Home/Daniel Larison/Tolerance and Universalism? Thanks, I’ll Pass

Tolerance and Universalism? Thanks, I’ll Pass

Why do editors and columnists prepare articles on religion like this one to publish on Sunday morning?  Is it just to irritate the odd reader about to leave for church who finds random Washington Post columns thrust into his local paper’s op-ed section?  Perhaps I should have ignored the paper this morning, but the pull quote from Hoagland’s piece today (which is actually a quote from the South Side’s own Sen. Obama) caught my attention.  It sums up everything that is wrong with the article and the broader argument it is making about the place of religion in democratic politics:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. 

My immediate reaction to this was something along the lines of, “If that is what democracy demands, we won’t be having much need for it.”  But give Sen. Obama credit for unpacking modern democrats and universalists’ assumptions about what “democracy” allows and “demands”: it does not allow religious expression in terms of “religion-specific values,” which is to say religious values as such are irrelevant to public debate and public policy, and it demands that adherents of religions (and, to cut through it, we all understand that we’re talking essentially about Christians and about  no one else) accept one of the alternative secular schemes that are deemed suitable for “democratic” politics and consign their religious convictions to the corner where they can safely gather dust. 

Strip away another layer, and this is to say that Christians cannot speak on questions of public policy as Christians, but must engage in the fraud of dressing up the Faith in ugly eighteenth-century clothes designed according to the bad taste of Enlightenment thinkers.  Because Barack Obama is saying this, and Jim Hoagland is conveying the message, the easy and convenient response is to categorise this as the bleating of the liberal, secular humanist (scape)goat and look no closer at the ready compromises a great many Christians, conservative and otherwise, routinely make with the liberal tradition and the language of “universal values” in order to be allowed to participate in fashionable political debates at the highest levels. 

In my estimation, the Christians at journals such as First Things accept Mr. Obama’s requirement in large measure, though they would probably rightly object to the stark opposition between faith and reason Mr. Obama imagines as part of his argument.  When confronted with such a clear statement of hostility to religion in public affairs, many Christians, even those largely given over to the liberal tradition’s assumptions about political life, the “open society” and the “neutrality” of the public square, will react strongly and recognise that something is horribly wrong with this statement, but what they continue to refrain from accepting is that what is horribly wrong with the entire argument is secular democracy as it now exists itself.  Perhaps Mr. Obama’s democracy really does demand exactly what he claims it does (no longer should we try to play Ignaz Seipel’s futile game of discerning the “true democracy” that somehow works to our advantage), and Christians protest in vain that the present “democracy,” the one that is actually being brought to Iraq (woe to the Iraqis!), is anything other than Mr. Obama’s kind of democracy.  If Obama’s democracy does demand this eschewing of “religion-specific values,” the predicament Christians find themselves in is not how they can operate inside this prison of universalist democracy, but rather how they can break out of the prison and, if at all possible, raze that prison to the ground. 

Cross-posted at Enchiridion Militis

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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