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Religion & State: Is There a Vital Center?

In the new Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale sociologist Philip Gorski writes wisely about religion and state conflict. The whole essay is behind the paywall. Here are excerpts:

Is there any middle ground between the liberal and conservative visions of a totally secular country or a Christian nation? Yes. But reoccupying it would require both sides to let go of some of their deepest and most cherished misconceptions about American history. It is far from clear that either is willing to do so.

Their misconceptions are embedded in two competing narratives. In one, favored by secular liberals, the United States was founded upon a “Godless Constitution” written by Enlightenment deists who constructed a wall of separation between church and state to put an end to religious wars that had ravaged Europe in earlier centuries. The moral of that story is that religion should be quarantined—locked up in the private sphere and denied entry into the public square—because it is too divisive, too oppressive to be let loose.

In the opposing narrative, favored by most religious conservatives, America is a Christian nation founded by orthodox believers whose main goal was to protect religious freedom from the sort of tyrannical state that had driven the Puritans from England. The upshot: The state must be kept out of churches because freedom—especially religious freedom—is the supreme value of American politics.

Gorski says Chronicle readers can easily pick apart the conservative narrative. But they are less likely to appreciate flaws in the liberal narrative, he contends.

For one, the Constitution itself does not speak of a “separation of church and state.” The “separationist” reading of the First Amendment was first mooted by Thomas Jefferson, in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. Ironically, the “wall” metaphor was most likely introduced by Roger Williams, a religious radical who wanted to keep the Puritan state out of his “garden of faith.” Finally, the separationist approach did not really triumph in court until after World War II.

Gorski concludes:

Arguably, then, the purpose of the First Amendment was to prevent the creation of a national religious establishment and to protect the right to individual religious freedom (qua freedom of conscience and assembly).

He goes on — and this is, for me, the key part:

Similarly, the best argument against liberal secularism may be liberalism itself. One of the cardinal values of modern liberalism—perhaps the cardinal value—has always been freedom of speech. And yet one of the most influential of modern liberals, John Rawls, actively promoted restrictions on religious speech. He contended that religious citizens may not invoke religious reasons in the public square, but must state their political arguments in a “neutral” language of “public reason” that is “accessible” to all citizens. Other leading liberals, like Ronald Dworkin and Robert Audi, have advanced similar arguments. But it is hard to see how such restrictions can be squared with the liberal principle of equal protection, since they impose an asymmetric burden on religious citizens by forcing them to speak a foreign language of “secularese.”

Nor is that the only argument against a Rawlsian approach. Critics have identified at least three others. First, “public reason” is not neutral; its tacit ideal is an autonomous and abstract individual, a “man without qualities” (as the novelist Robert Musil put it), lacking any binding ties. Surely that is a fantasy—human beings are inherently social creatures. Second, if popular accessibility is really our main concern, then why not require secular citizens to translate their arguments into biblical language? After all, the Old Testament is far better known to the average American than Kant’s Second Critique! Finally, Rawls’s restrictions create a Catch-22: Religious citizens who use secular arguments will be accused of concealing their true motives, while those who use religious arguments will be castigated for violating separationist principles. It is not surprising that a number of leading liberals, like Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas, ultimately retreated from the Rawlsian position.

This, I think, was the main focus of Ross Douthat’s column this past weekend: that liberals today are cloaking (perhaps even from themselves) their illiberal hostility to religion with liberal nostrums.

I wish you could read the entire Gorski article. I fear that it’s unfair to quote any more of it. I’ll just point out that he laments that the creative and useful tension between the state and religion — both of them limiting and informing each other — has broken down. Gorski damns the Religious Right for being market-worshipers who have forgotten the prophetic dimension of religion. He damns the Secular Left for falling prey to the narcissism of an “eclectic gospel of busy self-realization in the land of liberal, educated bohemia.” Somewhere between these two is the “vital center” that we need if the country is going to hold together.

Can we find that? Do we even want to?


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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