Yesterday was Leo Tolstoy’s 185th birthday. Most well known for his infamously vast novel War and Peace, Tolstoy was a complex and fascinating writer—a devout Christian with anarchist leanings, whose views on private property may have annoyed today’s libertarian. But despite what one might think about his more controversial beliefs, Tolstoy must be admired for his dogged pursuit of truth. He did not shy away from its raw, demanding light.
Tolstoy’s works are now available online for free—all 90 of them. This new Russian website hosts all his work, along with extensive biographical resources. If you have heard tales of Tolstoy’s legendary verbosity, be not dismayed: he has also written some excellent short works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a notable example, along with Father Sergius and Hadji Murat).
Raised by rich nobility, Tolstoy spent his early years as a poor student and avid gambler. He was horrified by the violence of the Crimean War; perhaps this helped push him toward the Christianity and pacifism of his later years. He married in 1862, had 13 children, and achieved great literary acclaim. However, after writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis. He then devoted the rest of his writings to religious and moral subjects.
Considering the Syria debate that has enthralled the media lately, I found this selection from Tolstoy’s essay “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” particularly noteworthy. Though Tolstoy’s pacifism and anarchism may be extreme, he had some interesting arguments regarding the use of violence that should be considered in today’s debate:
But besides corrupting public opinion, the use of force leads men to the fatal conviction that they progress, not through the spiritual impulse which impels them to the attainment of truth and its realization in life, and which constitutes the only source of every progressive movement of humanity, but by means of violence, the very force which, far from leading men to truth, always carries them further away from it. This is a fatal error, because it leads men to neglect the chief force underlying their life—their spiritual activity—and to turn all their attention and energy to the use of violence, which is superficial, sluggish, and most generally pernicious in its action.
…The sole guide which directs men and nations has always been and is the unseen, intangible, underlying force, the resultant of all the spiritual forces of a certain people, or of all humanity, which finds its outward expression in public opinion. The use of violence only weakens this force, hinders it and corrupts it, and tries to replace it by another which far from being conducive to the progress of humanity, is detrimental to it.
Could Tolstoy be right that force repels progress and corrupts the truer motives of men—that using force to suppress force will not, in fact, bring freedom, but will instead subjugate the deeper, truer power of public opinion and reasoned discourse? If the people of Syria perceive that their progress only comes through deplorable violence, when will they stop? When will they convert from bloody revolution to the peaceful pursuit of representative government?
There may be times and places in which violence is absolutely necessary. However, one must never view it as a good means to procure peace: violence is never excellent. Tolstoy recognized its cyclical nature, and rightly saw it should be avoided at all costs. In Tolstoy’s mind, the greatest good one could do was to live without greed or avarice: to tend one’s own land, family, and to love thy neighbor as thyself. It seems in this time of great national decision, there are many ways in which our government should tend its own land and family before seeking to suppress or fight violence elsewhere.
The German government forcibly seized four children from their parents in a raid last Thursday in Darmstadt, Germany. Why? Because the Wunderlich children were home schooled – an illegal activity viewed by the German government as “child endangerment.”
Reports by World Net Daily and The Daily Mail said the police were armed with a battering ram, and held father Dirk Wunderlich to a chair while they removed the children. A team of 20 social workers, police, and special agents entered the home. According to a report by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an organization that advocates for parental choice in education, the children were taken to unknown locations and officials told the parents they would not be seeing their children “anytime soon.”
In a phone interview, Wunderlich called the episode a “nightmare.” He said that for several days, he has felt “very down and crushed,” but is trusting that “this terrible thing is one piece in God’s big plan.”
Michael Donnelly, lawyer for HSLDA, said, “This shouldn’t happen in Germany. This is a very peaceful family.”
Not only did the German government seize the children – they seized the children’s passports as well. This prevents the family from attempting to move to another country where homeschooling is permissible. According to Wunderlich, the children could be taken from them permanently if they made such an attempt. “Our children are prisoners of the German government,” he said.
The Wunderlich family has been trying to homeschool their family legally for years, and attempted moving to other countries with greater educational freedoms. Although they found refuge in France, Mr. Wunderlich was unable to find a job. They had to return to Germany.
For the Wunderlichs, homeschooling is preferable for both religious and educational reasons. Wunderlich believes school can be a rather “artificial place for learning.” Via homeschooling, their children can immediately pursue and study specific interests. He also believes homeschooling has bolstered family relationships. But living in Germany has been hard for them. There are few homeschooling families in Germany. “In America, it’s perfect,” Wunderlich said. “But here in Germany, most parents are alone … if people were gentle and nice, it would be better, but society and authorities are against homeschoolers.”
German law states children must attend school from age six to 18. Homeschooling is not permissible. Two German Supreme Court rulings on the subject have given the state equal authority as parents over children’s education. The law is meant to ensure children receive the appropriate socialization, Donnelly said.
But according to Donnelly and other homeschooling advocates at HSLDA, this law is in direct contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Germany has signed. The ICCPR gives the following permissions to parents: “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” This parental liberty, Donnelly says, includes the right to homeschool.
In addition, Germany has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which says states party to the covenant “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
Andrew Doran’s article in National Review last week rightly notes the brutality undergone by the Copts in the aftermath of Egypt’s coup. He even compares the brutality with Nazi persecution of the Jews:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s systematic and coordinated attacks against Christians in Egypt are reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when Nazi paramilitaries systematically vandalized Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues and murdered scores of Jews in a disturbing foreshadowing of the fate of European Jews over the next few years. It is no accident that many Jews, including Barry Rubin and Jeffrey Goldberg, have been quick to raise the alarums over the persecution of Christians: They recognize the dangerous signs. “They have hatred in their hearts,” says Thabet of the Brotherhood, echoing observations commonly made of the National Socialists in 20th-century Germany.
But the Copt’s persecutors are not a well-organized military force, with a charismatic and powerful leader. Rather, they are a hurt and angry mob, with a rapidly dwindling leadership. Their acts of aggression against Coptic Christians seem less a calculated ruthless policy than the raged revenge of a hurt and angry people. Of course, this is not to excuse those horrendous actions. However, it does change the way in which we seek a solution to the problem.
In Egypt, the mob and the military are not unified; rather, their very friction has helped instigate and foster this persecution, more or less. More military crackdown only seems to result in more Coptic persecution. Thus, a foreign military strengthening Egypt’s military arm is not likely to fix the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has been weakened significantly in recent weeks; this, as Eric Trager argued in The New Republic, makes the group even harder to control and direct in a peaceable manner. And this does make sense: without leadership with whom to reason, the group will become more and more unreasonable:
… By disorganizing Egypt’s most cohesive Islamist group, the generals have turned hundreds of thousands of deeply ideological Muslim Brothers into free radicals, who will no longer listen to their typically cautious leaders. Many younger Muslim Brothers, in particular, lean towards Salafism, and their upbringing in the Brotherhood—whose motto concludes with the phrase “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations”—has made them willing to die for Islamism, and possibly willing to fight for it as well.
In addition, one cannot exempt the military from blame in Coptic persecution: John Storm, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday that “For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in [Morsi’s] ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them.”
On August 8th, each of New York City’s two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, ran op-eds on the rise of social science approving and assisting some of our most cherished social concepts. David Brooks recommended the rise of “nudging,” where soft incentives or opt-out systems are used to encourage positive, socially and personally beneficial behavior. Ari Schulman, an alumnus of Brooks’s employ, considered the laudatory treatment of religion by various recent studies.
Brooks hailed the rise of what he called “social paternalism,” arguing that “most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good” and so “to some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms.” Thankfully, “this has been a great era for the study of error,” so we have reams of fresh evidence to show how “people are pretty bad at sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. We’re bad at calculating risk. We’re mentally lazy.” These innate defects of our constitution disadvantage us in the aggregate, causing inefficient group behavior and opening the door for systemic manipulation by for-profit actors seeking to exploit our failures for their own gain. ”As these cognitive biases have become better known,” then, “public spirited people naturally want to design ways to help us avoid them.”
One such bias could well be found in the decline of religious practice. For as Schulman reported, “A ream of recent scientific research has given the faithful reason to rejoice: Belief is good for you.” Yeshiva University researchers found that “those who frequently attended religious services were 56% more likely than non-attending women to report high rates of optimism, and 27% less likely to report depression. Other studies of the same group found a 20% lower mortality rate.” A social media analysis found that “Christian tweeters used positive words more often than atheists, and negative words less often.”
Researchers working from Harvard, Duke, University College London, and many other institutions have repeatedly found that “religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.” Yet social science is simultaneously finding that religious belief, identification, and participation is in decline, as the proportion of Americans declaring themselves to have a religious affiliation of “none” has skyrocketed, and church attendance has collapsed, especially among the young.
Such religious refusal in the face of empirical evidence would seem to be just the sort of cognitive bias Brooks refers to, choosing the short-term pleasure of a warm bed on a Sunday morning to the long-term benefit of riding the pews regularly, calculating risks poorly in the face of the potential of such overwhelming adverse consequences should a Christian eschatology pan out, and being too mentally lazy to understand all the this-world benefits religious practice would bestow. “These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one,” after all, so “some modest paternalism might be just what we need” to nudge our citizenry back into Sunday and Saturday services, for their own good.
When the State Department announced its new office for religious engagement last week, Secretary John Kerry promised that the “separation of church and state” would be preserved. But Salon writer Austin Dacey questioned that statement Sunday:
“Constitutional or not, official interfacing with ‘faith-based organizations’ will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as ‘religions’ and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”
How much can the state interact with various faith groups without violating the Establishment Clause? Different commentators have contributed to this discussion over the past week. Some said the project will give state officials needed insight into other nations’ religious policies. While the U.S. has always enforced religious/political separation, other states have linked them indelibly. “The U.S. model works in the U.S. because it is a long-established part of the country’s culture, history, and constitution,” wrote Linda Woodhead at Religion Dispatches on Sunday. “Obviously, this is not the case in other countries. Here in the U.K., for example, religious freedom needs to be advanced by going with the grain of existing arrangements, rather than by attempting to start again.”
In their book Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, authors Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson write that “Foreign policy practitioners in the United States … are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where their imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, particularly in our dealings with countries of the Middle East.” This view seems relevant when considering recent diplomatic difficulties with Egypt, as well as Syria.
Some authors spoke favorably of the attention this initiative will bring to humanitarian crises and religious persecution: “As important leaders of society, builders of social capital, and trusted community figureheads, outreach to religious actors and institutions needs to become a routinized part of U.S. diplomacy across all regional and functional domains,” wrote Peter Mandaville at the Brookings Institution. “Whether we are talking about stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing prosperity to Africa, or achieving democracy in the Arab world, a focus on religion and religious actors needs to be front and center in our diplomacy and development work.”
Is it indeed the State Department’s role to stabilize Afghanistan, bring prosperity to Africa, and “achieve democracy” in the Arab world? How can it achieve such a broad transformation through dialogue with religious leaders who – it must be acknowledged – often disagree, even to the point of violence? Such a political effort may necessitate the sort of government endorsement that Dacey cautioned against.
The U.S. has a long tradition of state/religion separation. We believe the government should not play favorites with various religions or denominations. There is danger that this initiative will encourage such favoritism, despite Kerry’s assertion that it will help religious people “unify for the greater good … without crossing any [Constitutional] lines whatsoever.” In actual practice, one fears that “crossing lines” may be an all-too-easy temptation.
The Egyptian government announced a month-long state of emergency, after the military raided pro-Morsi sit-ins Monday morning. The measures came because of “danger due to deliberate sabotage, and attacks on public and private buildings and the loss of life by extremist groups,” according to the presidential statement.
But Monday’s crackdown resulted in a reported 278 dead, according to Egypt’s Health Ministry; Ashraf Khalil wrote in a dispatch for TIME Magazine that across Cairo, “a much more prolonged and potentially bloody battle is unfolding.” By mid-afternoon, Vice President and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei announced his resignation. “The social fabric has become threatened with rupture, because violence only begets violence,” he said on Twitter. Informed Comment’s Juan Cole noted that military and Interior Ministry leaders have been divided between using force or a gradual, attrition-based approach to quell the protests. “The military had appeared to wish to treat the Brotherhood members as members of a conspiratorial and manipulative covert organization,” he writes. “They may now have a green light to proceed in that way.”
What implications does this crackdown have for Egyptian politics? TIME’s initial commentary sounded almost hopeful: Khalil wrote, “The storming of the sit-in camps could mark the beginning of a new phase of the Egyptian political crisis. By purging the Brotherhood, the interim government might be able to begin organizing a new transitional roadmap—including scheduling fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.”
But the siege has had detrimental repercussions thus far: clashes are spreading throughout the country. Christian news outlet WORLD Magazine reported that Morsi supporters have set fire to churches in regions outside the capitol, the latest attacks in a swath of intensifying religious violence. Ishak Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve seen attacks like this before, but not of this severity and coordination. These attacks are directly related to the dispersals of sit-ins.” Christians fear the implications of this dispersal — and rightly so: NPR‘s Cairo reporter Leila Fadel commented on the worsening situation Monday:
Violence against Christians in Fayoum very worrying. Many churches burned. Deaths reported. Other clashes across #Egypt
— Leila Fadel (@LeilaFadel) August 14, 2013
John Rossomando called Copts a “favorite target for Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other radical Islamists.” Egyptian Christian Ramez Salama told WORLD, “If you go and hear the speech of hatred they promote against the Christians of Egypt—you can’t imagine,” he said. “It’s all hate speech.” Some commentators fear the crackdowns will merely enflame and bolster protesters’ rage:
Just as Iraq’s violent attack on Sunni Hawija protest empowered violent radicals, I fear #Egypt‘s violent attack on MB sit-ins will do same.
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 14, 2013
— Khaled Elgindy (@elgindy_) August 14, 2013
Egypt’s citizenry is wedged between a harsh military state and the threat of militant religious radicalism. Protesters, secularists, and minorities will now “choose sides.” Unfortunately, the military’s brutal crackdown has only served to compromise any moral ground it formerly held. The U.S. has been reluctant to withdraw Egyptian aid up to this point; perhaps it is time, as TAC’s Dan Larison said Wednesday, to “cut Egypt loose.”
You’ve probably seen a clip of it already: Fox News aired a cringe-worthy interview of the author of the latest Jesus tell-all book on Friday, much to the delight of many on the internet. In the now-viral interview, Fox News anchor and religion correspondent Lauren Green shows zero interest in the arguments or content of scholar Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Instead, she leads off the interview with “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan’s eyebrows threaten to rise right off of his face, but he comports himself honorably in a painful ten-minute conversation that never moves past this misguided line of questioning: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
But even if Green’s line of questioning weren’t laced with xenophobia, ignorant about the purpose of scholarship, or breathtakingly incurious, it would still be problematic. There is a deeper philosophical problem behind focusing on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument the following: Reza Aslan brings personal biases and prejudices from his Muslim faith to his study of the historical Jesus; the liberal media is breathlessly excited by Aslan’s book, even though it merely rehashes debates that have been going on in historical Jesus studies for decades, because that media tends to be hostile to traditional Christian faith.
In fact, there may very well be reason to believe those things. But to think that they have anything to do with the merits of Aslan’s arguments about Jesus is to engage in a logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism. He explains:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly… Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.
Bulverism a great way to score points while getting no closer to the truth, and it comprises perhaps 95% of writing about religion on the internet.
If you’re actually interested in Zealot, you shouldn’t care about Aslan, or Fox, but about the man from Galilee: what was he like? what did he teach? was he the Christ? If you’re looking for answers to that question, Aslan’s Muslim faith, Fox’s hostility, and any number of dreary facts about America’s cultural grievances are strictly irrelevant.
Textual criticism and and historical methodology can be boring and hard. Questioning motives and feigning outrage is always fun and easy, and serves as a particularly shallow way for people to engage in intellectual triage. That’s why interesting subjects only suffer when they get dragged into the culture wars.
A fascinating New York Times article about doubt in Mormonism suggests that crises of faith are widespread not just among the marginally committed, but also the true believers and leadership. It points to a survey of more than 3,300 Mormon “disbelievers” released last year that found that over 40% of respondents had served in leadership positions.
Possibly more interesting than the survey itself, however, is the man who conducted it: John Dehlin, a graduate student at Utah State University, the founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, and himself a traveler in the gray area between faith and doubt in Mormonism.
When Mr. Dehlin went through an acute crisis of faith ten years ago, he felt there were few people he could turn to to help him, due to the stigma of doubt and disbelief.
Now, his mission is to create more acceptance inside Mormonism for people struggling with the historical and doctrinal problems of Mormonism–anguished souls like the respondents to his survey who write pleas like, “Please make sure the Church encourages its believers to avoid ostracizing a fellow member for such member’s disbelief” and “I try to participate so that our family can be together at church, but it is so hard when there is such a negative attitude towards people who have lost belief.”
(Mr. Dehlen’s survey defines “disbelievers”— perhaps problematically—as people who once believed but now deny that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” a key statement of Mormon belief.)
Post-crisis, Mr. Dehlin himself seems to deny that teaching. “I do believe in God,” he writes, “(though I don’t quite know what that means)”
And I believe that while God’s inspiration can often be found within the LDS church, I also see God’s inspiration in most churches, in nature, and wherever love and goodness abound (including amongst scientists, atheists, etc.).
I have no idea how much of “the gospel” is true/literal, and how much of it is symbolic/metaphorical.
However, like 20% of the disbelievers who filled out his survey, Mr. Dehlen also attends church weekly, where his bishop and stake president are aware of his activities and encourage him to remain active.
His current position is a strange mix, then, of skepticism and a desire to help people deal with contradictions in Mormonism. As he enumerates those contradictions in a video on his website, he pauses to assure his viewers, “There are believers who know all this, and who have found ways to have this not disrupt their testimony.”
His approach manages to draw anger from both sides: by believers who see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and by ex-believers who see him as an accomodationist and coward.
“It seems the purpose of the board is to lovingly coax people out of the church, all while making them feel really great about it,” writes one commenter. “It’s a very misleading site…”
On the other hand, some who have left Mormonism see no good reason for him to still be sticking around.
Dehlin, for his part, wants the Mormon church to thrive—and to him, that means mostly sticking with the same orthodox beliefs he rejects. “I don’t want the church to fill up with members like me,” he says. “I don’t think that’s good for the church.”
“I’ve read enough about Judaism to know that a church can’t thrive with predominately liberal members. Historically speaking, my understanding is a church needs a strong core of orthodox and orthoprax members to stay healthy and vibrant.”
This strange admixture of beliefs—a disavowal of the orthodox teachings of his church paired with fierce loyalty to the institution; a desire to help doubters stay in the church as liberals paired with hope that plenty of orthodox remain left over—is baffling, perhaps incomprehensible for outsiders to Mormonism.
And unfortunately, I could not speak to Mr. Dehlin for as long we would have liked. He had to leave for church.
There’s a blurb on the back of Christopher R. Beha’s debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which says it will “renew [readers'] faith in what literature is capable of achieving.” This is pretty close to the opposite of what the book is doing—and what it does well. Sophie Wilder is smart, painful, and insightful; it’s also a book which is deeply ambivalent about the power of the creative imagination and the desire to transform event into narrative. It’s a book about despair, and about the weakness of imagination rather than its power; in fact, one of its most striking and admirable characteristics is how up-front it is about its own failures of imagination.
The spine of the story is the relationship between demi-successful writer Charlie Blakeman and more-successful writer Sophie. At first both of them seem kind of insufferable, especially Charlie, who whines about how he got published and was reviewed in all the right places but nobody read his book. Beha is unsparing in his depiction of Charlie’s flaws. His internal monologue is very “written”; check out the lingering, self-indulgent phrase hanging off the end of the description of Charlie’s mother: “after my father’s death her mute suffering filled the atmosphere of that apartment, of her life.”
And he relies on Sophie to create him. She’s repeatedly paralleled with God: Sophie begins his real life, Sophie has a plan for him.
Sophie herself was “created” intellectually by a previous mentor, and one of the strengths of the book is the way it never tells you that making another human being your creator is cruel and unsustainable—it places far too much responsibility on the other person—but just shows you what that unsustainable mindset looks like.
Or maybe the spine of the story is a different creator-creation relationship: Sophie’s relationship with God. She’s a restless spirit who stumbles across Catholicism, first in books and then in church.
Beha has some really believable depictions of those first experiences of God’s presence; Sophie feels herself “occupied,” taken over by an overwhelming presence much bigger and more real than anything she’s felt or known before. And then she has to live with the consequences.
She marries a Catholic, she retires from the bright-young-things writing scene, she disappears from Charlie’s life. When she returns she has separated from her husband, and Charlie, who has always been aware that he doesn’t understand her faith or her choices, tries to figure out the mystery in the title.
There’s a lot going on here. There’s Sophie’s quest for identity (she has three different surnames throughout the novel), a quest she seems to be trying to escape—she wants to surrender to an identity, sink into it, rather than having to go out and conquer and defend it. She doesn’t want her conversion and subsequent changed life to be about her search for self, but about her encounter with God.
With his signature bow-tie and aristocratic manner, it’s easy to picture George Will warbling hymns every Sunday in the pew of some old marble church in Georgetown.
The long-time conservative columnist majored in religion as an undergraduate, and follows religious debates with interest. Will has defended the unborn, and opposed the death penalty; he regularly excoriates the pro-choice movement, and gets worked up over the contraception controversy with Catholic institutions.
So you could be forgiven for pegging Will for a Catholic—or at least, Episcopalian or Anglican.
But you would be wrong. Here’s Will, in a new piece for National Affairs, entitled “Religion and the American Republic”:
I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority. I am a member of a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the “nones.” Today, when Americans are asked their religious affiliation, 20%—a large and growing portion—say “none.”
In an era when American conservatism is often confused with religiosity, a top conservative pundit’s confession of unbelief is startling. (Granted, Will has declared his unbelief before, though somewhat reluctantly and upon questioning, on The Colbert Report in 2008.)
Will’s recent admissions recall his 2005 column called “The Christian Complex” in which he urged Bible-thumping Republicans “not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: ‘No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.’”
Will’s latest essay continues this defense of unbelievers in American politics: He argues that an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God. He colors his arguments with tidbits about our heterodox founders: Washington would not kneel to pray or take communion; Adams was a Unitarian; Jefferson cared not whether his nephew’s studies “end[ed] in a belief that there is no God.”
Par for the course, so far, for a public nonbeliever; you can find similar arguments at your local Center for Inquiry. But from there, Will travels ground seldom tread by today’s avowed unbelievers: he warmly praises American religions both for the democratic impulses they impart and for the intermediary role they play between citizen and state. And if natural rights don’t require religion, they are “especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”
The nones of America should “wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life,” he concludes.
Here Will differs sharply from today’s professional nonbelievers, who regard religious belief with something akin to revulsion, and who channel the old progressive view that religion must be eclipsed for humankind to secure a long and prosperous future. The George Will model combines unbelief with a fondness for religion, not a fear of it.
Will’s increasing openness about his doubt mirrors an increasing acknowledgement of unbelief in American public life, also reflected in recent presidential remarks reassuring America’s churchless that “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”
The president offering this olive branch to the heathens among us? Not Barack Obama, but rather the man who prompted so many dark prophecies of theocracy: George W. Bush.