my children.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I don’t see what could be objectionable per se about people who regard themselves as evangelicals evangelizing. People can resist evangelization. They don’t have to agree. The real problem would arise if people with evangelical commitments decided that they were going to evangelize using certain public institutions, that they were going to take over the public school and turn it into an evangelizing institution. That’s completely improbable. And certainly if evangelicals set up Christian schools, no one has to go to those. I think that objecting to non-violent, non-coercive evangelization is objecting to free expression.
PEGGY WEHMEYER, ABC News: The Baptists-and-Jews story is fascinating. I did a report for 20/20 on it, and we got incredible feedback. The piece focused on a Southern Baptist who converted a 12-year-old Jewish boy before his bar mitzvah. His parents went berserk, and so did the Jewish community. The issue raised is this: yes, they believe there’s only one way to God, and that is through Jesus, and yes, that would be offensive to other people; but do they have the right to share that belief in the public square?
What happened in this case was that the Jewish boy was invited by his classmates to a Baptist youth rally. His mother allowed him to go to a Baptist church, and after going two or three times he decided to convert. Now, the mother had let him go to what she knew was a Baptist church. And the Baptists did what they always do in their church, telling people that if you come to Jesus, all your sins will be erased. The Jewish boy thought, “That sounds like a good deal to me!” He wanted his sins erased. And then he converted and canceled his bar mitzvah. Well, the community said, “How dare those Baptists! They’re dangerous people!”
JULIE BUNDT, Pew Charitable Trusts: In response to Lynn I would say that I think two things are going on. One is that the evangelicals must share their faith and the truth of the gospel and Jesus Christ, but they usually do this one to one. That’s pretty different from what they want to achieve in the public square. It’s not that they want to get into the public forum and use it as a platform to share the gospel; they want to get into the public forum because that is where you have a voice on public-policy issues like abortion.
FRANKLIN FOER, The New Republic: What is the appropriate response to an evangelical who is trying to evangelize a Jew?
DR. RIBUFFO: Why not just treat it as you would someone calling you up and offering you a credit card? “No thank you.”
E. J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: What Peggy said about the reaction to her story is fascinating to me as someone who grew up a Catholic kid in a Jewish neighborhood. My Jewish friend David would sometimes come to church with me. He liked the church. But if I had tried to persuade him to become a Catholic, the first thing my parents would have done is call his parents, out of respect for their rights over their own child. Our next-door neighbor who was from an Orthodox Jewish family married a Catholic, and my mother sat down with his mother and shared her worry that her son had married outside the faith, though of course my mother thought there was nothing wrong with being Catholic. A lot of people say that this is not about rights; they obviously have a right to do this. It’s about the respect that a parent owes another parent of another faith.
MICHEL MARTIN, “Nightline”: Part of the reason why a lot of these arguments take place in high school is that being okay is really important there. It’s less important to an adult. I think a lot of evangelical Christians say, “I don’t feel okay. We can talk about Kwanzaa in the schools and we can talk about Passover in the schools, so why can’t we talk about the birthday of Jesus in the schools on Christmas? How come I’m not okay?” One of the things I hear Jean saying is that people need to stand up for their own okay-ness and stop expecting other people to withdraw. I do find that the mainstream denominations are not willing to step into the ring; they just want the other people to step out.
DR. ELSHTAIN: The decline in membership in the mainline denominations suggests, in fact, that people are looking for something more robust, something more powerful and more demanding of them. I think the mainline folks ought to look to themselves more than they have.
MS. MARTIN: Journalism is often about conflict; that’s the easiest way to do stories. Side A versus side B. Maybe part of our task as journalists is to think about how to write a story without reducing it to a side A/side B fight.
DIANE WINSTON, Pew Charitable Trusts: That was what I wanted to bring up, too. One of the dilemmas I feel as a journalist is how to tell stories in ways that will be interesting enough to get in the newspaper but will still be true to what’s going on. People are religious, and they do feel strongly about their convictions, but they’re very wary of bringing them up in the public arena because they feel such things would lead to conflict, and they don’t want that kind of conflict. Part of what we can do as journalists is to encourage a process of reconceptualization that shows people that you can disagree civilly, and that there’s more to it than “I’m right, you’re wrong.” Even evangelicals who believe they need to convert people say that they believe other people’s beliefs should be tolerated.
ALISSA RUBIN, The Los Angeles Times: It seems to me is that people don’t know how to argue very well. They don’t know how to argue in a way that’s constructive, where you can concede a point but not concede everything. It always seems that either you’re going to win or you’re going to lose, and those are your only choices. That makes the stakes incredibly high. I’m not sure how you create an environment in which people feel that it’s safe to argue, that they won’t simply be crushed.
MS. MARTIN: I often think of this when I watch the House floor and the level of argument has deteriorated to the point where people just scream. They only get to scream for about three minutes, so that makes it more intense. Often they’re like a couple on the verge of divorce, and it’s really painful.
WILLIAM McGURN: You should watch the Taiwan legislature!
DR. ELSHTAIN: My late friend Christopher Lasch lamented the loss of a culture of democratic argument. Our options, for a variety of complex reasons, seem to be either to shout somebody down or just to walk away. There is a therapeutic mentality in which a strong argument is thought to undermine people’s fragile standing. “Oh, my feelings are really hurt and I’m going to leave the room right now because my self-esteem is in danger of plummeting to ground zero.” The ability to engage in democratic argument comes from practice. It used to be a more standard part of civic education for people to learn how to do this. Debate wasn’t just for a few students in debate club; it was something that everyone had to learn how to do. There’s no reason in principle why we can’t relearn those lessons. Too often people think that if you attack my position you’re attacking me. That isn’t so. People need to realize that you can stand outside yourself to have an argument.
MR. DIONNE: I want to go back to where we were a while ago in this discussion and Jean’s point about Rawls. I was glad that Stephen brought up John Dewey. I have a Dewey-eyed view of democracy, you know; I love the idea of democracy as a way of life. But I think constitutional democracy imposes certain disciplines on people who participate in it. I agree with Jean that you shouldn’t have to translate everything into secular language, but it does seem to me that you can’t base an argument in the public square solely on an appeal to scripture and faith. It has to be rooted in reasons that are accessible to other people. Yes, Martin Luther King’s speeches seemed to use Southern Baptist language, but they were actually public arguments accessible to everyone.
MR. CARTER: I’ve got about seventeen points here, but I’ll narrow them down to just a couple. First of all, I want to disagree with my good friend E. J. Dionne and, to my surprise, with Jean as well. I think this vision of giving acceptable reasons is a non-starter. I’m sure that evangelical activists who speak from nothing but scripture would say, “This is publicly accessible. Everybody can understand this! It’s as plain as the nose on your face!” I think anybody should be able to say in public what they think. They may lose, they may fail to persuade anybody, but that has nothing to do with it. I strongly disagree about Martin Luther King. I’ve studied his work for a year now, and I don’t think you can easily make the case that King’s body of work is anything but a deeply religious testament. It’s at least as full of explicitly scriptural arguments as the work of leaders of the Christian Coalition.
On the matter of threats to identity: A lot of black, church-going, inner-city parents feel very threatened by the rise of Islam. They’re afraid their children are going to become Muslims and lose Jesus. But threats to identity in that constitutive sense will not always seem religious to outside observers. When parents protested the Kansas Board of Education decision to leave evolution out of the statewide science test that students had to pass, people looked at them and said, “These people are nuts!” But the parents who were protesting were saying, “It’s a deep threat to our identity for our children to be required to say, as part of the price of graduating from school, that evolution is the explanation for how human beings emerge. That’s different from the way we see it, and our view is crucial, in our judgment, to our understanding of who we are.” And so the problem doesn’t have a solution. I honestly think it has no solution. I don’t think that a common language is the solution, or that Supreme Court decisions are.
We are going to have to live with deep, painful, offensive, troubling, scary conflicts because we are free. Because we’re a free country we’re going to continue to fight about this stuff as we have done all through our history. But we’ll sometimes find ways to soften its impact, and we will find ways to live together because we’ve always done that.
MR. DIONNE: I read Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love when I was in high school, and I didn’t realize he was a Southern Baptist. I certainly didn’t have to share his faith tradition in order to understand his argument. I’m not arguing that constitutionally you can’t derive your public argument solely from faith, and I’m not saying that your argument can’t be steeped in your religious tradition. What I’m saying is that in a pluralist democracy, your public arguments need to be different from the kind of arguments you might make in deciding your church’s view of gay rights or abortion. You are asking a government that does not recognize your particular religion — or any other — as guiding its view to make a decision.
DR. ELSHTAIN: The first King I knew about was Stride Toward Freedom, which I read in high school, and I took him to be talking to me as an American citizen. You may know that what he says is coming out of his faith commitment, but he’s talking about the Constitution and all sorts of things in a language that appeals to you as a citizen. I think it’s analogous to the Catholic common-good argument. The question is, really, what kind of people are we?
MR. CARTER: I’m not disputing that. I’m just saying that Pat Robertson, whatever differences I may have with his agenda, talks very, very similarly.
DR. ELSHTAIN: He’s not good at it! What he says doesn’t have the power. It doesn’t speak to normative questions in the way that King did.
MR. CARTER: In the Western tradition we take the view that a legitimate government has the exclusive right to use force, that is, to use violence to achieve its ends. And although we have deeply worked out philosophies of law, law to the dissenter always looks like force, because law is the police with guns drawn, making you do what you don’t want to do and preventing you from doing the things you do want to do. I think that people of faith ought to be very reluctant to place their hands on the levers that say, “For this, we as a society may kill.” I tell my students on the first day of law school that every time we have an argument about what the law ought to be we’re arguing about what we as a society would want to kill for, because we send armed police to go and enforce the law. So if you don’t want to have a society that has to do violence in this cause, don’t say it’s a good cause in which the government ought to take sides.
The humility that is characteristic of so many fine religious traditions ought to give people pause before they say, “Rah rah, our side has won. We can now change all the laws we disagree with.”
DR. ELSHTAIN: Civil-rights laws are coercive, and they have sometimes been enforced at the point of a gun, but it’s not everyday practice for the U.S. government to go out and kill its citizens. Law is coercive, but it’s not violent. It’s a mediated form of coercion. So when you say religious people ought to be very cautious about having that kind of power, that in effect says to me that the judiciary, the police force, the legislature all ought to consist of people who don’t have Christian commitments, because Christians somehow ought to be humble enough not to trust themselves with this power.
Here I would offer as the counter-argument, which I can’t flesh out fully here, Augustine’s fascinating discussion of why he opposed the notion of Christian empire. He says that if you’re lucky you’ll have a Christian emperor who behaves like a Christian, not a Christian empire. But does that mean that Christians should shun positions of judgment? Augustine said no. If your calling is to be a judge, that may well be a kind of tragic vocation in some ways, but it is necessary. It’s important to have people — this is Calvin’s argument, this is Luther’s argument, this is the Reformers’ argument for the most part, except for the Anabaptists — it’s important to have people whose consciences are developed and who will therefore handle the reins of power in a way that is more just than unjust. That’s Niebuhr’s argument, too.
MR. CARTER: There’s a distinction between the notion of a calling or an obligation, which is what I think you’re talking about and certainly what Augustine is talking about, and the notion that I’ve got to get my hands on political power so I can do this and that and the other thing.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I would just say that the idea that if you get a couple of people in the judiciary and a couple of people somewhere else, then we’ll be able to create the Christian nation — in a huge, complex, plural democracy it isn’t going to work like that.
MR. CROMARTIE: Stephen, are you making an Anabaptist point that the church, as the late John Howard Yoder used to say, should “not do ethics for Caesar”?
MR. CARTER: No, I’m not making an Anabaptist point, and I’m not suggesting not doing it. I’m just saying, look prayerfully and with caution.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I certainly do not disagree with that. That’s exactly what the people I was citing would say. Absolutely.
DR. RIBUFFO: I’d like to go back to the difference between Pat Robertson and Martin Luther King, which I think relates to the broader question of why folks are so frightened of evangelicals and fundamentalists. King spoke religious language; he did not speak supernatural language. He was essentially a theologically liberal social gospeller — some Rauschenbusch, some Gandhi, some Thoreau. Robertson speaks about praying the hurricane away, about reading the newspaper to look for the Antichrist. Fundamentalists and evangelicals say they are Christians and the rest of us are not, and from their point of view they’re correct. The greatest fundamentalist theologian of the 1920s, a man named J. Gresham Machen, said that liberal Protestantism was not just a new religion; it was a new kind of religion. So to say that they’re all just religious thinkers leaves out the fact that when Robertson addresses the public sphere he brings in a lot of supernatural stuff that I don’t see in King at all.
MR. CARTER: I think that most people are wary of Robertson for good reason. They’re not particularly aware of what his theology is; it’s simply the causes this man is fighting for. If he were exactly the same kind of person working for a different set of causes, I think he would receive a very different reception.
MR. CROMARTIE: It’s not at all clear that Robertson is liked by most evangelicals either. The good news for anyone worried about Robertson is that the Christian Coalition really doesn’t exist anymore. It’s down to one staff person in Washington and a small office in Virginia Beach. It’s not clear that Robertson has a constituency other than himself. And yet Tim Russert keeps calling on him to speak for the people he supposedly represents.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Ethics & Public Policy Center: I want to go back to Lynn Neary’s point about fear of evangelicals and what they might be up to. It struck me as a very odd statement. Think for example what a bunch of Southern Baptist evangelicals might do if they controlled the school board. Well, they were in control of every school board in the South for a hundred years, and yet they did not kill any Jews, nor did they kill any Catholics, nor did they drive these people of other faiths out of the South or destroy their religious identity. It seems to me that we’re building a past here in which the dangers existed but did not eventuate, in religious terms (race is different), in this kind of horror that you now say you fear.
I am not an evangelical, but it seems to me that if I were, I would wonder what world this discussion generally has been describing. I’d say something like this: “You’re describing a world in which we evangelicals are trying to change America, whereas in fact America has already been drastically changed by our opponents, and all we’re trying desperately to do is to ask them to show a bit of humility and slow down! For example, the power to change overnight all American law with respect to homosexual sexuality, including marriage law — slow down! Can’t we talk about this a bit before we do it? Must Justice Stevens make these rulings simply because he can put five votes together?” Lynn’s statement implied that the evangelicals were to be feared because they were culturally the aggressors, whereas it seems to me, as I look at American culture today, that not only are they on the defensive, but they are big losers! Their world is collapsing around them. All they’re doing is saying, Slow down.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I was giving a talk someplace and was interviewed by the local public radio station. Even though it wasn’t the subject of my talk, the fellow started asking me questions about the dire threat from evangelicals. I said, “It seems to me that what you’re complaining about is that they’re being politically effective. If they’re electing people you don’t like, there’s a democratic solution to that: un-elect them.” The notion that there’s something intolerable about these people actually getting elected to school boards and city councils seems to me radically anti-democratic. And the idea that we’re helpless before them — well, for Pete’s sake, get off your duff and go find candidates to unseat them. I just don’t understand why somehow this constitutes a dire threat. People come into office and go out of office. They’re re-elected or they’re not re-elected. That’s the deal.
MS. WEHMEYER: I think that we in the press have to be careful with our language. When I read that the Christian Coalition “took over” a school board, I wonder, when did the other side take over? When these protesting parents see condoms being distributed and evolution being taught in the schools, they say, “Oh no. They’re offending our deeply held beliefs! We’d better run for the school board.” And then the press says, “Look out! They’re taking over!” It isn’t a takeover any more than it was when the other side took over in the sixties, or whenever it was that they started running the school boards. What we really should do as journalists is to drop that “takeover” language and enlighten our readers and viewers as to what these people really fear, why they’re doing what they’re doing.
DAVID BOLDT, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I wanted to respond to this consensus that seems to be emerging that the problem is fear of evangelicals, and that anti-Catholicism is a thing of the past. We don’t really seem to see that quite so much in Pennsylvania. The principal issue there that involves religion happens to be school vouchers, and anti-Catholicism is still a very virulent force. It is also one that is difficult to deal with in commentary or in the news, partly because it’s practiced by the people who are doing the writing. We shouldn’t go out as Catholics thinking anti-Catholicism is completely gone.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I agree. I think there’s actually a lot of it. My friend Mary Ann Glendon has talked and written about this. It comes up in the academy in the form of attacks on the pro-life people, where a lot of the arguments are just flat out anti-Catholic. The idea seems to be that the pro-life Catholics are, again, anti-reason; they’re doing what their church demands of them and they haven’t thought the position through. It has also been my experience in the academy that even though you can’t tell most kinds of anti-group jokes, anti-Catholic jokes are still okay. I heard them all the time when I was in political science departments.
MR. BOLDT: The difference today is that it’s a secular anti-Catholicism, not primarily a religious anti-Catholicism. Bob Jones is an anomaly in terms of anti-Catholicism, and I think that is what has changed.
MR. McGURN: One of the things that comes to mind in regard to school boards is the difference between a court decision and a process of change. The court produces a law that just sits out there and is imposed everywhere. But processes can be reversed, so if you go too far you can step back. We tend to think there’s an endpoint, whether the controversy is abortion or something else, and that eventually we will reach it. Maybe we ended slavery with a civil war, but I don’t think that in most cases there is a real endpoint. It takes a long time for consensus to build, and it’s not always an attractive process. There will be very contentious matters, and a lot of bad feelings; still, it’s the better way.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I want to sign on to what Bill just said. It strikes me that a lot of the fear is a fear of democracy itself, the fact that it is about messy conflict and people working things out over time in a way that stops short of the use of power, something that we’re all too familiar with in the history of political life. When too much is adjudicated by fiat and people feel they haven’t had a say in what happens, for a period of time there is a kind of sullen withdrawal. Then when people do decide they’ve had enough, often the way that gets articulated — out of a sense of deep grievance — is far more scary than what would have happened if there had been more space created for people to messily butt heads over a period of time. That’s where this winds up, with a robust and rowdy democracy.
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Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain
Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social & Political Ethics, Divinity School at the University of ChicagoRead Bio