Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama's Civil Religion (or, Giving Moralistic Therapeutic Deism its Due)

Well, as promised, I've read Obama's Notre Dame commencement address. As Patrick Deneen notes, perhaps reluctantly, it was an excellent speech (he actually says "masterful," but I wouldn't go quite that far; he's done better before), demonstrating Obama's (and his speechwriters') great facility with words. And Patrick rightly hones in on the strongest passage in the speech:

Unfortunately, finding that common ground--recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a "single garment of destiny"--is not easy. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man--our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

Now, as Patrick notes, Obama was obviously referring primarily to our society's economic sins in this passage, and there's good reason to question the point of such words so long as the similarity of the self-centeredness behind not just or socio-economic disorders but also our moral and cultural ones--in other words, the way greed and lust and all their attendant sins are in fact linked--is neither acknowledged nor seen as worthy of joint action. Obama has shown himself fully capable of thinking in terms of law and justice to respond to the harmful socio-economic ills of our body politic; both Rod Dreher and Amy Welborn ask the question: is he prepared to do the same, or at least to talk respectfully with those who want to do the same, in regards to what they see as moral and cultural ills, like abortion? If he isn't, then just what is this "common ground" he hopes to call to the attention of the better angels of our fallen natures?

Jacob Weisberg made an interesting point in a Slate article on Obama's character yesterday. He observed that, for our president, "the middle ground [is the] high ground," then added:

Obama's focus on reconciliation is clearly more than shtick....Engaging with opponents animates him more than hanging with friends. This is a wonderful instinct that is bettering America's image and making domestic politics more civil. But listening is not a moral stance, and elevating it to one only highlights the question of what Obama really stands for. The consensus-seeker repudiates torture but doesn't want to investigate it; he endorses gay equality but not in marriage or the military; he thinks government's role is to do whatever works.

Weisberg also picks up on the idea--endorsed by Obama himself--that he is "ruthlessly pragmatic." Which begs a very particular sort of question, one which is obviously central to trying to figure out where Obama wants to lead the nation (if anywhere) in regards to abortion, but which is more broadly relevant to the whole idea of renewal and reconciliation and change that has always been synonymous with his candidacy: if he really is ultimately pragmatist, one who sees listening and bringing opponents together as itself a morally worthy act, because it helps get things accomplished, then what, exactly, are the principles by which he judges a thing to have been accomplished? In other words, what are his ends? He speaks of prayer (and has a nice anecdote about such from his Notre Dame address), and is obviously a committed Christian, but is his Christianity simply one of processes? Or, that is, does he think the means of Christianity (or any other moral belief) really is tantamount to it is aiming for?

Well, I'm not going to play armchair psychologist--or theologist--and attempt to put Obama's beliefs on the couch here; there's still a lot of his presidency to go, and far more insightful people than I will be able to weigh in what to make of Obama's calls for service and sacrifice and overcoming self-centeredness. But I do want to say something in defense of the possibility I just sketched out above: that Obama's moral center might be more about the context of his actions, then the content of their ends, and that such might be a good thing. (And yes, longtime readers might be thinking, I've harped on the context-content distinction more than a few times before. But bear with me, for just a few paragraphs more.)

A little over a month ago, my friend Damon Linker got into a rambling back and forth blog-argument with Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and Daniel Larison talking about what many have come to refer to as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." This concept, developed by some scholars of American religion, is understood as a way to describe the kind of moderately theistic, feel-good-and-treat-others-nicely-and-whatever-else-you-do-just-don't-judge-anybody Christianity-Lite that, if polls are to be believed, sums up pretty well what a growing number of young Americans believe--indeed, it's probably a pretty accurate description of the majority of the students I teach any given semester. The argument itself began with Damon's comments on the future of Christianity and civil religion in general in America, and just flowed on from there. But rather than picking apart different aspects of the thread, I want to focus on his original claim: namely, that with the fortunate passing of the Bush administration's attempt to instantiate a more or less "public orthodoxy" of a particular evangelical-Catholic persuasion, and with the tremendous unlikelihood of any kind of liberal mainline Protestantism regaining its hold upon America's character, what then will be our civil religion?

This, of course, is really a two-part question: first, do we need one, and two, if we do, what should it be? My answer to the first part is, very simply, yes, because you can't not have one; religious establishments--defining the term fairly broadly, of course--our an inevitability in democratic societies, because people the great bulk of human beings bring religion with them wherever they go, and so long as you allow the unwashed masses to occasionally vote and even run for office--that is, so long as you actually have some elements of democracy--then you're going to have majorities looking to order their communities along the lines of their beliefs, and so some kind of "civil" belief ought to emerge and be established so as to provide such majorities with both guidelines and boundaries. Which brings me to the second part, and Damon's answer to such: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems like an excellent candidate. I agree...assuming we understand just what MTD (and--don't worry, I haven't forgotten--Obama's way of approaching these kinds of issues) really or at least potentially implies.

Damon quotes from the original research on MTD, summarizing it thusly:

1) A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

Damon claims that this "catechism" is, theologically speaking, "anemic" and "repulsive," but insofar as politics go, it will work splendidly. Could be...but it needs a little taking apart. First, begin with Damon's tossed-out allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Creed of the Savoyard Vicar," suggesting the long pedigree to this kind of liberal theologizing. That's a very good start, because Rousseau, recognizing that the modern consciousness of history had shaped the human sense of subjectivity so as to make impossible the maintenance of non-alienating communities of the sort enjoyed by the ancients, or even half-heartedly preserved by the good folks of Geneva, desired to see people instructed into a new form of community, a new sense of attachment and sympathy to one another, with the aim of occasionally being able to make possible the creation of a new, non-alienating kind of social contract. Crucial to this instruction, and thus the social contract it hoped to complement, was a civil religion, a civil religion that would be premised upon honoring the foundation and laws of the community, to be sure, but more prosaically would focus on getting people together, addressing on another with decency and kindness, participating in common projects, not allowing foreign or non-civil or private distinctions to create artificial interests and factions that would compromise one's ability to stand alongside one's fellow men and women, and most of all helping every part of the community recognize their common dependency upon one another and their common origin as joint-members of society.

Sound idealistic? It most certainly is. But it's also, if you think about it, pretty substantive too. At the very least, it takes points 1, 2, and 5 above, and puts some meat on their bones. (Nothing can be done to save or re-orient number 3--that one will invariably be a drag on any human community which allows such self-centeredness to flourish; and as for number 4, well, fortunately or not, questions about divine intervention and soteriology are rarely of important in modern society.) In fact, I would claim that we can look at the world around us--a world characterized, of course, by the enormous sins which Obama mentioned; sins of selfishness, pride, stubbornness, acquisitiveness, prejudice, self-interest, materialism--and see some of the benefits of a Rousseauian MTD at work. The global regime of human rights, worldwide activism on behalf of the indebted and the poor, volunteerism and service in tens of thousands of places across the globe, the spread of democracy, the collapse of apartheid and totalitarianism, and so on, and so forth. Or just here in America, the gradual fading of racial prejudices, the greater acceptance of the handicapped, the increased attention and funding given to women and children and families who struggle with non-conventional and previously long-ignored problems (abuse, divorce, depression, etc.), and much more. All of these could be, of course, attributed to carefully applied, hard-headed, secular and clever power politics; they could also be claimed by advocates of a strict, theologically heavy and detailed religious program. But I wonder if wasn't so much Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II--not to dismiss either of their contributions, to be sure!--that brought the Berlin Wall down, as it was just thousands and thousands of people who slowly, bit by bit, absorbed some of these "anemic" liberal doctrines, about not shooting people who just want to get a better job or to express themselves, about recognizing the need to actually sit down and speak with and learn from those whom you had previously oppressed. No, I wouldn't claim MTD, or more accurately a few elements of it, to whatever extent they truly are or in the future ever will be present in our or any other nation as a civil religion, are "working" in an obviously wonderful...but neither would I count it out as inevitably doing a worse job at instructing people in how to recognize and make room in the dialogue for other members of their community than whatever preceded it.

Of course, one could claim--as Rod does, rightly responding to a snarky comment of Damon's (look at the updates to both posts)--that all those bureaucratic and historically abetted accomplishments of parts of the MTD attitude, even assuming you grant that was even a partial cause of all that I mentioned above, didn't involve any prophetic speaking of truth to power; that MTD can't give us a Martin Luther King. On that point, I'd agree...if, that is, I agreed that MTD, or at least the aforementioned elements of it, actively works against substantive, collective, moral and religious expressions. But I don't think that's true, and so as long as MTD doesn't, to my mind, actually "drive substantive Christianity out of the public square," as Rod puts it, then I'm willing to take on MTD as a civil religion worth working with, rather than necessarily as an anti-realist, anti-Truth "nemisis" to be attacked at its every appearance.

Recently, the wonderful scholarly blog The Immanent Frame launched a new discussion. Taking off from President Obama's statement during his Inaugural Address that "those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism" are both old and true, it is looking to develop a discussion (the first two contributions to which having already been posted) about what Obama's contribution to the future of America's understanding of civil religion and public virtues and the common good really is. As the lead-off post puts it:

Obama has been quite effective and persistent in his attempts to tell a meaningful public story about America and American virtues. He has proven to be a master of public rhetoric--a form of engagement understood by the ancients as the art of persuasion. As with the classical art of rhetoric, Obama enacts the basic principle that one needs not only well-reasoned argument but also a sufficiently deep and engaged understanding of an audience’s values. Why? In order to effectively persuade them of something like a sense of shared and elective affinities or a mission of common purpose. In this regard, Obama, as expert rhetorician, is also a master of the mythopoetic, an expert maker of myths: especially myths about the meaning of "America," and of the values and institutions that constitute a common national tradition. With his combination of charisma and the attribution of elevated purpose to the work of politics, Obama has proven astonishingly effective in generating an enchantment about new possibilities, about a renewed American dream, and about the centrality of a public language of hope. To this end, an alluring quality of Obama’s rhetoric of common purpose and good is his invitation to participate in public service and to consider the possibilities of an expansive and engaged conception of citizenship.

Some people, of course, hear the word "myth" and assuming we are talking about peanut-gallery, bread-and-circuses, cheap-words-for-the-masses sort of stuff. They assume we're talking about MTD, and other ways to condescendingly pigeon-hole the weak, self-interested moral beliefs of so many modern Americans. Well, sometimes that's true. But there are other stories of modernity besides that one, and there are ways of understanding "myth" which emphasizes the power of prosaic story-telling, the power of binding people into communities of respect and decency and dialogue, by using a language that can bring even opponents together. There are limits to what story-telling can do, of course; there's no way on Earth that even the best language Obama and his people could ever muster might have resolved the issue of abortion, an issue cuts to foundations of belief more surely than any other contemporary topic. To those for whom abortion really is the only issue that matters, that pretty much ends the possibilities of Obama's civil religion, his context- and process- and listening-obsessed Christianity, right there. And it may be that they're correct; before the Judgment seat (as Ross Douthat suggested and I worried about, back before the election), that we will discover that Obama's kind of religious response to the disorders of modern life is, at least in this case, exactly the wrong response to make. But for the moment, I feel more calm about, and more called to, Obama's approach, even if that does mean I'm hoping for too much from all these vague MTD believers around me. And perhaps that's as it should be: I'm a college teacher, after all, and if I thought the majority of my students were misguided idiots for believing how they did, however "right" I might be, I'd still probably be pretty bad at my job. And in Obama's America, being good--or at least, getting better at--your job is a pretty fine virtue, after all.

8 comments:

matt said...

"My answer to the first part is, very simply, yes, because you can't not have one; religious establishments--defining the term fairly broadly, of course--our an inevitability in democratic societies, because people the great bulk of human beings bring religion with them wherever they go, and so long as you allow the unwashed masses to occasionally vote and even run for office--that is, so long as you actually have some elements of democracy--then you're going to have majorities looking to order their communities along the lines of their beliefs, and so some kind of "civil" belief ought to emerge and be established so as to provide such majorities with both guidelines and boundaries."

Circular reasoning, Russell. There also might be a naturalistic fallacy thrown in.

Russell Arben Fox said...

How is it circular, Matt? I'm missing that. People tend to be religious (I'll allow that you may have rightly spotted a naturalistic fallacy there, but history is on my side in that argument). People, moreover, tend to make use of their religious beliefs when making decisions; they don't necessarily rely upon them (much less upon religious authorities or books) when doing so, but certainly what they think are the sort of things about which laws could be properly passed regarding, and so forth, are informed by what people believe about religious topics. Hence, if you let people make decisions (as they do, however indirectly or inconsistently, in a democracy), then you're going to see certain widely accepted (ergo, majoritarian) religious principles, at whatever remove, get instantiated. It seems a pretty straightforward claim to me.

Antiochus said...

You might see certain moral or ethical principles become instantiated, but what that has to do with religion is beyond me. The kind of generic religious principles that might actually command majoritarian support: "There is a God", "There is an afterlife", etc. seem to me to be very difficult to translate into any kind of legislation.

Russell Arben Fox said...

You might see certain moral or ethical principles become instantiated, but what that has to do with religion is beyond me. The kind of generic religious principles that might actually command majoritarian support: "There is a God", "There is an afterlife", etc. seem to me to be very difficult to translate into any kind of legislation.Well, for one thing Antiochus, I don't think the question of civil religion usually, if ever, involves a matter of religious beliefs being directly "translated" into revelation. It's more a matter of, "what are the matters that, partly as a function of your religious beliefs, you see as prompting collective action or legislation," rather than giving you a script for said legislation. (That's one of reasons why I would argue that the theoconservative misunderstood what to do about the "naked public square," as much as they may have gotten right about it--they just wanted to fill the square, not think about how their religious beliefs ought to question or define the square's parameters.)

But second, even accepting your terms, I think there's more there than you see; that's part of my whole claim about MTD. If a majority of people believe that there is a God and/or an afterlife, all of sudden it makes it clear that there are likely going to be arguments about atheism or aggressive secularism, or about the right to die and terminal medical care and other matters which pertain to how and when someone would go on to that afterlife. Those latter arguments simply wouldn't have the same purchase in societies where majorities didn't feel the same way about the possibility of an afterlife (which I think is fairly obvious if you look, for instance, at what is considered to be "medical ethics" in China or India).

Jacob T. Levy said...

Some follow-up (or, really, taking this post as an excuse to do some partially-related stuff of my own) here.

Antiochus said...

Russell,

Your arguments seem to prove my case. The only people worrying about atheism or aggressive secularism in America are a minority of very conservative Christians, mostly evangelicals. It has nothing to do with majoritarian religiosity. Seeing as the United States was founded as an aggressively secular country despite being almost universally Christian, that isn't surprising.

Same goes with right to die, etc. You point to India and China. How India qualifies as a nation where the population doesn't believe in a God or gods is beyond me, but from the Ethics Regulations (no scare quotes needed) of the Medical Council of India:

"Euthanasia: Practicing euthanasia shall constitute unethical conduct. However on specific occasion, the question of withdrawing supporting devices to sustain cardio-pulmonary function even after brain death, shall be decided only by a team of doctors and not merely by the treating physician alone. A team of doctors shall declare withdrawal of support system. Such team shall consist of the doctor in charge of the patient, Chief Medical Officer / Medical Officer in charge of the hospital and a doctor nominated by the in-charge of the hospital from the hospital staff or in accordance with the provisions of the Transplantation of Human Organ Act, 1994."

How is that substantially different from the position of the American Medical Association?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Antiochus,

Your arguments seem to prove my case.I'm still not clear on just what your case is, but I'm enjoying the exchange.

The only people worrying about atheism or aggressive secularism in America are a minority of very conservative Christians, mostly evangelicals. It has nothing to do with majoritarian religiosity.Obviously, we read different magazines and newspapers, check out different websites, and send our kids to different schools. While I certainly wouldn't pretend that discussions about atheism or secularism in America are as common as discussions about the economy or terrorism, I see stuff written about the topic and hear people talking about the topic all the time. But regardless, that wasn't my point; I was simply observing that even in a context where an absolutely minimal "most people around here tend to believe there is a God" type of civil religion obtains, you'd still find people responding along the lines of the foregoing "establishment" when discussions of atheism or secularism arose.


You point to India and China. How India qualifies as a nation where the population doesn't believe in a God or gods is beyond me...You misunderstand me. I wasn't saying that the culture of India tends to lack a belief in God; I said it believes in God (or gods) differently than the manner which is reflected in the majoritarian sentiments of the U.S., with consequent differences in how ethical issues may be approached.


How is [the Ethics Regulations of the Medical Council of India]...substantially different from the position of the American Medical Association?I'll grant you got me there. I had read somewhere before that medical ethics, especially as pertains to the time of death and the decision about such, were substantially different in South and East Asia than they are in the U.S. (and I can vouch for the accuracy of at least some of the latter). Now perhaps it could be argued that a Westernized, professional medical body doesn't accurate represent how doctors and patients are thinking about things out in Indian villages, but I don't know if that's so. For now, I'll have to grant you this argument, which obviously suggests that the influence of religious culture/civil religion in democracies is maybe even less pervasive than I made it out to be.

hcat said...

One of the advantages of my age is that I see that things like MTD are not new. Under a slightly different form, which I call Moralistic Stoic Deism, (MSD) it was the established church of the Eisenhower era. I never met anyone who really dissented from it until I was in college in 1970 and met people of the Jesus movement!