What kind of Democracy leads to Secularism?
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this evening. The topic is of great personal interest and also of great importance for our life together in this democratic republic. I am grateful, as well, for the invitation to address the topic here, in the Library of Congress. The last time I was invited to speak at an event sponsored by Dr. Billington was shortly before the celebration of the millennium. As you know, the Library of Congress sponsors every hundred years a review of the advance of knowledge in the many fields of human learning; and I was invited to speak to the topic of religion in the world. My presentation was heavily influenced by St. Augustine’s theology of history in The City of God. It was perhaps too heavily apologetic in looking at the influence of religion in the development of human affairs throughout the twentieth century. In looking ahead to the next century, this century, I welcomed the phenomenon of cultural globalization because it would make clear that the great faiths remain the dominant shapers of cultures, as nation states are relativized in a new global order. I said, if I recall, that it is more provincial to be French or Chinese or American than to be Christian or Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist and that personal identity would again become more religious and less nationalistic. Perhaps the most prescient remark, however, appeared toward the end of my talk when I said that the dialogue between Christianity and Islam will be the most important conversation of the coming century. It had been for a thousand years a relationship that often led to violence. We had to do better in the twenty first century.
Immediately after the attacks on our country in the name of the God of Abraham on Sept, 11, 2001, the op-ed pieces in some of the major newspapers made it clear that all doctrinal or dogmatic religion is a threat to peace. Every religion must therefore give up every claim to truth and base its right to existence only on its offering private consolation and public charity. That religion can be used to excite violence was recognized by Pope John Paul II when he called the leaders of all world religions to Assisi in 1986 and again during the millennium celebrations in order to pray for peace not together, for that would violate conscience, but respectfully in one another’s presence. Religion in the new millennium must never be an excuse for violence but must, instead, play the role of peacemaker.
Karol Wojtyla’s successor as Bishop of Rome, Joseph Ratzinger, has chosen the name Benedict because of his expressed desire to be a peacemaker. At his election, he recalled St. Benedict and the role of the monasteries in pacifying Europe and preserving classical culture and education after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He likewise recalled the memory and purpose of Pope Benedict XV during the First World War. Prevented from arbitrating a ceasefire early on in the war and then denied a voice in the creation of the peace treaty, Benedict XV created the Vatican Refugee Service to help reunite families separated by war.
Our question this evening touches indirectly the relation between religion and peace but asks, more specifically, about the relation between religion and forms of government, for every form of government justifies its own existence through its protection of the people governed and the creation of a public order in which they can be secure and live in peace. More specifically yet, we are raising the question of the relation between religion and a particular form of government, democracy. Democracy justifies its existence not only because it can keep the peace but also because it can do so while respecting and preserving freedoms of all sorts.
Tonight’s question cannot be answered, even tentatively, without clarifying a few presuppositions about the meaning of religion and its manifestations, of modernity and its expressions since the French Revolution, about secularity and its proper realm, and about democracy and its varieties. Basic to my distinctions will be the loosely Augustinian distinction between the sacred, the profane and the secular. After clarifying terms, I will argue three propositions that expose some difficulties and help us to address some of the reasons for the movement now to secularize our democratic society.
First, a word about religion: almost all historical religions are founded on the belief that God has taken an initiative in the affairs of humanity. They make truth claims about the nature of God, the nature of the human family and the destiny of the world and the human race. They and their truth claims are universal, although the major religions are each dominant in particular parts of the world. In these places, they have shaped cultures and public life, along with informing the lives of individual believers. Because religion begins with a divine initiative, it is not entirely malleable; our experience is not definitive in establishing religious truth. Nor can faith be reduced to personal spirituality. Historical religions have afforded a window to a transcendent order not of our making. They become institutionally visible in a church or religious association, in monasteries and mosques and synagogues, in organizations of all sorts, especially in the fields of education, of health care, of charitable works. In the explicitly religious realm. God or something like a divine presence permeates every dimension of experience, although always through mediators, whether popes or creeds, sacred texts or personal conscience.
Historical religions, because they make truth claims, have been able to create or at least contribute to public discourse. It is of great importance to distinguish between religion and a personal philosophy of life, a view of things created by human thinkers and actors with no claim to a source transcendent to experience. It is also important, if religion is to be a public voice, that it be able to critically examine its own claims and teachings. Of singular importance in this examination is the question of who God is, for if God is a competitor to human initiative, a type of cosmic dictator, then religion will sit uneasily in a public conversation about freedom. To make these and other distinctions, religions that are not a simply arbitrary enterprise have used and continue to use reason to clarify, to better understand divine self-revelation in human history. Religion, as opposed to a personal philosophy, is ineluctably communitarian. It depends on texts only if those texts have been recognized as sacred by the community which wrote them. God, and therefore religion, demands a total response, a complete personal commitment; but neither God nor religion provides all the answers to worldly life. If everything is sacred, then the faith community swallows up the world, and society becomes a convent.
Secondly, a clarification about modernity: modernity, as it has come to characterize the largely Western and now global project of the past three centuries, means the pursuit of this - worldly fulfillment, an enterprise that often puts man at the center of at least human affairs if not of the universe. It proclaims the autonomy of the human race in pursuing science, the autonomy of the nations in pursuing sovereignty and the autonomy of individuals in pursuing rights. In order to reduce the impediments or strictures interfering with autonomy, modernity conquers nature itself through scientific understanding and technological change, which is the manipulation of nature for human purposes. Progress in this field has enabled us to control disease on the one hand and to create weapons of mass destruction on the other. For many people, however, it is not only nature they still fail to understand; it is also the modern machines that create our environment. Likewise, in order to reduce the impediments to autonomy that come from other persons or from the state, modernity has developed forms of liberal democracy, protecting rights to worship, think, speak, associate, own and exchange goods of all sorts. But the protection of rights has not purged from human memory the idea of the state as protector of the common good, a staple term in Western political theory throughout the Middle Ages. Modern times have therefore been marked by numerous attempts to create a perfect society by social engineering, always justified by one political ideology or another, many careless of or destructive of human freedoms.
There is at the heart of the liberal democratic project, a tension recognized by Locke and Madison in our own political tradition and by Aristotle and others in classic thought. How can society purposefully and safely use the state to effect the fulfillment of its citizens, when power tends to corrupt its holders? Containment of and limitations to harmful forms of possible state coercion have created constitutions with bills of rights, systems of mixed regimes, separation of powers and checks and balances. Democracy, considered as the participation of all in politics at least through the device of election of rulers, is the form of government most consistent with liberalism. But because even democracy carries with it the risk of majority tyranny, democratic states most concerned with freedom have evolved systems of federalism, of indirect rule through representatives and judicial review of legislation, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered whether democracy’s protection of human rights might be lost through democracy’s gradual undermining of the sources that gave secure basis to these rights in society: the discipline of virtue and of religious convictions. Tocqueville linked democracy and secularization because democracy will, over time, he felt, encourage citizens to “deny anything that they cannot understand” and propel people toward “an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural.” By contrast, Pope John Paul II, acknowledging the Catholic Church’s slow recognition of the positive possibilities in democratic order, came, from his own experience of Nazi and Communist regimes in Poland, to believe that the orderly selection and replacement of rulers by the citizens both protects the many from “narrow ruling groups” and enhances human dignity through participation in political choices. John Paul II, however, echoed elements of Tocqueville’s arguments in pointing to the corrosive effect upon democratic ideals through the passing of bad laws. These form people in ways of thought inimical to even constitutionally protected rights. If a democratic society comes to believe, for example, that agnosticism and moral relativism are necessary to preserve social peace, truth becomes the enemy of freedom and freedom itself is reduced to individual autonomy. The common life, which participatory liberalism was designed to protect, can then be lost to dominant interests divorced from the common good but capable of influencing politics and public life. Democracy is based on more than legal procedures; it needs a shared vision. Pope John Paul built his defense of liberalism on its positive ability to protect freedoms, including the freedom of the Church to pursue her mission in the world and freedom for all to foster the good of the poor and the working classes through freedom of association and speech and the right to private property with a social mortgage. The Pope was cautiously confident of liberalism’s care for the dignity of each person, a normative precept with religious foundation.
Thirdly, a clarification about secularity and secularism: secularism as a total philosophy of public life captures the world for the profane. It is not neutral toward any claims to truth or rights to act, if it is religion that sets the terms for the claims or the actions. Public life must be constructed on the assumption that God does not exist or, if he does, that it makes no difference. Secularism’s espousal of public atheism in this country is based not on racial superiority, as was the case with Nazi Germany, nor the supposedly scientific history of class warfare, as was the case with Leninist states, but on the myth of human progress carried exclusively by a scientific method limited to the study of material reality. This project occupies the entire ground of public human action and public discourse in the pursuit of truth.
By contrast, an understanding of the secular as the ground between the sacred and the profane displays it as the world of the contingent, with its own penultimate ends and purposes. This understanding does not divorce the world from God; but it recognizes, in Christ’s words, that God’s Kingdom is not of this world. It is reflected in the formula of Pope Gelasius I (492-496), reminding the Emperor Anastasius: “Two swords there are,” not one. While the profane excludes God, the sacred and the secular are both authorized by God who therefore governs a human race defined by pluralism and institutional diversity. The realm of morality is independent of political decisions but influences them, much as a Constitution regulates particular legislation. If religion provides a legitimate ground for secular concern with penultimate things, then the secular must provide legitimate ground for religion to address ultimate things on their own terms.
Freedom of religion in the saeculum extends beyond freedom of personal conscience and beyond freedom to worship. It includes freedom for religious institutions to have a public voice, to be public actors. To illustrate this point, compare freedom of the press to freedom of religion. If newspaper publishers and editors were free to believe what they like and to organize their companies and employees according to good business practices but were forbidden to speak to issues of public policy, unable to criticize public officials or institutions, restricted to printing for general consumption only what the law or dominant public opinion permits, there would be no freedom of the press. Yet this is exactly the straight jacket in which religion is placed today by secularists who espouse a seemingly democratic public morality and insist that any public religious critique is illegitimate. Religious institutions are by their own communal nature public actors. When the saeculum is constituted without respect for religious freedom, it becomes profane and persecution of religion becomes inevitable. There is no guarantee that even democratic institutions will prevent this. Independent courts, a free press, an elected legislature can all be manipulated, and have been in our own history, to subvert various freedoms and reflect the prejudices of the ruling class as well as those of ordinary citizens.
Does this mean that a sane understanding of the world, the saeculum, demands there be no restrictions on religious institutions? Of course not, and some will be examined below. But the nature of a well-ordered saeculum places restrictions on governments as well, even on democratic governments. Let me add only that restrictions on democratic polity in a well-ordered saeculum would extend not only to governmental institutions but also to the range of human concerns these can address. A government that determines what is a religious ministry and what is not, what is the nature of an institution such as marriage, which predates both Church and state and is the creature of neither, when human life begins and when it can be taken without a penal trial, has exceeded the boundaries of limited governance and is already on the road to totalitarianism. While democratic in form, it has betrayed human freedom.
A final word to define the secular: the saeculum is the place where two key conversations take place, the conversation between faith and culture and that between faith and reason. The dialogue between faith and culture is necessary because both faith and culture are normative systems; both tell us what to do, what is important, what should be our hierarchy of values. If the norms of one’s faith and the norms of one’s culture are totally antithetical, the believer lives a schizophrenic life and cannot act in good conscience and without constraint. The dialogue between faith and reason is also necessary because both faith and reason search for and espouse truth. If what one professes as a believer and what one thinks as a philosopher or scientist or ordinary citizen cannot be reconciled, skepticism becomes the intellectual order and doubt paralyzes the possibility of common action. A saeculum where faith cannot be a public dialogue partner is by definition totalitarian or at least non-pluralist; such a secularist society is cut off from dialogue with most of the human race, with consequent misunderstanding tragically inevitable.
Lastly, fourthly, a further clarification about democracy, that political arrangement most protective of human freedom: a theory of democratic governance presupposes, against Hobbes and his disciples, that government is more than a form of legal coercion. It brings together individual freedom and the common good, space for individual initiative and united action for common purposes. It exercises a form of authority in which sovereignty is never completely transmitted and where equality before the law does not destroy natural communities such as marriage and the family, religious associations, business enterprises and voluntary groupings of all kinds with their leaders and officers. Its own political institutions presuppose, sustain and encourage those associations that create a morality of responsibility for the whole, especially religious institutions that train people in the virtues necessary for self-sacrifice. Democracy depends on a vision of what it means to be human that it itself cannot provide.
Permit me now to move to the three propositions or arguments that build on these definitions. I presume that everyone in this room is a small-d democrat. It’s not that we believe the world has arrived at some end of history in which everything else has been tried, has failed, and democracy is the only form of government left standing. As we have known since September 11, 2001, there are abroad in the world some very potent challengers to our sense of democracy. Yet those of us who appreciate what modem democracy has meant in the past must also be among the most concerned about what may be happening to it in the present and future. Our recognition that democracy has no serious rival at the moment as a philosophy and form for human government does not prevent us from reflecting critically on it both in theory and practice. In this, we follow an American tradition, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, of seeking a more perfect union, present perfection evidently being regarded by our Founders as less than we should hope for.
My first argument is that, here in the United States, the primary danger to democratic freedoms comes not from religion but from philosophical secularism. Even before embarking on this line of reasoning, however, I believe we must acknowledge that religions themselves have been agents in secularizing public life in America. Jews often led the way in secularizing our society because they felt it was the best way to guarantee that one did not have to be Christian to be American. Analogously, Catholics contributed to secularization in various ways in order to be sure one did not have to be Protestant to be American. But because all of us have been basically united in our regard for democracy in America, we have for most of our history until quite recently cultivated a moderate pluralism in public life. Now, however, it seems a battle has arisen between our older notion of a civic pluralism accommodating the religious beliefs of the vast majority of Americans on the one hand and, on the other hand, an aggressive secularism that seems quite intent on eliminating any religiously motivated idea, speech or action in civic and intellectual life.
Some have recently argued that pluralism of its very nature demands secularism. There seems to be no logical reason why respect for the beliefs of more than a quarter billion Americans, 90 percent of whom declare themselves to be religious, should require us now to eschew the public expression of religion, even in discussing political affairs that have moral foundations or implications. It is, of course, true that politics is not a sacral activity. Very often, however, political issues do not even admit of full evaluation by unaided reason. We can easily think of any number of political or economic questions - state vs. federal jurisdiction, the minimum wage, treaty agreements - that are so complex that they depend on fallible human judgments, even if they have some general religious or moral dimension. We believe, for example, that all human beings are made in the image of God, but that does not give us an automatic answer about the nation’s health-care system. And we may think that God has made us free and rational, without being sure about how much the law may legitimately curtail freedom. Our religious traditions must recognize certain things as beyond their competence. But at the same time, the properly secular society has to be sober in its recognition that it exists under God, firm in its understanding that fundamental truths, many of them religious in nature, under-gird its very existence and prudent in determining the good that can and cannot be achieved under given circumstances.
The danger to freedom today arises when this saeculum, this public world that Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and others inhabit during our transitory life on earth is administered by a strict secularism. We cannot agree about our beliefs or doubts, it is often said, so we leave them aside in our deliberations about how we are to live our public lives together. This seeming neutrality is not at all neutral. Its contemporary claim to be the unique public philosophy of America was probably the central factor in the rise of what is sometimes referred to as the Religious Right, in reaction not to neutrality but to a perceived anti-religious bias heading in the general direction of seeking to eliminate religion from public discourse. Such an outcome is very unlikely in America; even 70 years of official atheism backed by the Gulag did not eliminate all belief in the former Soviet Union. As Leszek Kolakowski, the first Kluge Award recipient from the Library of Congress, has said: “Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.” Far from being the uncontroversial neutral space that it might once have been thought to be, secularism itself has fostered some of our most heated debates by pushing issues like gay marriage and abortion in a society that would not have come to them by democratic choice. We often talk about divisiveness in the culture and some like to trace it to religious views. But secularism has been as divisive – and perhaps more so – than any other current viewpoint. In sum, as befits a movement that espouses as many controversial views as any other ideology, secularism today cannot be thought of as a healing, neutral, reconciling space in a divided culture.
Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, once said that we can see that human reason, in a fallen world, has a tendency to go dangerously awry, and it is because of this truth that one of the benefits of the dialogue of faith and reason is “the convalescence of reason.” In questions about the nature of human sexuality and the protection of human life, we all sense a bewildering shift in the use of reason to think through the common good and an imposition of sharp limitations on the kinds of reason that are admissible. Narrow views are presented as humane and rational; broader ones are judged “sectarian.” I would add that it is this larger historical context that gives us a deep sense of the importance of believers for the protection of the properly secular. A skeptical secularism fails to provide a foundation for human rights and undermines the foundation that historically has existed. Secular republics need inspiration about the nature of the person and of liberty that they cannot find within themselves, and they depend on religious and moral traditions to provide it. Most ordinary citizens in a country like America understand that intuitively.
John Paul II, the great pope of the modern struggle with totalitarianism, warned in his 1993 encyclical Veriiatis splendor:
Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.
Pluralism must mean that all individuals and groups are welcome to participate in the public debate, religious and not. What protects the foundation of this legitimate pluralism? Three candidates are evident today: religion itself; secular philosophy; scientific theory.
The Founders of the American constitutional experiment in well ordered democratic government thought that religion played a crucial role in protecting legitimate pluralism. George Washington’s Farewell Address explains that, “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 evidently distrusted mere speculation in politics, believing that religion was a spring of “popular virtue” and that without “national morality” a free system could not survive. Thomas Jefferson, considered less friendly to religious belief than Washington, certainly argued for the constitutional separation of Church and state; but he also wrote in his Notes on Virginia: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not violated but with his wrath?”
At the very least, the historically religious insistence on both the freedom and the responsibility of the human person helps us to understand what a properly secular and pluralist society should be. I would go even further and say that human life and public order cannot flourish without the strong presence of some religious features. In that sense, a modern state should not and cannot be neutral between belief and non-belief. The purpose of religion, of course, is not first of all to protect democracy or any other civil order, but faith does supply ultimate perspectives and human virtues that a merely secular order cannot generate from within itself. To say this is to advocate neither theocracy nor the removal of atheists from public life. It is to stand in the original and realistic American vision of democracy.
There have been powerful and well-intentioned efforts to address the lack of civil foundations without religion by grounding our respect for one another and our practice of liberty in purely secular philosophy and procedural arrangements. The most prominent of these arguments is found in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. In that seminal work, foundations are simply banished and we all act as from behind “a veil of ignorance” in deciding what public rules we want to adhere to, knowing they may be applied to us as to our loved ones. Rawls himself realized that his book presumed that people behind the veil would be acting according to ideologically liberal principles, which is to say that they would follow mostly progressive social assumptions and would elevate things like tolerance for diverse lifestyles over more substantive commitments. In 1993, he published Political Liberalism, which acknowledged the problems with his earlier formulation, not least that Americans are not philosophically liberal and became markedly less so in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Political Liberalism tried to encourage Americans to see that, in a pluralistic society, all have an interest in not making comprehensive, ultimate commitments the norms for political life. Instead, what Rawls calls “public reason” must guide public deliberations. At the end of the day, Rawls and many a lesser theorist seem to be searching for ways for the secular order to maintain newly discovered rights to abortion and homosexual activity without seeming to contradict their own openness to all forms of rationality and thereby falling back into asserting a comprehensive liberalism under the guise of neutrality.
The strictly secular pluralist who seeks to exclude religion from public life bumps up against that fact that, once you really allow the voices of various people to be heard, they will be overwhelmingly religious because the human race is overwhelmingly religious. Not only would Abraham, Moses, David, Judas Maccabaeus, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Dante, Luther. Erasmus, Calvin, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, Pascal, Coleridge, Chateaubriand, Mauriac, Pasteur, Schweitzer, Graham Greene, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many many other great intellectual figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition now be excluded from the public conversation, but so would Thales, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Mohammed, and a host of non-Biblical and non-Western figures as well. Any intellectual tradition that did not allow such voices into the discussion would be narrow, and any political regime that excludes them can hardly be called pluralist. It would be a secularism seeking to swallow up everything or ignore everyone outside its own narrow purview.
Today, a third foundation for a sane secular order is sought in materialistic theories that appeal to science for support. The British neo-Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins has publicly admitted: “I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.” This profession of faith makes admirably clear that scientific rationalism is not as watertight as some people once thought and puts Dawkins and other like him among the believers, albeit of a peculiar kind. Such sectarians think they should be able to impose their views on us all through schools and other state instruments. He has asserted that raising children in a religious household is a form of child abuse, that Moses was like Hitler, and that the New Testament espouses sadomasochism.
Yet Dawkins is not wholly ready to accept even his own arguments. He seems quite pointlessly enraged at religious people who, in his system, are only the necessary products of blind natural forces. But why do human beings show a near universal disposition to believe something that neo-Darwinism claims is unreal? Why does a false picture of the world aid our chances of survival? Some scientists have simply asserted that there must be some adaptive, evolutionary value in belief, which is “hard-wired” into our brains and may even stem from a “God gene.” Perhaps so, but like the genes that enable us to do science and mathematics, the God gene alone cannot tell us whether or not its products are true, a question that amidst the countless entities in a vast cosmos is asked only by human beings. Maybe Dawkins’ anger and our failure to conform to strict scientific categories are both symptoms of something that needs attention from a more neutral science.
Although secularism is not logically entailed by pluralism, might there be something in human nature that inexorably leads individuals and masses in conditions of modern freedom to embrace secularism and radical individualism? For an answer, it might be better to look to history and the social sciences rather than to physics and biology. We can at least observe that pluralism in modern conditions seems to exert a gravitational force on a significant sector of the population, especially those in highly sensitive institutions like the media, the universities, and other shapers of contemporary public culture, to espouse the view that secularism is the only legitimate foundation of democracy in our circumstances. But cultures, like individuals, change over time. At the end of the day, at least for the believer, human beings are free and open to graces and energies that, as history repeatedly shows, were not and cannot be anticipated. The prospects for religion in postmodern societies may seem unfavorable. Still, there is no reason why the religious impulses that seem, even to the neuroscientists, to be hardwired into us may not find new ways of public expression. For pluralism and secularism to stop that, they would have to produce something like a change in human nature, a new man. Scientific socialism was not up to the task with quite powerful methods at its disposal, and I do not believe scientific secularism will be either.
My second argument is that secularism and its attendant danger to freedoms protected by democratic political institutions can arise from those institutions themselves. I would like to take as a case in point the jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court on religious liberty since the days of Justice Felix Frankfurter. The history of law in this country exposes our cultural history, for law is the most important unifying factor in a country as diverse as ours. Law exercises a pedagogical function along with its coercive power. It is primarily from the law that we learn how to live as Americans. What does constitutional law now teach us about religious freedom in our country? To put it simply, it seems to me that the Court has not yet denied that religious freedom is a human right, a more than civil right, but it has tended to regard the public expression of religion as divisive and something the social order has to regard with some suspicion. For example, in the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court declared that financial aid that includes parochial schools violates the Establishment Clause because the potential for ‘political divisiveness’ along religious lines “is a threat to the normal political process,” and, to quote the court again, is “one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect” society. That our society is so fragile that it needs such protection would be surprising to the citizens of other countries. Great Britain and Australia, New Zealand and most of the Canadian Provinces, France, Italy and most of the European democracies, the State of Israel and even Iraq under the Baathist regime of Sadam Hussein have given financial aid to the parents of Catholic school children. With the exception of Sadam’s Iraq, all were and are functioning democracies whose internal unity is not weakened by families seeking a fair pluralism in order to educate youngsters in ways that their parents desire. Does the existence of such families itself contribute to divisiveness? The obvious danger here is that, if every difference is evidence of divisiveness or even discrimination, then eliminating divisiveness and discrimination will be the reason for eliminating all differences, including religious differences, cultural differences, gender differences, racial differences, everything, perhaps, except economic differences in a commercial republic.
A good number of other decisions could be cited as cases in point. In McCullom v. Board of Education, the court spoke of “religious indoctrination” occurring in secular government buildings and remarked on the similarity of this program to that of the Vichy government in France, quoting with approval from the anti-Catholic campaigns in the 19th century at the time of the Blaine Amendments in the various state constitutions. More decisions could be called upon to illustrate the point that the court understands religious liberty as a means to avoid irrational coercion and civil conflicts rather than as a means to advance an important foundation of human dignity.
The court has rightly refused to be drawn into questions of religious truth claims, but its reluctance to distinguish between historical religion and any personal philosophy of life demonstrates only a concern to protect the rights of autonomous individuals and clashes with a more traditional understanding of a religious believer as someone owing duties and loyalties to two distinct but sovereign powers. A doctrine that rests on the premise that anything counts as religion will also find it very difficult to afford strong protection to the free exercise of religion, for fear that every individual will eventually be a law unto himself or herself. The consequence of this incoherence is twofold: freedom of religion is de-institutionalized and assimilated to the right of each person to self-expression, even if that expression happens to be religious; and, secondly, such a thin rights claim puts religion in the position of every other competing societal claim, despite freedom of religion’s being the first of our constitutionally guaranteed liberties. The anti-establishment clause has been interpreted at times to require that only laws with a “secular purpose,” with primarily secular effects and with no entanglements with religion will be constitutionally allowable. In the well-known Lemon test, the assertion that any and all government involvement with religion is necessarily corrosive of religion itself is unproven. Many examples of cooperation between religious institutions and governmental agencies have demonstrated the contrary conclusion.
Government institutions, under the pressure of incoherent and unpredictable case law, have predictably engaged in self-censorship. Sacred music in concerts, a drawing of a saint, Valentine’s Day cards have all been banned from public schools in recent times. What is taught in such prohibitions is not state neutrality but state disdain for religion. Disdain seems quite evident, to me at least, in the 1990 decision to absolve the State from imposing even a substantial burden on a believer’s religious observance so long as the legal coercion on religious beliefs is a general law without discriminatory purpose and the obligation it imposes makes policy for everyone and every institution. The consequences of this interpretation of the First Amendment for Catholic Health Care and Social Services will mean the withdrawal of the Church from many public ministries. For the first time in our history, the Catholic Church and other Christian communities will be forbidden to respond to the Lord’s command to serve the poor, the sick and the abandoned in his name. It’s more than a little ironic that we are reducing freedom of religion in the United States to freedom of private conscience and worship, the position freedom of religion held in the constitution of the former Soviet Union.
I have chosen egregious examples, for the Court has also protected religious freedoms; but the trends point, I believe, to a First Amendment doctrine that permits government to limit the ability of religious believers to live out their commitments fully in public life and opens up further threats that the state may burden and discriminate against religious practices and even eliminate the existence of religiously governed organizations if they are engaged in public activities, and all this will be done in the name of civil rights for individuals. Should these trends be taken up and placed into concrete policy, religious believers would be forced to decide upon their primary loyalties, whether to God or to Caesar. It is supremely unhealthy for a country to create such dilemmas and thereby provide grounds for the alienation of its citizens who are religious believers. The fact, moreover, that the First Amendment is now interpreted to permit such developments does not necessarily mean that governments will choose to use their constitutional powers to further dilute religious liberty and secularize society. We still have a largely religious population in many parts of our nation; but to the extent that religious believers become a minority, they will have few constitutional protections to fall back on. Democratic institutions, like the Supreme Court, can and have become agents of an oppressive secularization.
My third argument about secularization and democracy arises with particular force in the United States. It can happen that democracy does not control or eradicate religion but simply replaces it. American civil religion has been discussed broadly and well. The line between a religious duty of patriotism and the replacing of religion by the State is thin and negotiated with difficulty. But as historical religion can be and has been co-opted by a state for its own purposes, so also can it be replaced by devotion to the nation itself when national purpose takes on the character of a religious mission. National symbols can easily pass from demanding our respect and even affection to commanding our ultimate loyalties; but a nation is never a Church, much less an object of worship. No more than the profane should take over the domain of the secular should the secular replace the domain of the sacred.
It could be argued that the man who, in saving the union as a sacred duty, did very much to found American civil religion is also the one who gave us civil religion’s antidote. In his second Inaugural address, inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial here in Washington, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with the intentions of a God of history. Lincoln’s God was not a deistic principle, limited to giving us rights and duties, the God of nature, the God of some of the Founders. Lincoln’s God, at least by the end of the Civil War, was clearly a provident God, and our duty was to read his intentions in human history without co-opting him to our purposes. After reviewing the tragedy of the blood that had been shed on both sides in the fraternal slaughter that was the Civil War, Lincoln said; “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purpose... Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’“
On another occasion, Lincoln called Americans “an almost chosen people,” but there is no room in his final understanding of American loyalties for self-righteousness or for self-vaunting. Even as he wrestled with the horrors of war, Lincoln trusted that God had his own will for the world, often not understood and sometimes antithetical to our own. The problem of evil remains unresolved, and this very conundrum warns us against secular Utopian schemes. This is perhaps the ultimate protection against a purely civil religion as a form of secularization: that God cannot be co-opted and yet remains the primary actor in our history and our endeavors. Since God’s will is complex, so must be our affairs. In the long run, any attempt to reduce the complexity of the relations between the sacred, the properly secular and the profane is doomed to failure, although each such effort can cause great human hardship in the short run. But in both the short and the long run, the Church, or the synagogue, or the mosque or the temple is where you go when you want to be connected to the One who relates to everyone and every people. The Church is where you go when you want to be free.
What kind of democracy leads to secularism? Ours, if it reduces the realm of human freedom in the name of individual civil rights. What kind of democracy protects freedom? Ours, if it limits itself to its properly secular purposes.