November 22, 2012
FROM THE THANKSGIVING ARCHIVES: FUNDAMENTALISMReligious Freedom and Pluralism (Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Spring 2002, Markets & Morality)
Although no given religion is established in the United States, our national traditions are heavily imbued with religion. Abraham Kuyper, lecturing in 1874, maintained that the people of the United States "bear a clear-cut Christian stamp more than any other nation on earth." The separation between Church and State, he said, had a very different meaning for Americans than it did for Cavour. It stemmed "not from the desire to be liberated from the Church but from the realization that the well-being of the Church and the progress of Christianity demand it."
We have had in the United States a kind of "civil," "political," or "public" religion that neither affirms the particular beliefs of any denomination nor seeks to compete with any Church or synagogue. It does not deify the State but inculcates reverence to a God by whom all States are judged. This common patrimony has some affinities with the "natural religion" of the deists but goes beyond deism in professing various biblical beliefs: for example, that God is to be worshiped and obeyed, that he hears our prayers, rewards virtue, punishes vice, has mercy on the repentant, and governs the world with his providential care.
This "civil religion," as I call it, is not legally imposed but is officially encouraged. It makes regular appearances at the time of Presidential inaugurations, Thanksgiving Day proclamations, and State funerals. Incumbents of public office are regularly sworn in with their hand on the Bible. They are expected to profess the articles of civil religion and are, at the same time, limited by it insofar as, in their public pronouncements, they are cautioned against asserting a more specific faith. Not all citizens are required to share the civil religion, but it has hitherto enjoyed solid public support. It provides a kind of protective umbrella under which, more specific religious faiths can flourish. Another feature of the American system, which distinguishes it from the laicism of nineteenth-century Europe, is the limited scope of the national government. The First Amendment originally applied only to the Federal government; it did not prevent individual States from having established churches. Even when the First Amendment was applied to individual States through the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, allowance was made for schools, hospitals, and welfare agencies to maintain their specific religious identities.
The government, while not professing any particular form of theism, favored a situation in which religious groups had an effective cultural presence. Religious groups could take advantage of the institutions of free speech and a free press to disseminate their convictions. Many immigrant groups coming from Europe brought their denominational identity with them and settled in religiously homogeneous neighborhoods, whether Jewish or Christian. Thus, the environment in which Americans grew up was permeated with religious influences. Practically speaking, Americans reaped the benefits without the deficits of an established religion. [?]
The current retreat from engagement with truth exacts a heavy price. The American proposition, as Richard John Neuhaus reminds us, is no longer proposed. People do not know why they ought to be doing what the laws say that they should be doing. "The popularly accessible and vibrant belief systems and worldviews of our society are largely excluded from the public arena in which the decisions are made about how the society should be ordered."
Society, in the classical sense, presupposed a common purpose. The citizens of the State (or the vast majority of them) were expected to share a common vision concerning the good life. As diversity deepens, this consensus breaks down. Cognitive minorities go off in their own directions and cease to be concerned about the values dear to others. In the absence of a shared vision, shared meanings, and a common vocabulary, civil discourse collapses. Many Americans no longer adhere to the consensus enshrined in their founding documents. This alienation contributes to a weakening of patriotism and to what some refer to as an "eclipse of citizenship."
According to Michael Sandel, in his well-known Democracy's Discontent, the dominant tendency in political theory today is to exclude moral and religious arguments from the public realm for the sake of political harmony. The assumption is that reasonable people will always disagree about the nature of truth and justice; there are no criteria for deciding which of two contradictory opinions is true. This pragmatic relativism is manifest, Sandel reports, in the works of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, and Bruce Ackerman. The minimalist liberalism of these theorists, in Sandel's view, reduces all rights to the merely procedural rather than the substantive; it engenders what he calls "the procedural republic," in which toleration, freedom, and fairness are the supreme values. This procedural republic, he points out, leads to a moral void in which the citizens are deprived of the moral and intellectual vision needed to sustain a sense of national purpose and even to safeguard freedom itself.
To illustrate how minimalist liberalism fails to protect the most elemental human rights, issues such as slavery and abortion come to mind. Unless one acknowledges the inviolable value of the individual person-a postulate that defies justification on pragmatist grounds-it cannot be shown why slavery should not be legitimized by the will of the majority. The recent trend to sanction abortion when the mother chooses to do away with an unborn child violates the principle of the right to life-a principle that the Founding Fathers regarded as grounded in the eternal law of God. The sanctity of human life is further jeopardized by campaigns for infanticide, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. The American experiment started with a national consensus that offered, in the name of liberty, a common ground allowing for a good measure of religious diversity. The constitutional right to freedom, by allowing different positions to be held and propagated without external interference, protected and enhanced pluralism, but we now face the danger that extreme and unreconciled pluralism may turn against the principles that undergird religious freedom itself.
In the absence of any standard of truth by which right and wrong can be measured, decisions have no objective point of reference. Rights cease to have a firm foundation in the inviolable dignity of the person. Decisions about matters of right become, in the end, matters of self-interest or mere arbitrary whim. Nobody is secure, because everyone's rights become negotiable. As John Paul II puts it, "Freedom negates itself and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with truth."
In the world of agnostic relativism, religion loses its true character as a way of relating the human family to God. God himself is treated as a mere projection of human fantasy, to be exploited insofar as the idea proves interesting and socially useful. Religion becomes a psychological exercise-perhaps a form of therapy or entertainment. In the absence of a realist epistemology, in which God can be apprehended as a power beyond and above us, religion itself becomes as insecure as freedom. Religious freedom lacks any firm grounding because religion has lost its roots in transcendent reality.
Popes of the past century have often been criticized for their expressed reservations about religious freedom. They were referring to the militant secularism of their own day, but much of their criticism is applicable to the agnostic pragmatism that prevails in American society today. It is hard to refute the logic of the following words from Leo XIII:
The nature of human liberty, however it be considered, whether in individuals or in society, whether in those who command or in those who obey, supposes the necessity of obedience to some supreme and eternal law, which is no other than the authority of God, commanding good and forbidding evil. And, so far from this most just authority of God over men diminishing, or even destroying their liberty, it protects and perfects it; for the real perfection of all creatures is found in the prosecution and attainment of their respective ends. But the supreme end to which liberty must aspire is God.
If pluralism is taken to mean that the human mind will never be able to encompass the mystery of the divine, it is inevitable and justified. There will always be different points of view, different perspectives, limited insights, but where pluralism is cultivated for its own sake, as if all points of view were equally legitimate, the line must be drawn. We must agree with Murray that religious pluralism implies error and is "against the will of God." Pluralism, if it is not to become destructive, must be accompanied by fundamental agreements such as those embodied in what I have described as the American civil religion. Unless a solid majority of the citizens accept some such basic core of agreement, the prognosis for religion in the American republic is poor.
Those of us who have come to believe in the God of the Bible and of Judeo-Christian tradition, even without fully agreeing among ourselves about other points of doctrine, have an urgent, common task. We must join forces to give common testimony to the basic truths of natural and biblical religion. We must confess together the importance of declaring that God exists, that his goodness can be known, and that we have certain specifiable duties toward him. We must also insist on our right to bear witness to the further truths that we believe on the basis of Jewish and Christian revelation, as understood within our respective traditions. If many Americans fail to believe, it is partly because believers have failed to present their faith as something credible and important. If the question of religious truth is bracketed for the sake of a consensus that excludes no one, or is short-circuited by a lazy agnosticism, our pluralism may fall into suicidal excesses. Both freedom and religion are jeopardized by the skeptical relativism that threatens to become the dominant ideology of the nation.
This maintenance of fundamental truths seems the one project that any conservatism worthy of the name has to entail or we'll not be able to conserve anything. This does not mean that we need a less tolerant society but one that is based on a more traditional understanding of toleration, that practices toleration as a means to achieving a decent society without elevating the idea of tolerance to a purpose of the society. It is the difference between accepting that people believe things we must disagree with and pretending that their beliefs are as valid as ours. (originally posted: 5/03/03) Posted by oj at November 22, 2012 12:35 AM
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