Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.
The extreme fundamentalists can’t see any difference between living in Egypt, for example, and living under non-Muslim rule, thanks to the all-pervasive influence of the modern state. In the old days the political domain was also worldly and corrupt, but the social domain was still shaped by Islam. Nowadays, however, it is the state that regulates marriage, divorce, inheritance, trade, finance, work, health, childcare, schooling, higher education, and so on, often with attention to what the sharia says, but freely reshaping it to fit modern, secular aims which originate in the infidel and politically dominant west. ¶ So one way or the other, Muslims are ruled by the west wherever they live, not just politically but also socially and culturally. Wherever they look, they are being invaded by so-called western values — in the form of giant billboards advertising self-indulgence, semi-pornographic films, liquor, pop music, fat tourists in indecent clothes and funny hats, and politicians lecturing people about the virtues of democracy. Religion does not actually shape the social realm any more, except rhetorically. All that religion shapes in modern Muslim societies is voluntary associations such as Sufi orders, Muslim brotherhoods, and fundamentalist cells, which fall short of being whole societies, let alone states, and which you can set up in non-Muslim countries too. So in effect, as the fundamentalists see it, all Muslims have become diaspora Muslims.
The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life. Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious view are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.
Will religious communities support a polity in which they can speak in their own religious voices in the public arena and in which the state relates to all communities impartially? Elsewhere I have developed the argument that the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths in fact favors the pluralistic political arrangements that liberal democracy … represents. Basically, the bare-bones sketch of the argument goes like this: 1) Because there is one God, all people are related to that one God on equal terms. 2) The central command of that one God is to love neighbors — to treat others as we would like them to treat us, as expressed in the Golden Rule. 3) We cannot claim any rights for ourselves and our group that we are not willing to give to others. 4) Whether as a stance of the heart or as outward practice, religion cannot be coerced. If you accept these four propositions, you have good reasons to support pluralism as a political project.
To most Western ears, the very idea of punishing heresy conjures up a time four or five centuries ago, when Spanish inquisitors terrorised dissenters with the rack and Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers. Most religions began as heresies. Today the concept of “heresy” still means something. Every community built around an idea, a principle or an aim (from fox-hunting enthusiasts to Freudian psychotherapists) will always face hard arguments about where the boundaries of that community lie, and how far the meaning of its founding axioms can be stretched. But one of the hallmarks of a civilised and tolerant society is that arguments within freely constituted groups, religious or otherwise, unfold peacefully. And if those disputes lead to splits and new groups, that too must be a peaceful process, free of violence or coercion.
What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the “we” who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world — although secularity extends partially, and in different ways, beyond this world. … But it’s not clear in what this secularity consists. There are two big candidates for its characterization … The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices — most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference would then consist in this, that wheareas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. … Religion or its absence is largely a private matter. The political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike.
One of the hallmarks of religious liberty protections is that they protect people of all faiths, even if their beliefs seem unfounded, flawed, implausible, or downright silly. Recognition of a right to religious freedom does not, however, depend on religious skepticism, relativism, or indifferentism. Rather, it rests on the intelligible value of the religious quest — the activities of seeking to understand the truth about ultimate questions and conforming one’s life accordingly with authenticity and integrity. … [It is not] the idea that “error has rights.” Rather, it recognize[s] that people have rights — including the right to pursue religious truth and, within the limits of justice and the common good, to act on their judgments of what truth demands. All people possess these fundamental rights, even when they are, in some respects, in error.
She claims that what they believe is their own business. But they should not “evangelize.” They should, in other words, keep their faith to themselves, while she and her kin promote a secular agenda in the resulting vacuum. How convenient for her. ¶ Secularists seek enforcement of the privatization of Christian belief. They do this publicly and generally without censure. But Christian belief is compromised when it is privatized. So the effect of Ms. Gaylor’s missionary enterprise would be the privatization of a faith that is essentially interpersonal and the social advancement of a cult of irreligion that she would not keep to herself.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.
First, this phrase “Christian nation” is a famously confusing one. No recognized leader in the so-called “religious right” has ever called for America to be a theocracy or believed it ever was, but this is what Meacham accuses. He asks, “What then does it mean to talk of ‘Christian America’? Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles.” Well, if you’re talking about the biblical principles of not slandering, stealing or murdering, then, yes. But I don’t recall any of us ever proposing that it be the law of the land that everyone, say, confess their sins, one to another, or that we lock people up when they chose to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We do however believe something close to what Meacham himself admits in his article, which he offers as a corrective to people like us. He would have us understand that, “[America’s] foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like.” Well, actually not so different. We understand that Christianity had a deep impact on our nation’s founding, its guiding documents and our national growth. Deep, but not singular. We thankfully live in a country of religious freedom.
Another example of a flawed understanding of the separation of church and state is George W. Bush’s much-trumpeted but bungled policy of providing government money for what he calls “faith-based initiatives.” Predictably, this initiative was surrounded by controversy from the start and did not live up to its supporters’ hopes. At its best, it was a well-intentioned compliment to the dynamism of faith-based entrepreneurialism in the nineteenth century. The tribute was sincere and the intention laudable — to encourage the voluntarism and dynamic energy that are now recognized as the lifeblood of a healthy civil society, and to foster the little platoons and mediating institutions that are its cells. ¶ But regardless of its political and legal problems, such as the accusations of cronyism and political manipulation, the project was self-defeating as a concept because the close relationship between government and faith-based groups almost inevitably leads, first, to a growing dependency of the faith-based organization on the government, and, eventually, to the effective secularization of the faith-based group. In the words of David Kuo, President George W. Bush’s special assistant for faith-based initiatives, “Between Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services alone, for example, more than $1.5 billion went to faith-based groups every year. But their activity had come at a spiritual cost. They were, as organizations, largely secular.”
Church and state were not officially separated in France until February 21, 1795. But the overall explosion that the corrupt, coercive French establishment ignited against itself created a grand fusion of revolution and irreligion and led to a radical secularization of French public life, so that in France to be progressive still mostly means being secular and to be religious still means being viewed as reactionary. This is a key part of the French mentality that lingers to this day and bedevils the resolution of French conflicts over religion in public life, not to speak of the direction of the European Union. ¶ Astonishingly, too, Roman Catholic writers, from the popes down, who decry the militancy of French secularism today rarely acknowledge that this fierce secularism was bred and developed in direct reaction to their own earlier corruptions and has led to similar outbreaks of murderous anticlericalism elsewhere. These include the vicious Mexican repression of Catholics in the 1920s and the brutal Socialist slaughter of seven thousand priests, nuns, and bishops in Spain in 1936.
The salience of religion in our times is a massive stumbling block to much educated opinion in Europe, the United States, and the Western world at large — to what was once called the republic of letters, and which Peter Berger calls "the international faculty club." For one of the cardinal assumptions of intellectual orthodoxy since the Enlightenment, expressed canonically in the secularization theory, is that modernization means secularization, which in turn means that, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, religion will slowly disappear from sight as the world modernizes, leaving behind only a vacant grin. ¶ This presumption translates practically into three attitudes that are widely prevalent in educated circles in the West: that religion in the modern world is irrational, archaic, retrograde, and on the way out; that what remains of religion is the leading source of evil and conflict today; and that a central task of politics is to curb the illiberal power of religion, above all in the public square. In short, the idea that religion is a wild card in human affairs is admissible, but the idea that it could play a central and constructive role is absurd. ¶ For any thoughtful student of world affairs who understands the role of religion in American and Western history, or in international affairs today, this view is preposterous.
To be sure, it is as dangerous to exaggerate the culture wars as it is to minimize them. At the core of these wars is a battle between two sets of elites, with their corresponding battalions of activists, organizations, and supporters. And on most issues, the great majority of Americans find themselves between the two sides, somewhat ambivalent and often confused. But when all the issues have been clarified and matters of style separated from matters of substance, it becomes clear that the issues dividing the traditionalists and the progressives are important and will be decisive for the future of of the republic. They are, after all, disagreements about the very nature and destiny of human beings, so they cannot be swept under the rug. ¶ In short, the issues at the heart of the culture wars will be decisive for the American future, and they will have to be settled — but not in the present, destructive manner.
Put differently, there are two equal but opposite errors into which Christians have fallen in the modern world. One error is to "privatize" faith, interpreting and applying it to the personal and spiritual realm only. That way faith loses its integrity and becomes "privately engaging and publicly irrelevant." ¶ The other error, represented by the Religious Left in the 1960s and the Religious Right since the late 1970s, is to "politicize" faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes "the regime at prayer," Christians become the "useful idiots" or "biddable foot soldiers" for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form: Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests. In short, out of anxiety about a vanishing culture or in a foolish exchange for an illusory promise of power, Christians are cheated into bartering away their identity, motives, language, passions, and votes.
Christianity, therefore, is perhaps the most materialistic of the world’s faiths. Jesus’s miracles were not so much violations of the natural order, but a restoration of the natural order. God did not create a world with blindness, leprosy, hunger, and death in it. Jesus’s miracles were signs that someday all these corruptions of his creation would be abolished. Christians therefore can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence. With integrity. ¶ Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, he came and experienced it to defeat it and someday, to wipe the world clean of it. Knowing all this, Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice. Karl Marx and others have charged that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” That is, it is a sedative that makes people passive toward injustice, because there will be “pie in the sky bye and bye.” That may be true of some religions that teach people that this material world is unimportant or illusory. Christianity, however, teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it. Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people. It’s more like the smelling salts.
Modernity is secularization. It is, in its essence, a project of detaching moral, legal, and governmental reasoning from any authority transcendent of the state or the individual. It is the project of an ethics conformed not to divine justice but to human reason and popular consensus; of a politics authorized not by divine ordinance but by the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state; and of a model of freedom based not on the perfection of human nature but on the unconstrained liberty of individual will. ¶ And America is a modern nation — the first, indeed, explicitly to constitute itself without reference to any sacral institution of its authority. In a nation so formed, nothing was more inevitable than a subtle, chronic antagonism between religious and state authority; and, to secure itself against any rival source of moral legitimacy, such a state was forced continuously to drive religious adherence from the public realm into the private realm of “values” (where, of course, it is free to do what it likes). It scarcely constitutes a kind of fatalism to acknowledge that, for all the enormous virtues of its Constitution, and despite the piety of many of its citizens, America enjoys no miraculous immunity from the logic of modernity.
The Supreme Court has said that a religion, for purposes of the First Amendment, is distinct from a “way of life,” even if that way of life is inspired by philosophical beliefs or other secular concerns. … A religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being (or beings, for polytheistic faiths), … nor must it be a mainstream faith … Without venturing too far into the realm of the philosophical, we have suggested in the past that when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of “ultimate concern” that for her occupy a “place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons,” those beliefs represent her religion. … We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. … The Supreme Court has recognized atheism as equivalent to a “religion” for purposes of the First Amendment on numerous occasions … The Establishment Clause itself says only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but the Court understands the reference to religion to include what it often calls “nonreligion.” … At one time it was thought that this right [referring to the right to choose one’s own creed] merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. … In keeping with this idea, the Court has adopted a broad definition of “religion” that includes non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as theistic ones.
The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent — that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions… The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid. …and the Aegis of Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free governement would be imperfect without it. ¶ The body may be oppressed and manacled and yet survive; but if the mind of man be fettered, its energies and faculties perish, and what remains is of the earth, earthly. Mind should be free as the light or as the air.
It is easy for those who do not live under a totalitarian regime to expect heroism from those who do, but it is an expectation that will often be disappointed… it should be less surprising that the mass of Christians were silent than that some believed strongly enough to pay for their faith with their lives.
Again and again, the authors of these manifestos open with a mighty trumpet blast, issuing the most lofty and passionate denunciations of the imbecilic, stale, decadent, safe, bourgeois, vile, outmoded, mechanical, academic, etc. tradition they are rejecting. But when it comes time for them to reveal their epochal new vision, the mighty doctrine that will overthrow the past, turn art on its head and lead mankind into a dazzling new era of truth and beauty, it turns out to be, well, “spatial forms arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects” (Rayonists Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharov). Or a theater in which the actors read aloud from their parts (the Russian symbolist Fyodor Sologub). Or a placard proclaiming “No Girdle!” (The nunist Pierre Albert-Birot, who also incorrectly asserted that nunism is “an ‘ism’ to outlast the others.”) Without discounting the originality of these ideas — rayonist paintings are among the first abstract works ever executed, Sologub’s theater anticipates Brecht, and Birot would have burned Andy Warhol in a game of one-on-one — after the mighty windup, there’s something banana peel-like about these aesthetic punchlines.
All my reporting life I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort. I belong to a global fellowship, men and women, concerned with the welfare of the planet, and its least protected inhabitants. I plan to spend the rest of my years applauding that fellowship and cheering from the sidelines. Good for you. … Never give up.
One reason American history is no longer told in terms of redemptive purpose is that we no longer think of history itself as having a purpose. History is a matter of this happening and then that happening and then the other thing happening, and who is to say what it all means? As the man said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” The very idea that history should have a meaning strikes many of our contemporaries as highly improbable, maybe even nonsensical. If there is no purpose, there is no meaning. There is, although perhaps only on the surface, something attractively modest about this way of thinking. Especially when it is contrasted with the pride, presumption, and delusions of divinely ordained power that sometimes attended talk about “Christian America.”
But politics cannot begin to put the conecting tissue back in society. It is ill-equipped to reconstruct traditional moral beliefs. The best policies cannot recover courtship or marriage, make fathers responsible for their children, restore shock or shame where it once existed, or recover legitimate social authority to institutions that have been hollowed out by a pervasive ideology of individual autonomy. The vast majority of moral problems that trouble us cannot be eradicated by law.