I said that Linker sometimes seems to oppose both political action based on religious conviction and non-political attempts to Catholicize (or Rortyize, or whatever) the culture through proselytization and persuasion. I also said, as I’ve said many times before, that I disagree on both counts: I think that Americans should be free to proselytize privately and that they should feel comfortable using “the levers of politics” (I love how Andrew makes the democratic process sound sinister) to promote policies that spring from religious convictions. And obviously Richard John Neuhaus is interested in doing both; only an idiot would claim otherwise, and I don’t know why Andrew is mistaking me for one. ~Ross Douthat

I am not really qualified to speak about Rorty or the “burning” question (should liberals prefer Rorty or Rawls?) that initially sparked this discussion, but since I have waded into a previous Douthat-Linker exchange I will now offer, unbidden, my probably unwanted comments on this Douthat-Sullivan argument.

I think Ross is probably being too generous here, since I think he might be able to guess why Sullivan is tendentiously attributing the wrong position to him on a question touching on Neuhaus and the intersection of religion and politics.  This has nothing to do with Ross’ earlier statement.  Whenever Neuhaus is mentioned, even in passing, Sullivan’s “theocon” alarm goes off and he begins warning about the heavy yoke of dogmatism.  When someone has spent as much time as Sullivan has in constructing an elaborate web around the myth that “theocons” have helped to turn the Republicans into a “religious party” and a haven for “fundamentalists” (you know, like Bill Kristol), and the central objection he has to “theocons” is that they seek to influence policy (gasp!) according to the lights of their understanding of natural law and revelation (shriek!), no occasion is too small to restate the description of sinister plan {voice quavering with anxiety}: Christians are attempting to…participate in the political process and…direct policies in the direction of their preferences!  Who will save us from this madness? 

A large part of the trouble comes from some of the more slippery definitions that secular critics of the “theocons” use.  We find an example of this in the quote from The Theocons that Ross cites:

The privatization of piety creates social space for every American to worship God as he or she wishes, without state interference. In return for this freedom, believers are expected only to give up the ambition to political rule in the name of their faith – that is, the ambition to bring the whole of social life into conformity with their own inevitably partial and sectarian theological convictions [bold mine-DL].

Two phrases, “political rule in the name of their faith” and “the whole of social life,” do all the work here, but it is never clear what constitutes “political rule” or where privatised piety ends and social life-conforming behaviour begins.  Does political rule here simply refer to established religion, or does it mean any exercise of political influence or power by religious believers?  My impression is that Linker means the latter.  He takes arrangements that most people, religious conservatives included, accept as given (no established religion, religious pluralism and freedom of religion) and then invests this surrender of “ambition to political rule” with a much more restrictive meaning.  Once you have ceded that we should not arrest people for heresy, you must also supposedly cede the right to every other attempt to influence political life.  Once you have yielded an inch on the potentially totalising claims of religion, you are supposed to give up all claims with a social or political dimension.  If you won’t stone the adulteress, don’t bother trying to “impose” your beliefs on anyone with respect to abortion–you threaten the liberal order if you attempt the latter, because it must inevitably lead to full-on theocracy in the end.   

In Linker’s liberalism, how much “social space” do you get?  Is it a bit like zoning regulations, where you can build up to a certain point but cannot come to close to municipal property?  What is worship?  Is it simply liturgy on Sundays and bedtime prayers, or does man’s religious obligations to God and his fellow men require something in addition to that?  Does the bare minimum of religious life require more than that?  Obviously, any remotely traditional religion requires much more.  Linker’s definition of the proper sphere for religion in a liberal order seems to suggest that most of what traditional religion requires simply in terms of religious obligations is incompatible with that order.  If I understand him correctly, it isn’t simply that religion should stay out of the public square, but that the liberalism of the public square should enter into the religious groups of the society and liberalise them as well, if only to ensure that they stay out of the public square. 

God is sovereign over all, and it is the role of Christianity, for example, to be concerned with the whole man and the whole of society, and this for Linker seems to be the major problem.  Any political role is, of course, entirely out of the question, and this would eventually proscribe even proselytising, since proselytism is simply the imposition of the “inevitably partial” and “sectarian” convictions of one religion on adherents of another partial view.  If everyone has his privatised piety sealed off from all attempts to change society, it seems to me that even conversions would be a potential source of trouble, since religious conversions will generate social change.  (Ross says that Linker rejects going this far.)   

In Linker’s privatised piety, if taken to an extreme, Christians would presumably not even live according to the tenets of their faith, because this would be an attempt to bring the whole of their lives, which take place in political society, into conformity with their sectarian convictions.  This could have troubling second and third-order effects, such as “disturbing” patriarchal notions of marriage or veritably “medieval” attitudes towards homosexuality.  It is as if revealed religion were concerned with the whole of life!  It is as if Christianity required men to commit themselves and “all their lives” to Christ God.  Clearly, this is dangerous and subversive stuff–before you know it, they might want to start talking about it in the schools! 

A less extreme form of Linkerian privatised piety would have an allowance for consenting adults to practice their religion, provided that it never went outside the home and did not interfere with the proper, “rational” upbringing of children.  You wouldn’t want to inculcate all sorts of “anti-social” attitudes into your children by teaching them regressive ideas about traditional gender roles or sexual morality.  Christopher Hitchens’ dream of a bureaucrat rescuing children from the “child abuse” of religious education is not far away here.