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Friday, April 18, 2008

Damon Linker and the True Believers

(That almost sounds like band's name, doesn't it? Some groovy pop-jazz quintet from the 50s, perhaps, or maybe an ironic punk-rock group from 70s-era London. Think Elvis Costello and the Attractions, only more Straussian.)

My old friend Damon has had an interesting religious journey in his life, as those who know him well are aware. It has helped make him into, I think, one of our most interesting, challenging, and frustrating public thinkers on matters of politics and faith. Interesting because he's well schooled in philosophy and thus is capable of making pretty deep observations and comments; challenging because he almost always couches those observations and comments in sharp, polemical, thought-provoking ways; and frustrating because...well, mostly because I think he is, repeatedly, only about 50% right in his critiques and opinions. He masters all the details very well, but the bigger picture, the other half of the story, seems to elude him. (Of course, he would say that I can't ever even make a good argument for that bigger picture: that I always fall back on hermeneutical talk which is mostly gussied up intuitions and assumptions and faith. Which is, I suppose, part of the point.)

I've tangled with Damon arguments about religion at some length before, specifically regarding his book on theoconservatism, and his long TNR article on Mitt Romney and Mormonism. Since those publications, he's continued to work on related issues, turning his fundamentally liberal outlook and critical sensibilities against all those who would make religious belief more than the doubtful, hesitant, hopeful, and essentially private matter he believes it ought to be in a democratic society--and this applies to those who would launch atheistic crusades as well as devotional ones. The essay of his which interest me now is actually one of his shorter ones--a thoughtful, appreciative, but ultimately critical look at Charles Marsh's Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity. Marsh's thesis can be summed up in a single sentence: he believes that evangelical Christians and churches in America have, in their widespread devotion to the Republican party agenda in general and George W. Bush's presidency in particular, made a "colossal wreck of the evangelical witness"; they have betrayed their faith, become idolatrous, and are mocking the Jesus who died to save us all. Damon's thesis cannot be so easily summed up; while he is in substantial agreement with Marsh, he also has significant concerns with where Marsh takes his argument:

[M]uch of [Wayward Christian Soldiers] is written in a prophetic register, alternating between rebuke and exhortation, as Marsh tries to persuade his [evangelical] readers of the enormity of their transgressions. He employs a rhetoric of outraged denunciation most effectively in his introduction, where he recounts visiting a Christian bookstore near his home in the spring of 2003, shortly before the start of the Iraq war. The store was stocked with "a full assortment of patriotic accessories--red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, 'I support our troops' ribbons, 'God Bless America' gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag bangle with the two images welded together and interlocked"....Marsh is well aware that such displays reflect the genuine views--the deeply held political opinions and spiritual convictions--of the American evangelical community. Unlike secular liberal critics such as Thomas Frank, who argues that the social conservatism of evangelicals is the product of elite manipulation on the part of Republican Party politicians and media consultants, Marsh understands that all the political consultants in the world could not produce the astoundingly strong support for the GOP found among conservative Protestants....There is nothing ironic, mitigated, or partial about the evangelical commitment to the Bush administration--and this is what infuriates Marsh more than anything else....

Marsh stands firmly within the mainstream of the Christian theological tradition in making this and similar criticisms, which go back at least to Augustine's City of God, if not to even earlier documents. These sources...teach Christians that however much they may love their terrestrial homes, their families as well as their political communities, their true home lies elsewhere, in the next life, in eternal unity with Jesus Christ. They must always remember, in other words, that love for God comes first, conditioning, ordering, and limiting the scope and intensity of their other loves. For a devout Christian, then, patriotism can never be uncomplicated, never wholehearted. It will always be to some extent ironic, mitigated, partial--an unstable alloy of divine love and human selfishness....From the perspective of this genuine follower of Christ, the profane faith of American evangelicals, which worships American power in the name of God, fails to confess "Christ as Lord" and ends up "incarcerating Christ in our own ideological gulags"....

Marsh's strenuous, uncompromising version of Christian belief, which insists on placing theological commitments ahead of political commitments, presents a nobler vision of the faith than the heavily politicized one that currently prevails among America's evangelicals. But is this purer form of Christianity good for liberal politics? Does the contemporary United States suffer from an absence of prophets and martyrs? Would American democracy (as opposed to American Christianity) be better off if its tens of millions of religious conservatives were replaced with an equal number of would-be Dietrich Bonhoeffers?...Marsh's injunction that a public servant should never allow his service to the nation to compromise his loyalty to Jesus Christ [is] a demand that could pose a significant problem for Christians in American public life, many of whom swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution above all else. Precisely how big a problem it would be will depend on how often and how severely the two spheres--religion and politics--conflict with each other, requiring Christians to make a choice between their duties to God and to country. And this, too, will depend on context. A conservative evangelical will experience such conflict rarely (at least under a Republican president). A Christian who upholds orthodoxy as Marsh defines it, on the other hand, will experience such conflict regularly (especially, it seems, under this Republican president). No wonder Marsh concludes his discussion...by wistfully reminding his readers of the time, "not so long ago, when evangelical Christians regarded their marginal place in society as a mark of their faithfulness to Christ." Despite his desire to bring the authentically prophetic voice of a purified Christianity to bear on American public life, Marsh's theological commitments ultimately point beyond the moral compromises and imperfections that mark politics in all civilized times and places, including our own.

There is more in Damon's essay--much more--but this captures the gist of it. He admires Marsh's powerful, Neibuhrian critique of the temptation Christians face to idolatrously identify their political political preferences with religious truth. (A temptation which he agrees with Marsh that a great many Protestant evangelicals and other Christians in America have given into; indeed, he starts out his review baldly stating "Who would now deny that the political ascendancy of the religious right has been bad for the United States? Its destructive consequences are plain for all to see.") But Damon's belief that "theological certainties" and attributions of "metaphysical significance" are always damaging and polarizing leads him to dislike Marsh's religious critique of the political activities and rhetoric of his fellow evangelicals, thinking that it leads Marsh into a self-righteousness and a "distinctly un-Madisonian" attitude towards how citizens ought to behave towards and what they ought to expect of one another in democratic societies. And while Damon is clearly no friend of the kind of populist, "emotivist piety" which so often sneaks affective and partisan messages into the Christian message, he is also bothered by Marsh's dismissal, from a Barthian neo-orthodox perspective, of the kind of theological liberalism which played a role in admitting such subjective experiences into Christian theology in the first place, asserting that, in contrast to a strict commitment to the "objective truth of revelation," some form of theological liberalism has long been defended as "the only intellectually honest position for a modern believer to take."

A couple of points to make here. First, I suspect that Damon agrees with Marsh more than he knows; as I argued in my long review of his book The Theocons, I think that Damon helps to reveal something that Marsh asserts in his book--that the seriously religious conservatives who have emotionally and piously identified themselves with a history and an ideology that leads up to George W. Bush's presidency really are liberal, as much as they furiously deny it. As I wrote before:

[The thecons believe that] secular society has stripped down and made "naked" the liberal order; a religious revival is needed to clothe it again. But if this is so, then that suggests that theoconservatism actually agrees with the liberal distinction between the public and private realm, which this account of secularism depends upon. In other words, [they would argue that] the baseline problem with the modern world is that people have become too lenient in moving certain elements of human life from the public over into the private realm; the solution is not to change how people think about religion and public life, but simply rhetorically and politically get large numbers of individuals to move their religion out of their private world and into the public one. [Rev. Richard] Neuhaus's pre-occupation with finding a language which is both public and authoritative thus makes sense; he wants to persuasively recast religion as something public and ordinary, something that popular majorities can and will agree and submit to, not because it is, say, the underlying structure of all human consciousness, but because we'll all, as individuals, consent to it (if we know what's good for us).

But (unfortunately, to my mind) Damon didn't pursue this line of thought in his own critique, preferring to elaborate an argument which draws upon classical liberal and constitutional sources--John Locke, James Madison, and others--to insist upon the utility, the prudence, of keeping religion rigorously privatized. Don't move any of that doubtful, hopeful, dubious, personal stuff from one side of the wall of separation to the other! It can only lead, he suggests, to violence, to inflammatory rhetoric, to false judgments and pre-occupations that do not serve the modern liberal states that we all aspire to live in at all well. Consequently, while he allows that Marsh's Barthian critique of evangelical abuses is "both clever and compelling," he cannot agree with it. I suspect that Damon would have to allow that, of course, an authoritative understanding, conveyed through a church or tradition, of what really are (and are not) "theological certainties" would properly resist the sort of use that more than a few Catholic theocons have, in reaching out to (and perhaps absorbing some of the mentality of?) evangelical Protestants, put them to. A Christian message that really did properly, as Marsh maintains, begin and end with a connection of service to all those whom the love of God has brought one together with through "worship and prayer--rich and poor, black and white, American, Asian, African, the immigrant crossing the border, the victims of violence, the reviled, the outcast and the pariahs, heterosexuals and homosexuals"--really shouldn't be easily be made serviceable to mere "partisan allies and compatriots." But I also suspect that, even if he did allow for this possibility, he would add that it couldn't resist the temptation for long; once it encountered the "moral compromises and imperfections" of the public square, it would respond badly, transforming itself by merging with one or another platform, thus becoming a threat to the practical, individual, liberal promises of modern democracy, if not the twisted "idol" Marsh condemns such a transformed faith to be.

Second, this brings us back around to the hard question of religious "witnessing" within the liberal order. By the lights of Damon's argument, can it ever be done? Well, of course is can be; freedom of religion and freedom of speech are central tenets of this order. But what should such witnesses aspire to do? The implicit argument of Damon's essay is that religious believers should embrace the sort of theological liberalism which will allow them to express, if they feel so inclined, their private and personal religious views in light of American pluralism--that is, they should express themselves in ways that are humble, tentative, open-minded, and "liberal" in the most fundamental sense. Rather the "grandstanding" which comes from a Barthian conviction in limited, clear, absolute revelatory truths, much less the emotional, pious, purified Christian "vision of a more perfect world" (on the evidence of his past writings, Damon might suggest that at least some of the theocons manifest the worst of both of these tendencies: a complete devotion to a definitive revelation of truth, alongside a hankering to see in everyday political struggles a Manichean war over the instantiation of said truth), religious believers should instead allow themselves to be "at once chastened and emboldened by the knowledge that on this side of eternity our saints will not be statesmen and our statesmen will not be saints." That seems reasonable enough. But does it rob those Christians who do wish to take their witness into the public realm of the force of their convictions? Are the qualifications Damon makes in response to Marsh's criticisms of conservative evangelicals today--criticisms that Damon for the most part clearly applauds--such that the power of prophetic witnessing is shown rather to be a distraction, a mistake, misguided, bound to be misunderstood. Damon concludes his essay by speaking of "the nobility of the true believers," but adds that "those of us who do not share their faith cannot help but wonder about the moral status of their impulse to secede from the often mundane duties and responsibilities of political citizenship." Of course, those of us who are (or at least aspire to be) true believers don't think secession is the proper term here; we would consider it a matter of standing apart and calling others out. But again, perhaps this disagreement is part of the point.

The political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain presented a paper some time ago titled, "How Should We Talk?" (I believe there are several versions of this paper; I'm going off the one I originally encountered at a long ago American Political Science Association meeting, which was later republished in A Nation Under God? Essays on the Future of Religion in American Public Life.) In this essay, Elshtain presents several different options for speaking about and speaking of and for religion in America. She begins by simply dismissing the possibility of a legitimate theocratic discourse in this country...a dismissal that Damon might consider a little too easy. But then she presents us with three alternatives for thinking about Christian speaking and justifying. First there is liberal monism: "the view that all institutions internal to a democratic society must conform to a single authority principle, a single standard of what counts as reason and deliberation, and a single vocabulary of political discussion" (pg. 164). This is the view of strict separationists, of John Rawls and his disciples. Next comes full bore Christian politics. This is, clearly, the province of those who would witness to America about her sins and shortcomings, but Elshtain makes an important caveat: citing the examples of Martin Luther King or the Berrigan brothers, she points out that "while those who push for an undiluted 'Christian politics' seek Christian saturation of ordinary, everyday political discourse and action, the figures I have in mind responded to extraordinary situations from the fullness of religious commitment...they tacitly retreat[ed] from the conviction that Christian politics at its fullest is...garden variety politics: that the full force of Christian witness must be brought to bare on every public policy question" (pg. 165). So clearly, there is a range of witnessing positions that can be taken under the full bore label, and Elshtain's preferred exemplars (to which I think she could have added some of my heroes, like William Jennings Bryan or Dorothy Day) are definitely on one side of that continuum. Finally, there is what Elshtain calls radical dualism, which she associates with the work of Stanley Hauerwas. Radical dualism's greatest concern "is that when...Christianity...engages politics it is bound to do so on the world's terms, especially in a liberal age. Having accepted a lousy deal by signing on with the liberal social contract and accepting civic peace on the world's terms, the Church ceases to be Church" (pg. 166).

I find Elshtain's positions helpful as a guide for plotting out Damon's position, though of course there is no clean fit at any specific point. But generally, Damon argues that we have certain true believers whose unwitting (or is it?) embrace of the liberal order brings them to a full bore Christian politics that is practically theocratic; in this he goes further than Elshtain, though even she admits that some forms of full bore Christian politics are a "kissing cousin" to theocracy. This, of course, is something that he rightly thinks we should fear. Then there is Marsh, whose ferocious condemnation of the compromises his fellow evangelicals have made with the Rpeublican party makes good sense, but ultimately also tends toward a dualistic praise of believers who need to reject the practical realities of politics. This is also, to Damon's way of thinking, to be rejected. What is left? Well, I suspect Damon would be uncomfortable with the liberal monism label, as it too sounds much too closed-off, too determined, too exclusionary for the kind of questioning liberalism he prefers. Still, considering his stated position that religion is best kept fairly firmly separated from political and policymaking arguments, the monist position, or at least an advocacy of the practical consequences of such, is probably his place in this particular scheme.

The question which Damon puts out there must then be turned on us believers. Assuming we do not wish to operate within the parameters of liberal monism, and assuming that, as much as we may learn from Hauerwas, Marsh, and their ilk (most importantly, in Elshtain's view, the lesson that Christian teachings "effect...a strong severance...from rights-based liberalism"), we nonetheless do not want to feel obliged to "abandon appeals that have the capacity to stir not only the reason of [our] fellow citizens, but their consciences and souls as well" (that's how Ross Douthat put it, in a long-ago and I think almost completely lost-to-the-internets TNR debate with Damon; can anyone out there find the whole thing?), can we find a way to theorize and practice the kind of full bore Christian politics that King, by Elshtain's light, practiced: being able to issue a jeremiad that "sacralizes" a particular, extraordinary situation, and calls out those who are in the midst of it to almost consecrated action, but not to do so in such a way as to make that sacralizing obligatory, or co-extensive with political life as a whole? In other words, to formally keep open the possibility of--and preserve the structures and systems which enable on occasion--a real prophetic witness being brought forward, one that at the same time does not necessarily carry the force of that witness to every corner of this divided and often doubtful polity?

There are a few rules of thumb here which have been elaborated through our system of laws, arising from the First Amendment, usually involving a presumption in favor of claims of belief that can also be expressed in secular terms--meaning that the religious witness is appropriate in the public square and American politics exactly to the degree which it could be substituted with something else. But this, of course, plays into liberal monist hands, and so we keep looking. This is a hard problem: American pluralism plainly makes true belief a complicated participant in the political world, but what can be discerned in the expression of full-bore belief that might respond to this complication, aside from simply wishing a kind of prudence upon all those individual believers themselves? Answering that question definitively is clearly beyond my ability; the majority of Elshtain's essay explores essentially this very question, and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor last year released a massive tome which spends hundreds of pages attempting to describe our current "secular" world as one in which possibilities for sacralization--and thus political action on the basis of such appeals--constantly abide. (I've thought a couple of times about blogging my way through it; if you really need to know more, check out the many fine posts that have appeared about in on The Immanent Frame blog...or, if you're a mind to see the above project criticized, see the long, severe, important review of Taylor's book by Charles Lamore in TNR, excerpted at length here by Jacob Levy.) For the moment, I have my own arguments about how to balance a liberal prudence for pluralism and difference with the desire to draw upon the communal deposits of belief that I think invariably structure and support the liberal order...but those arguments themselves, I admit, often come back to the same intuitions and assumptions and faith that I mentioned at the beginning, and all my appeal to continental philosophy can't change that. Does that mean Damon and I, and all the Damons and all the true believers out there, are going to have to agree to disagree, arguing--one hopes civilly--again and again over what to demand of our politics, over what to allow in it and what to make of it? Probably. And really, I'm glad of that: certainly it's better than living in a society where a full-bore-bordering-on-theocratic politics was the unquestioned rule, or a culture where religious belief was so marginal and so weak that the slightest overlap between religious conviction and political action would be a startling--if not laughable--curiosity. Two cheers for democratic politics! There are far worse things than to have to regularly discuss ideas and disagree with Damon Linker. (I hope he feels the same.)


Camassia said...

Well, from my own selfish point of view I would like you to blog through The Secular Age, because you're a good writer. The Immanent Frame posts are pretty heavy going for a lay person. (So is the book, which I'm still in the first chapter of, but the subject matter certainly fascinates me.)

Anonymous said...

"This is the view of strict separationists, of John Rawls and his disciples."

As a Rawls disciple, such lines often leave me wondering: Have you read Political Liberalism? I know that you dismiss Rawlsian thinking, but I feel that he is very accomodating of religious views in his later work.

While Rawls does place some limits on religious speech, those limits apply to all forms of comprehensive beliefs and not just those that are religious.