Belief in the Public Square

When truth claims clash, disputants appeal to warrants they all accept. These kinds of disagreements are gaudy, loud, and obvious. On rare occasions a different kind of disagreement arises, one in which truth claims align but warrants differ. These conflicts are subtler, pitting allies in their truth and goodness claims against one another only when they delve into what they consider the good reasons for their conclusions. A pragmatic concord papers over a deep discord so as to present a united front to the world.

We see such a case in the public profession of religious moral principles in the United States and the acts they motivate. The nub of it is an issue of truth and goodness: when actions in the public square follow the cultural consensus– commandments, law, and reason condemn murder, for example– does it matter which justification persons appeal to so long as they agree to the principle itself? I will grant at the outset that this is a disruptive question. A pragmatic view would dismiss the issue so long as we all flow with the cultural tides. But as with so much pragmatic thinking , this easy answer, so tranquilizing in the short term, eventually carries us into shoal waters unless we can find a common channel of warrant.

Consider the uneasy relation of religion and politics in American democracy. The Separation Clause of the Constitution erects a firewall between church and state and forbids religious justifications for the enactment of law, yet the moral framework of 90% of Americans makes religion the fount of ethical behavior, deriving their warrant from either their personal faith or the authority of their denomination. Though agreeing on outcomes, Americans find themselves at odds with their government over their reasons for agreeing. Secular laws rooted in a pragmatic social contract, the Constitution, (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?) are warranted in the popular mind by a religious morality that explicitly violates the terms of that contract. Note that is not the common goods that democracy prescribes that are in conflict but the reasons citizens see them as worth subscribing to (see “Two Senses of the Common Good).

This contradiction has produced considerable discomfort for leaders and citizens alike because their differing reasons are incompatible even if they generally conduce to complementary ends. The United States is Exhibit A in the struggle between public religious authority and law. The sectarian conflicts of the Protestant Reformation not only drove persecuted minorities to settle in North America; they also inspired the founders to erect that church/state firewall so that no religious authority might compete with the state for political supremacy or disturb the general welfare. This concern was echoed as late as 1960 when then-candidate John Kennedy was compelled to disavow papal supremacy should he become president.

“I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views — in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

But clear as it is in disavowing Catholic authority, Kennedy’s disclaimer elides a key point. What forms his beliefs if not religious authority? Mr. Kennedy attempted to externalize authority, something its defenders must do so as to grant it power to make universal truth and goodness claims, but that power is entirely rooted in the trust of its adherents (see The Fragility of Religious Authority). They internalize its right to define morality for them (and in the nature of religious authority, for everyone). In rejecting the Church’s power to impose its authority on his conscience, Mr. Kennedy explicitly rejected its objective power over him, but that same rejection necessarily elevated his own conscience as the arbiter of the moral thinking that he brings to public life. Now this reliance on individual conscience is  deeply engrained in the culture (see Modernism’s Midwives”), but if one revokes the trust in authority that grants its right to objective truth and goodness in favor of believing those same claims as a private commitment of conscience, how may one then defend these claims publicly or impose them on citizens (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”)? For example, let us say Mr. Kennedy embraced the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception not on the authority of the pope who made it Catholic dogma but on his own deep conviction. Is he saying it would be more permissible to base some public policy, say making that feast day a federal holiday, on the basis of his own private conscience rather than Catholic authority? Kennedy seems to be proposing a general rule of public morality (see What Do We Mean By ‘Morality’?”). In cases of conflict, whose conscience should prevail? If we respond, “the one with the most power,” haven’t we abandoned the moral realm altogether in favor of the law of the jungle, and if we discount morality so breezily, on what grounds could we object to exploitation? Obviously, these questions are pressing ones for political leaders in a diverse culture, but they percolate all the way down to the private citizen who must arbitrate authority’s hold on his conscience in his public actions. This is a true tangle.

On the one hand, our leaders have always recognized the formative role of religious morality on civic virtue. Private belief, they say, is the moral compass that directs our public behavior. And that seems all to the good. President Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796 applauded such belief.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Washington’s astute grasp of psychology, revealed in his reference to “minds of peculiar structure” instructs us that the elimination of “religious principle” would throw open the gates of anarchy. That certainly seems the popular view.

To accommodate those “indispensable supports,” a kind of gracious Universalism bridged the state/church divide, producing a nondenominational admiration of religiosity in general without regard to any one faith’s moral rules or any one believer’s interpretation of them. On one level that worked well enough for President Eisenhower to say, “Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, and I don’t care what it is.” This fits our traditions all right, but it turns a blind eye to the sectarian disagreements that found “religious belief” distinct enough to promote two centuries of miserable bloodletting. What were the Reformation wars about if not competing truth and goodness claims considered by the disputants to be sufficiently divisive to rend the political fabric? And if modern Americans take religious belief as an infallible guide to their moral thinking, what would prevent a recurrence (see Premodern Authority”)? When President Truman proclaimed, “Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists and Confucians worship the same God as Christians say they do,” was he proclaiming a generic syncretism that would negate the serious moral differences among these faiths? If so, then such a flabby faith could not stiffen the spine of any serious moral system to accomplish Washington’s goals and would add nothing to a general sense of civic duty. And, in truth, this level of toleration for faith expressed in the street demeans its role in forming the conscience of believers. Isn’t it more likely Truman was proclaiming his own largely secular value system in which religion glosses rather than identifies the political goods he valued?

That question has grown more serious in recent years. The fundamental pragmatism of American “secular religion” reveals its contradictions in the face of believers who truly believe and who wish to mold the nation to their understanding of divine will (see Divine Justice”). That understanding must derive from only two possible sources: authority or private belief. Either way, believers face impossible hurdles, some obvious and others implicit in the nature of authority or revelation as warrants.

Of the two, authority is the most obviously defective as both history and logic tell us. Kennedy rejected it as a foundation for public morality explicitly because he was addressing The Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant pastors who had no trust in papal authority, and Kennedy had to find a warrant for his moral positions both they and he would accept. In choosing conscience, he hearkened to a source foundational to Protestantism and as old as Martin Luther. He elevated individual moral agency, a source deeply intertwined in the American ideal as well as the Protestantism that produced it. He knew they would approve. But what he and they ignored were the horrendous consequences of sanctifying that source: nightmarish religious wars of personal revelation in which conflicting conscience fired Europe into centuries of misery. Seen in that light, Kennedy’s speech was not a heroic rejection of authority in tune with modern thinking but a short-sighted and historically blind bit of opportunism. Barack Obama offered a more honest appraisal of the impossibility of basing law on authority in his 2006 statement on religion in America. Responding to his simple objection would have to be a theocrat’s first duty (see Theocracy and the Commandments).

“(G)iven the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles.”

We see this problem most clearly in regard to established religions, for despite Harry Truman’s protestations, each is clearly defined and morally distinct, else they would hardly qualify as denominations. Any appeal to authority, religious or otherwise, is doomed in today’s culture, for it will surely find some listeners who have no trust in that particular source. The pitiful spectacle of fundamentalist Christians shouting quotations from their upraised Bibles to radical Muslims clutching their Qur’ans should call to any mind schooled in history the worst horrors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There is no do-over for authority despite the pleadings of a century of premodern nostalgists (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return). But the problem goes all the way down to each citizen’s moral choosing in the public arena. If her faith is not rooted in her trust in authority, it must be justified in the private chambers of her own worldview. That introduces the flip side of the problem John Kennedy faced in proclaiming the sovereignty of his own conscience: once one rejects external authority, how deeply does one go in excavating the depths of one’s evolving religious belief and how confidently can one then defend those shifting ineffable truth and goodness claims to the wider world? This is one John Quincy Adams saw clearly, having lived through the Second Great Awakening of American Protestantism.

“When I observe into what inconsistent absurdities those persons run who make speculative, metaphysical religion a matter of importance, I am fully determined never to puzzle myself in the mazes of religious discussion, to content myself with practicing the dictates of God and reason so far as I can judge for myself.”

If authority fails as a justification for citizens’ moral convictions, Adams is saying, the other sources of religious belief–revelation, inspiration, insight, and discernment– can only produce an even more private and unspeakable moral guide (see “Religious Belief as Mobius Strip), producing an ever more splintered civic morality .

But the implicit problem is deeper still. So powerful is the influence of religious belief on the moral sphere that we may fail to enlarge the issue to its proper scope. If private belief can direct public morality, we face an intractable difficulty, one that has emerged with a vengeance in the last three decades. It traces to the peculiar and private nature of belief of any kind, composed as it is of the oil-and-water emulsion of judgment and desire (see Can Belief Be Knowledge?“). When defenders of public religiosity cite the depth of their beliefs or the passion of their commitment as sufficient warrant for their judgments of truth and goodness, they throw open the doors to a reliance on private conviction as a reliable guide to any and all truth and goodness claims about the world. . “True for me,” and “my truth” are bywords in a culture that mistakes sincerity and intensity for warrants that deserve to survive public scrutiny. That same means of justification can be advanced for any private conviction, any conception of the good, any declarative stance whatsoever. For the word “belief” implies an emotional preference. This attachment allows persons to proclaim with straight faces that they don’t believe in evolution or global warming, that these kinds of statements are as privately derived as their belief or disbelief in God, as though realities in the world are as yielding to our attachments as our faith and as publicly defensible. So while President Eisenhower might be correct in broad assertions about the general outlines of a benign civic religiosity, his appeal to its warrant opens the door to the kinds of culture wars we’ve seen in the last three decades in the U.S. Candidate Kennedy’s speech would make culture warriors of us all.

In practice, what are called the culture wars are only skirmishes, at least as far as the kinds of truth and goodness claims they defend. The generic civic religion America traditionally embraces is almost entirely a reflection of fairly obvious needs that transcend culture, and so the imprimatur of religion only buttresses the moral structures that citizens might erect as they pursue their own needs in a social context (see Needs Anchor Morality”). The problem is that they don’t recognize this, probably because the truisms of mutual respect and equity are clothed in religious language from the earliest age. The evidence that human flourishing depends on a certain kind of civic life is made apparent by any investigation of either historical eras or different cultures. The commonplaces of providing for our needs are generally so similar that only the most glaring exceptions stand out as violations of human or political rights (see Natural and Political Rights”), and truth be told, the exceptions we most object to are nearly always justified on religious grounds. Despite this confusion of warrant, the spheres of civic life and religious belief for the most part accord each other a polite respect, the political nodding to the religious so long as the religious refuses to disrupt the general welfare. This synchronicity follows from the elasticity of most traditional religions that have only survived by accommodating their demands to the actual and daily needs of their adherents. History is littered with the names of those faiths that demanded too much or consistently perverted human needs: the Cult of Cybele, Druidism, the flagellants, the hermetic sects of early Christianity, and so on. Major world religions have proved highly adaptive and absorbent, embracing cultural trends and revising orthodoxy so as to combine the comfort of divine approbation with modest moral requirements suited to the times. It seems that most persons’ moral sense grows from the general culture that has molded both religious and secular to everyday needs, and it is this accommodation that Eisenhower and Truman appeal to. This placid and pragmatic concord fails, though, when religionists advance claims in conflict with the culture’s current conception of its best interests. The flash points of the culture wars flare up to fire tempers only when the entente cordiale between church and state collapses either because the state refuses to grant religion its pride of place or because believers champion their authority or their personal convictions in violation of cultural norms or human rights.

We see examples of hubris in the efforts of progressives and liberals to efface all traces of religious respect from the public square. “The War on Christmas” and various efforts to remove mentions of God from civic life stem from an effort to clarify the blurry picture of belief’s role in public life. On one level this kind of thing is admirable as it could not fail to isolate the problems of belief used to warrant civic goods (see “Foundations of the Law: an Appetizer). But such an effort misjudges the zeitgeist. So long as most persons turn to religion for moral guidance and consider such guidance unachievable by other means, attempts to secularize morality must fail and in failing must be resented.

Yet a commensurate resentment must also arise when religionists in obedience either to authority or their own discernments of divine will thrust their faith into civic life with the implicit demand that their beliefs be everybody’s moral truths. Confident pronouncements of God’s will stimulate either Reformation style counter pronouncements or equally pious appeals for tolerance and absolute equality of values (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).

We have closed so many sources of legitimate public morality at this point that we might look with more sympathy on the founders in celebrating a vague Providence while leaving out any reference to divine will in their Constitution. Their misty appeals to “nature’s God” allow the pragmatic compromise that worked so well for most of our history so long as believers in the spirit of Eisenhower and Truman did not take their religious authorities too seriously or in the spirit of Kennedy plumb the strands of their conscience. Why does neither path seem plausible in the current climate? Were they alive today, how would the founders resolve the problem?

At this moment in history Western culture is pressed into a small space between the insistent and ubiquitous voice of the zeitgeist and the echo that voice has produced.

The twentieth century was one long arc of evolution for the movement called postmodernism, whose central tenet was the primacy of experience in the building of knowledge. If experience is formative, they argued, then persons’ reason must be formed by it and so be as subjective as the experiences that make it; and if conscience is king, then no extrinsic goodness claim can be binding on the individual. Authority unmasked must reveal the ugly face of power exercised in the pursuit of private goods in a struggle of each against all. On the one hand, this view champions a radical natural equality, and postmodernism strongly favors both the diversity and equality of moral outlooks. So as they confront the larger world, how do postmodernists sift their experiences for truth in the privacy of their own minds and what tests of truth and goodness must they apply? As twentieth century narratives remind us, “They make their own rules.” Both the kinds of experiences and the rigor of evaluating them is wide open, so long as a single internal means of verification can be maintained. Postmodernism’s only warrant is the principle of non-contradiction. The result is an emphasis on sincerity and avoidance of hypocrisy as virtues and of tolerance as a consequence of a total moral subjectivism(see “What Makes It True?”). Obviously, this worldview leaves plenty of room for private belief as a reliable source of private truth. More importantly, it elevates an equivalency of moral outlooks whose measure is the intensity of each person’s beliefs. The problem is that laws and customs are definitively not private and the truth and goodness claims they stake out must somehow find their justification in the common consent of citizens, something private belief simply cannot accomplish. As postmodernism matured in the 1970’s, it also sought some form of common identity to mitigate the radical isolationism its existential values had promoted (see “Freedom, Zeitgeist, and Antihero”) and to avoid a brutal skepticism or cultural relativism that could only resolve public disputes through the use of power. The result was the identity politics we see today, arguing in the tradition of Marx that conscience is informed by external cultural influence. Postmodernists seem not to mind the contradictory valuation of external formation of moral outlook and internal responsibility for it, at least for their enemies, though they seem more forgiving of their allies in this regard. But this is a minor contradiction in comparison to their more serious failing. Postmodernists’ moral sense allows no foundation for any moral judgments whatsoever since it is rooted in a radical subjectivism and the dominance of environment on persons’ moral sense. They might respond that they condemn movements, not persons, but enlarging the sphere of culpability increases rather than blurs their contradictions. Their vehement criticism of nationalism, racism, sexism, imperialism, and capitalism shares a common hatred of authority as the mask that power uses to commit its depredations. They are particularly hostile to religious belief, which they consider the oldest and most vicious of the delusions authorities propagated in their long era of dominance.

Postmodernism shapes the secular culture. Its echo is a resurgent and defiant rejection of that culture in favor of religious authority. Evangelical Christians and radical Muslims are deeply antagonistic toward each other because their identical warrants justify opposing belief systems whose claims to truth and goodness cannot be reconciled by the warrant either side embraces. But they are united in their mutual hostility to a postmodern secular culture that threatens to, indeed already has, swept their justification schema into the dustbin of history. They wish to revive it and regard any effort at syncretism, any “safe” dilution of belief in the name of consensus, to be surrendering to secular obsessions. There is very little space between these uncompromising foes.

Of course, the battle lines bleed into each other in unpredictable ways as believers must live within the secular culture they profess to despise and must inevitably by co-opted by its materialistic enticements, particularly since the culture is so saturated with anti-authoritarianism. But perhaps the single greatest temptation to compromise lies in both sides’ elevation of sincere belief as the measure of truth and goodness.

Premodern authority required a commitment of trust to legitimize the relationship between lawgiver and subject. This evidence of things not seen defined the faith of believers and lent coherence to the community they formed, justifying public life at every turn, though ultimately rooting social order in divine command. This corporate structure, this kind of certainty, has irresistible appeal to what Washington called “minds of peculiar structure,” conservative temperaments adrift in a relativistic culture that distrusts authority of every stripe. Yet that same postmodern, secular culture must elevate belief for a very different reason: the subjectivism of experience that holds individual conscience to be inviolable and constitutive of a deeply private moral outlook. The virtual circle respects belief as a legitimate source of truth– so long as that belief is not rooted in the trust of authority.

So we see these defenders of two opposing systems of warrant arguing in the public square, passionately defending their beliefs. But why should anyone listen or consider their arguments? Their beliefs, even their use of the term, convey not a position but a preference, an assent rather than an argument. Our beliefs, like our tastes, must remain always our own. By their own terms, these disputants cannot change minds. The strident believer in authority hardly engenders the trust necessary to accept that authority and the equally ardent believer in the virtual circle considers her beliefs the fruit of her identity, fundamentally alien to those of different experience (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). One might ask in respect of such futility why believers of either stripe even bother declaiming in the forum at all.

They do so because they cannot help themselves. Despite themselves, the opposing sides are heirs to a tradition that not only regards the individual as the root of political power but as its master and judge. It is this small space of sanity between two vociferous opponents that may still prevail in the current climate. The founders were modernists. Memories seared by the horrors of religious beliefs in violent contention, they scrambled to find a new consensual warrant that might suppress the power of belief in public life. They were the inheritors of an intellectual crisis that had forged a working alternative to authority. Reason and closely examined experience framed their search. These elevated the individual above the community in deciding for herself the goods she should pursue. This glorification of individual conscience lies at the heart of modernism. But the founders teased out from that autonomy the common thread upon which they knit all their hopes for a novel experiment in self-government. They considered reason prior to and therefore directive of experience rather than formed by it (see The Tyranny of Rationality”). Our reasoning capacity, they claimed, was universal and common and within its scope the shape and structure of political life would be fabricated from the stuff of our varied experience. Public goods, they argued, could not be deduced from the private beliefs of individuals any more than it could from the dictates of prelates. They had to be negotiated in the public square as alternatives appealing to the common reason of citizens.

That negotiation requires a ratiocinative process deeply at odds with both authority and belief, one in which the individual engages his natural and moral freedom to consider dispassionately how to choose before committing to any preferences or attachments (see “Our Freedom Fetish). Commitment and intensity follow rather than characterize the process of judging and framing choices. Granted, this is an ideal rarely purely practiced, but it is as far from our culture’s glorification of passionate intensity as it is from the Turkish practice of approaching the Pasha by backing into his presence on one’s knees. It also requires an intellectual curiosity that neither authority nor belief demands and one thing more: a willingness to listen to other arguments. In the speech mentioned earlier, Barack Obama explained how it should work.

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.”

Obama’s appeal to “universal values” and defense of argument and reason in the public square is more than a compromise, greater than a least common denominator that as a last resort might calm the troubled waters of our civic disarray. It is a foursquare defense of an endangered warrant challenged by both left and right, and it is the only possible resolution for the problem at hand. The kind of moderate pragmatism that smoothed the oil-and-water expressions of private belief in the public square has drained away, leaving the dregs of private belief passionately proclaimed and authority blindly defended. This is a recipe for anarchy. In a culture drenched in a glorification of sincere and intense belief, one that defends the inviolability of faith and the private valuation of all goods, calling for yoking belief to reason in public life is likely to arouse resentment. After all, belief is easy. The virtual circle does not only proclaim our identity; it forms it. Even if we defer to a correspondence judgment (see What Counts as Justification?”), we will always rely on experience for many of our truth and goodness claims anyway, though we should recognize it as a very weak stand-alone proof of judgment. Maybe so, but clearly understanding the crucial difference between a dispassionate analysis and a premature emotional commitment would make a good start in resolving our cultural impasse.

If consensus is to be found and progress measured in the midst of diversity and discord, the axiom that molds modernism must be defended: we do not share experience, but we do share the rationality that makes sense of it. Appealing only to private experience must devolve into cultural relativism, subjectivism, or tribalism. This is the error of postmodernism. No cultural identity can displace our common humanity. On the other side, an appeal to authority in defiance of reasoned experience is a recipe for dissolution of trust, followed by a rejection of authority, first that one alone and eventually of authority generally. It is reason that transmutes the virtual circle with its multiplicity of inputs into a defensible image of the virtuous circle, the fundamental unity of reality. And in the public square, it is only reasoned judgment that can call varying experience to common account. Modernism’s valuation of rationally examined experience has always been tentative, has always been attacked, even by its inventors and defenders. It has hardly boasted a clean record or provided the sense of closure and correctness that is the deepest hidden desire of every human ego. It is hard to reason well and consistently, and it is tempting to yield to the siren songs of authority, private experience, and pragmatic accommodation to circumstance. All of these are traps and snares, but applying rational judgment to the vagaries of experience is not only our best hope of true public consensus. It is our only one (See “Toward a Public Morality”). Fundamentalists, explain your reasons for condemning marriage equality or for championing traditional marriage. Liberals, explain your reasons for denying that human life begins with conception or for championing a woman’s right to choose as a more fundamental right. It is not enough to “tell your story.” Everyone’s is different. Appeal to what we share in common. Frame your argument. Make your case. Defend your judgment. Don’t persuade. Convince. Oh, and also listen.