Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Damon Linker's "Religious Test"

Here is the text of my comments just delivered at the Boisi Center at Boston College.


Damon Linker has written a book - The Religious Test - that seeks to provide some specific “tests” whereby the belief of political leaders can be measured and assessed by the polity. He writes of several specific areas in which public expressions of religion potentially stand in contradiction to the norms of liberalism. Among these are areas relating to religious pluralism; the priority of liberalism (and the Constitution) over public religious claims; the requirement of science to be free of superstition; the eschewal of claims to know God’s providence; and the need to accept diverse views on sexual behavior and arrangements. In all of these areas, Linker argues that liberalism is the standard by which the public claims of religion are to be judged. Religious expressions are to stand before the bar of liberalism, and where found wanting, should be rejected by the electorate and even curtailed by the liberal state.

Linker concludes his book with a criticism of such “new atheist” authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, differentiating himself inasmuch as he does not seek the wholesale elimination of religious belief, but rather to ensure that where it persists, that it be quarantined to largely private expressions. For example, he draws a stark distinction between the kind of religious belief and practices of the Amish, who – while relatively closed and authoritarian – nevertheless do not seek to alter the political composition of the polity – and the kinds of belief and practices of a growing number of home-schooling Americans, many of whom express a strong commitment to changing American law through by campaigning for and voting on behalf of elected representatives. In the latter case, Linker argues, its activities threaten to use the mechanisms of the liberal State to advance a set of sectarian aims. It is not the belief as such that worries Linker, but its potential for political influence. Thus, he concludes, “If the home-schooling movement continues to grow, and if significant numbers of its members continue to view their separatism as a prelude to overthrowing elements of the liberal political order, then the liberal state might have to revisit the issue in the name of defending the common good.” In the end, his arguments end up being politically and practically indistinguishable from the New Atheists – so long as religious belief remains sealed and safe behind private walls, it can be tolerated. Otherwise, there is a danger that the liberal commitment of neutrality to all ultimate ends could be compromised by an infusion of religiously-influenced belief.

This view of liberal neutrality, then, disproportionately burdens not religious belief per se, but those religious beliefs that have a public or political dimension. In the American setting, this disproportionate burden falls particularly on evangelical Christian and Catholic believers. While the claim to neutrality among beliefs is commonly invoked by liberals, this claim is reminiscent of the description of “law’s majestic equality” offered by Anatole France over a century ago – its equality is achieved by “forbidding the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” The singularly burdensome nature of Linker’s liberalism upon religious belief is suggested most revealingly in a passage in which he would disallow Catholic politicians the opportunity to oppose permissive abortion rights because, he writes (in italics): the Supreme Court has declared [abortion] to be a constitutional right (73; Linker’s emphasis). It seems unlikely that this same prohibition to question Supreme Court holdings would apply, for instance, to current Democratic criticisms of the Citizen United decision permitting unlimited political contributions by corporations. One wonders if the same prohibition would apply to those who opposed the Supreme Court holding in the Dred Scott decision. One wonders, too, why a provision was even left in the Constitution for its own amendment if the ability of citizens was to precluded at the outset from debating the terms of the basic law.

Liberalism has always purported to defend a neutral stance toward ultimate goods or final aims, to stand impartially above the contesting claims of citizens, and instead open a sphere of liberty for the pursuit of personal goods. Yet, smuggled into this very claim of neutrality is a substantive worldview that, over time, remakes the world in its image in support of a highly individualist, voluntarist, and autonomous prevailing set of norms. Its purported neutrality about ends is a kind of solvent that, over time, corrodes non-individualist, non-voluntarist and non-autonomous ways of life, slowly but relentlessly dissolving what are often pre-liberal cultural inheritances under the weight of liberalism’s logic. The claim to be “neutral” among worldviews itself contains a worldview that, over time, transforms all human societies. Ironically, it fosters first by a kind of societal logic, and then by force of law, the conditions described by its first theorists, namely, the vision of humanity described in social contract theory. Bertrand de Jouvenel suggested that social contract theories were conceived by “childless men who had forgotten their childhoods,” but in fact, liberal theory fosters social and ultimately legal conditions in which we are increasingly childless, siblingless and generationally disconnected. It begins with a false assumption about how humans exist by nature – without histories or culture or memory - but over time makes them into the spitting image of the creatures that they fantasize exist by nature in a prepolitical state. What nature could not in fact create, liberal politics fashions by artifice.

Yet, liberalism is largely blind (willfully or ignorantly) to its own heavy hand in the transformation of society, believing all the while in the claims of its own neutrality. This obdurate blindness is on full display in what Linker describes as his “culture wars” chapter, entitled “The Impossibility of Sexual Consensus.” It turns out that the title is a wild misnomer, for at the outset he acknowledges that there was once broadly just such a consensus in the United States about sexual proprieties, and indeed, even states that this consensus existed for a long time throughout much of the West. Yet, having acknowledged that it was in fact possible to have some widespread sexual consensus, he goes on to assert that “America’s pre-sixties sexual traditional was the political and legal expression of a historically contingent cultural consensus.” Given his acknowledgement of the longstanding nature of this consensus, one would think that it might invite the slightest bit of curiosity about how this widespread and longstanding consensus broke down, but instead Linker is satisfied to posit that it was an “historically contingent consensus” and leave it at that. Yet, having now broken down for some inexplicable reason, it is now the role of the liberal state to exit the business of preferring one form of sexual arrangement over any other, and thus, making marital and sexual relations a matter of indifference in public policy. The corrosive solvent of liberalism – first informally undermining arrangements that gave priorities to marriage and family based in stable communities of memory and tradition, mainly by its redefinition of all human relationships in terms that give priority to individual preferences (a language and self-understanding that is deeply aided and abetted by market capitalism) – then turns to the apparatus of the State to confirm its own handiwork. Far from being a mysterious breakdown of an “historically contingent” set of arrangements, one worldview (and indeed, one form of sexual consensus) replaces another. The difference is, liberalism masks its work behind claims of neutrality.

Linker’s liberalism – by dint of its claims of lacking any substantive philosophy – also gets a pass throughout his book, portrayed as wholly reasonable and judicious in comparison to irrational, authoritarian, and often ignorant religious belief. Yet, example after example in Linker’s book belie any such claim, rather intimating the ways that liberalism is inherently prone its own excesses, ones to which religious voices have historically afforded witness and important correctives. Take two “tests” proffered by Linker: “Honor Worldly Knowledge” and “Do Not Presume to Know God’s Providence.” In making a case for the irrelevance of religious belief for science, Linker does not acknowledge science’s internal incapacity to exercise limits over its own applications. Linker (predictably) names the Scopes trial as an instance of religious “obscurantism” that too often opposes to the reasonableness of scientific findings, but neglects to mention that the textbook assigned by John Scopes – A Civic Biology – recommended a program of eugenics based upon “natural selection” and racial classification and ranking. Most people don’t know about this fact because the liberal re-telling of this episode only perceives religious obscurantism, not the dangers of progressivism and the reasonableness of religious defense of supposedly substandard humans. And in making his case against religiously-inflected nationalism, Linker too quickly glosses the fact that the most virulent forms of nationalist providentialism in American history were generally advanced by liberals (or inspired by liberalized theologies that collapse messianism and politics), and that it was more “traditionalist” Augustinian belief that underlie the critique of national self-congratulation ranging from cautions by Lincoln to chastening admonitions by Reinhold Niebuhr. In these instances and more, it could be argued not only that Linker would unjustly exclude religious voices from political debates, but that liberalism is in desperate need of such religious voices, if only to prevent it from its own worst excesses.

Let me close by suggesting that Linker’s book, and the family of arguments to which it belongs that date back at least to Rawl’s Political Liberalism, is fundamentally distracting and even damaging to the fabric of the American polity. It operates out of a belief that the greatest threat to contemporary democracy is a massive wave of conservative Christian soldiers who threaten to usurp the levers of liberal democracy and put the nation under a Theocracy. The evidence, it seems to me, is quite contrary: over the past forty years, by many measures, the cultural forms and practices that have been often most important to traditionalists have weakened and even collapsed – including, as Linker celebrates, the basic fabric of marriage and family life. I think the evidence suggests that the oligarchic elements of the Republican party have consistently attracted and then co-opted religious conservatives for their electoral support, and then have engineered ever greater concentrations of economic power with nary an effort exerted on behalf of the causes dear to social and religious conservatives. In the meantime, these plutocrats – much quieter – have enjoyed relatively little critical attention by the Left, which instead has become absorbed with an embrace of identity politics, and has largely eschewed a serious reflection on the titanic inequalities that now pervade our national life in favor of denouncing social conservatives. The Left’s narrative has wholly obscured the fact that it was these very religious conservatives who were once at the heart of the Left. Offering them no place at the table of the official Left today – indeed, treating them when possible with dismissiveness if not outright condescension – the egalitarian economic populism of this segment of America now lies dormant and their energies are instead bestowed upon a Republican Party that yearly further decimates their way of life. There is a straight line backward from the Tea Party to Reagan Democrats, but then further back to William Jenning Bryan’s people and the Jacksonian and Jeffersonian Democrats. There was a time in this country when the Left was more devoted to equality than to lifestyle autonomy, and it was more often than not religious conservatives were the most vocal defenders of democratic equality. Linker articulates a contemporary understanding of Liberalism that asks us to be indifferent to a variety of lifestyle choices, but we ought to ponder whether such indifference can be reined in, or whether it results in indifference toward our fellow citizens in a much wider scope.

Linker’s story is finally informed by its own triumphalist and Providentialist storyline, the history of the victory of Liberalism and the need for it to maintain firm control of what he calls the “skirmish line” between religion and politics. This storyline wholly obscures what I think to be the real story – the story of how modern economic conservatism and modern identity liberalism have combined in support of titanic inequalities in our society, the former in the name of corporate profit and the latter in the name of lifestyle autonomy and the “secession of the successful.” Truly homeless today are the religious conservatives whose voices Linker would silence rather than engage. America needs the older lyrics that religious voices once raised as a prophetic witness to the Republic, that language of equal dignity that demands more than indifference and more than the private reveries and worse, the self-congratulation of today’s autonomous individuals. It calls for the language of community, fidelity, memory, and a belief in our shared fate that was ever the greatest contribution of American faith to the Republic. So long as contemporary liberalism insists that those voices be shut out of the public sphere, they will continue to sing a querulous and tinny song, one that remains out of tune with the better angels of their own beliefs.


Russell Arben Fox said...

There was a time in this country when the Left was more devoted to equality than to lifestyle autonomy, and it was more often than not religious conservatives were the most vocal defenders of democratic equality. Linker articulates a contemporary understanding of Liberalism that asks us to be indifferent to a variety of lifestyle choices, but we ought to ponder whether such indifference can be reined in, or whether it results in indifference toward our fellow citizens in a much wider scope.

Very well said, Patrick; I agree completely. As you know, I'm much more sympathetic to elements of Damon's liberal approach than you are, which comes out in my own review--but the philosophical disagreements between us are deep, me being the religious leftist, and him being the secular liberal. This review expresses those disagreements very well. Thanks for posting your comments here.

Ray Ingles said...

Bertrand de Jouvenel suggested that social contract theories were conceived by “childless men who had forgotten their childhoods,”

I dunno. I've used "What if everyone did that?" a lot with my kids.