Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Damon Linker's Religious Test

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

My friend Damon's new book, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, will be published later this month. It's already attracting attention (partly due to a well-placed précis of the book which Damon wrote for the Washington Post), and it should: it's an excellent book. It isn't so much a scholarly work that will fundamentally affect how people think about the history, nature, and role of religious belief in a liberal society like our own, but a thoughtful and scholarly work of argument, one that has the potential to orient much of our thinking about religious candidates for office and religious claims in public life generally. The thesis of the book, in a nutshell? Damon is a liberal, through and through, and he worries about what he sees as all the illiberal ways (some of which are easily recognized, but some of which are not) in which the American electorate, voters and parties and interest groups alike, often fail to ask the hard--even "religious"--questions of those who come before us, asking for a vote with one hand, while keeping their Bible (or Koran, or Book of Mormon) close by with the other.

I've talked about--and argued with--Damon's ideas several times before (full disclosure: Damon generously thanks myself and several other friends for many conversations we've had about these issues over the years); I don't think this review will go on as long as those earlier treatises did. Partly this is because there is too much in the book that I agree with, and I don't want to take away from that. Partly it's because the book chooses a half-dozen targets (separatist religious freedom, claims to divine authority, anti-intellectual and populist piety, the merger of patriotism with providential thinking, our lack of sexual consensus, and secular intolerance, plus a thought-provoking conclusion), any one of which could inspire lengthy philosophical engagements, and even I'm not verbose enough to take on all six. But mostly, I think, it's because in this book, far more than in his last one, Damon's overarching theory of how free societies should work is far more clear, and thus our (political) agreements and (philosophical) disagreements subject to far more concise expression. Damon's conception of freedom is a deeply and classically liberal one, the one of John Locke's Letter on Toleration and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and--most crucially--Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty." None of those works are ever cited by name in the book, and Berlin is the only one of those thinkers to which he gives more than just a passing reference--and in that case, while labeling Berlin's arguments about providential thinking "powerful criticism," he also notes his thorough "condescension" towards religion (pp. 131-132). This is a condescension which Damon manifestly does not share; he respects, even reveres, and in many ways (as those who know him well will testify) genuinely envies religious faith. But all that being said, he is still someone who ties his liberalism tightly to the imperative of a secular order: "liberalism in action," he writes, must involve a "politics without metaphysics...as much as possible," liberal politics must adopt "an idiom of metaphysical neutrality, taking no position for or against God--or for or against any particular views about God and what He might or might not want from human beings" (p. 145). Whether that describes Locke is debatable; whether it describes Mill is more likely; whether that describes Berlin is obvious--and more importantly all of them, to one degree or another, have helped build a notion of liberal freedom that presumes the sovereign individual, possessed of certain rights, capable (or perhaps tragically fated) of deciding upon, in the midst of a plurality of choices to which there are no clear or consistent answers, their own course in life. Such an individual, one logically and naturally concludes, is best conceived as free from, and will be best served by a political freedom from, any kind of metaphysically (as opposed to strictly utilitarian) public ordering. And therefore any presumption about the "rightness" of a particular form of such moral or religious ordering on the part of those who campaign for leadership over a liberal society must be subject to serious scrutiny, and possible disqualification.

What should the specifics of that scrutiny be? Nothing necessarily foundational, or absolute; Damon's liberalism is generally pragmatic as well--and, as I noted above, and has the final, sharp chapter of the book ("The Intolerance of the Freethinkers") makes obvious, he is not on any kind of anti-religious crusade, though no doubt many of his conservative critics will assume he is. He does make some missteps in his various arguments along these lines, I think. For example, when talking about the challenges which claims to incontestable apostolic and prophetic authority on the part of religious leaders and some candidates pose to the operation of our secular liberal order, he lumps certain varieties of evangelical Protestantism along with more clearly authoritarian religions like Catholicism and Mormonism, and trots out sociological and psychological survey data to support his concern that some evangelicals long for "strong father" figures in politics, capable of protecting "biblical principles of authority and hierarchy" and punishing sinners "with physical force"; this is troubling, because "liberalism...depends upon a citizenry habituated to respond skeptically...to the pronouncements of political authorities" (pp. 58, 63). But this is weak stuff; a five-minute Google search on the internet could probably turn up a dozen studies purporting to show how college professors and Obama-worshiping Youtube videos support supposedly skeptical secularists and progressives in their own ideological fixations and blinkeredness. But the truth is, such missteps are rare. Throughout the book as a whole, Damon generally is wise and careful in how he applies his liberal criteria. He acknowledges the value of making some flexible constitutional space for religious groups to pursue "alternative forms of dispute resolution" outside of the usual, rigorously secular court system, but he recognizes that part of why that is possible is because the arenas affected by such religious alternatives are localized, specific, and small; if the United States had the same large, ethnically homogeneous, and poor Muslim minorities as does the Netherlands and France, the question would probably have to be answered differently (pp.32-39). Similarly, Damon--being committed as he philosophically must be to the components of liberal, non-religious, civic-oriented public education--expresses real concerns about some forms of home and religious schooling, especially when such seems to inculcate a reactionary anti-intellectual and oppositional, illiberal agenda. Yet he insists that a free society grants parents the same right to pursue alternative schooling for their children as it does to separatist religious groups like the Amish to pursue alternative forms of citizenship (or non-citizenship), and calls upon schoolteachers and administrators--and those who seek to lead them--to exercise ideological restraint in how they deal with cultural or moral matters, and make the public schools friendlier to those with traditionalist religious views (pp. 44-54). Such reflections, and many others, don't necessarily suggest that life in Damon's ideal free society would be easy for those who are motivated by arguably illiberal religious beliefs, but they do suggest a essentially secular, yet pragmatically applied, religious test wouldn't be a catastrophe for such folks.

One of whom, it should be clear, would be me. So leaving aside my thoughts about the book's presentation and thesis as a whole, what do I think about Damon's argument as it comes up against my own Mormon faith, with its living prophet and apostles in Salt Lake City? What do I think of how he frames my faith, and other traditionalist faiths, philosophically?

Damon's a liberal: I'm not. I may be, to use some terminology from old posts of mine, a "liberal communitarian" or a "liberal Christian" (or Mormon, etc.), but as best as I can understand my own beliefs, I keep "liberal" in a secondary, adjectival role; I don't subscribe to the ideology as a whole. So when I look at religion, I don't conceive of it primarily in terms of beliefs which I, as an individual, accept and therefore consider binding; rather, I see it as one of several (often, it is true, conflicting) communities by and through which my sense of myself, and my sense of what I believe, is constituted. A secular or neutral liberal order, as Damon imagines it, is mostly something that has been stripped of metaphysical trappings, thus leaving the somehow "original" individual more unencumbered from orders that would align or arrange their decisions, especially decisions about faith. I don't think there is any such animal as a metaphysically stripped public square; there is always some form of ordering--even, yes, religious "establishing"--going on, because human beings, simply by speaking and thinking with and alongside one another, are engaged in acts of metaphysical invoking and constituting and ordering. This an argument that stretches from Aristotle to Arendt: politics occurs in meaningful spaces, spaces that make claims both natural and moral; they are meaningful, because the communal actions which make for political existence reveal them as such. (As an aside, note the democratic implications of this line of argument; it's much more obvious in Arendt than in Aristotle, but the presumption is clear throughout this particular historical argument: whether you call it participatory democracy or republicanism or popular sovereignty, it's something which sees moral power in the language and affection carried forward by the expressions and activities of a local or national community. The liberal order provides a solid governing structure for such conceptualizations, but it is not and probably never will be truly friendly to them...just as Damon, good liberal that he is, is not especially friendly to mass democracy.)

All of which is simply a long-winded way of saying that there is no separating religious or metaphysical beliefs and presumptions from the civil order; they are inexorable. But that is no reason not to be concerned about illiberal beliefs and presumptions; even if one rejects, as I do, the notion (a notion which I believe Damon and his bête noire the theocons both in distinct ways share) that modern life consists of a long, twilight struggle over public authority and what to fill up the public square with, and instead sees civic life as always representing and developing any number of (perhaps complementary, perhaps conflictual) metaphysical and constitutive claims, that still doesn't mean you can't have preferences for which sort of claims you'd rather win out. While I don't want Damon's imagined description of the liberal order as thoroughly secular to triumph (and doubt that it ever could, not so long as the actual politics of actual human beings are taken into consideration), I see the practical value and wisdom in it. Which is why I see the point of his criticisms of my church--or rather, I should, his concerns which the political implications of my church. There are some nits that I could pick with his account of the history and theology of Mormon beliefs in revelation and prophetic authority. For example, he fails to acknowledge that when, as he notes, Joseph Smith laid down the general principle that revelation was "forever evolving," and then quotes a later prophet--Joseph Fielding Smith--as stating that, for purposes of weighing the truthfulness of (and thus moderating) prophetic statements, the "official LDS scriptural texts should be used as 'the measuring yardsticks'" it actually isn't consistent for him to go back in time to a yet earlier prophet--Brigham Young--to prove JFS wrong (pp. 80-81). And there are some other mistakes as well. (For someone who has spent as much time around Mormons as Damon has, it was surprising to see him speak of the "King Follit Discourse," and get the official legal name of the church incorrect--pp. 73, 220). But in general, his point is a solid one: Mormons believe in a higher authority, that authority is not theologically or necessarily bound in any clear way to the liberal order, therefore Mormons pose real concerns for liberals. As I wrote once before in response an article Damon wrote about Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy to "Mormonism is not now, or at least not yet (or perhaps never will be), a religion that is capable of producing doctrinal parameters that can be perfectly matched with the epistemological presumptions of modern pluralism." So be it: Mormons are not Unitarian Universalists...and yes, that can, in different times and places (keeping in mind the same prudence and care which guides Damon's applications of his "religious tests" throughout the book), be a cause for genuine liberal concern.

But to pick up on point from above, such liberal concerns are not necessarily concerns about democracy. (They can be--again, the liberal order provides a marvelous structure for such things--and maybe even often are, but that isn't necessarily the case.) If one can shake oneself free of the liberal conceptualization of the public sphere as solely an arena in which individuals are to be studiously protected from all the various tyrannies which threaten them, whether political or customary or metaphysical (to bring Locke, Mill, and Berlin back into the mix), and instead see it as a mutually and continually constituting environment of individuals through, among other things, just such claims (or "tyrannies," if you must), then you might recognize the religious beliefs which individuals bring with themselves to that square as (potentially, at least; obviously there will always be particular legal or sociological factors at play) just another factor in the democratic game. To quote myself, this is how I talked about it, when discussing a long-running dispute in Utah politics over the Mormon church's involvement in buying up downtown property and turning it into a quasi-religious park (but of course, as with all things involving Salt Lake City, the issues soon developed far beyond that):

There was a time, in Utah as well as elsewhere throughout the country, when America’s religious establishments...felt little need to draw explicit lines, because the American people themselves were traditional enough and grounded enough in their local communities to feel little need to cross such lines in the first place. Such was the social environment of Utah, and much of the rest of America, half a century ago, during what might be considered the height of America’s mainline “civil religion"....The relative decline of those cultural establishments over the past decades has had many causes, but its primary result has been intense struggle over the meaning and bounds of the communities in which we live, including our national community. Mormons, no less than any other religious group, have become caught up in that struggle....[T]he LDS church no longer approaches that struggle theocratically, as its own divisive struggles with our de facto national establishment have mostly come to an end. What is at work in what both critics and supporters perceive as an energized and politically awakened LDS church thus is, for better or worse, basically just another instance of religiously based social activism, of the sort that has been often seen throughout America’s democratic history (abolitionism in the mid-19th century; temperance movements in the early 20th)....In the midst of all the sociological debate over why the liberation, diversification, and secularization of the public sphere has given rise to such a (from a liberal perspective) presumably fiercely moralistic backlash, one could just as easily employ Occam’s Razor, and see the events of the past three decades across America as having made it clear that the conventional and communal religious establishments of the past always did hold within themselves strong...moral presumptions, all of which have burst forth once the real costs and implications of living within different, less traditional establishments became clear.

I'm really not sure how much of this Damon would actually disagree with, or where he would locate his disagreements. In his chapter on the intractability of consensus on sexual matters (which is, really, the very best chapter in the book, smart and challenging in ways that are, when combined with a recent book I've read and a recent blog post from Noah Millman--whom Damon also thanks in the book--forcing me to rethink a lot of what I've said before about these issues), Damon, though he insists that liberalism introduces a "morality of rights" to replace a "morality of ends," and that the former, supposedly non-metaphysical option is superior to the latter, pretty straightforwardly acknowledges that "the...liberal state [is] perfectly willing to enforce traditionalism's morality of ultimate ends so long as there [is] overwhelming consensus...in favor of that morality." That would, of course, result in illiberal laws, but in the case of the long history of laws regarding divorce, abortion, sodomy, pornography and the like in the United States, those illiberal laws were perfectly legitimate. However, they were not a "reflection of the nation's Christian essence"; rather, they were "the political and legal expression of a historically contingent cultural consensus--a consensus that over the past several decades has (for various complicated reasons) broken down, leaving rancor and dissent in its wake" (pp. 147, 140).

I suppose, in the end, my political differences with Damon's fine book could be said to come down to how we think about that "rancor and dissent." Both of us acknowledge its existence, and both of us bemoan it--both of us recognize, I suppose, that such rancor and dissent doesn't add anything towards a healthy or happy democratic polity, especially with the threat of violence which often comes with it. For this reason, liberal structures which protect individual rights are much needed; a liberal democracy is to be generally preferred to many other sorts. But not all other sorts, I think; liberal remains for me an adjective, meaning that I don't assume that our fate as human beings is simply the management of rancor and dissent (or, to stick with Locke, "inconveniences"). I don't see it a fate to be managed, but a problem to be solved--if fact, I think that we are always, metaphysically as well as politically, going to be about the business of solving the problem. The formation of communities, the ordering of publics, the broaching (and withdrawing, and modifying--of metaphysical claims (all three of which the Mormon church has had long experience with); that's all part of it, and complaints over the weakness or incoherence of attempts to do so within any given polity isn't so much frustrated illiberal minorities vocalizing their annoyance at the collapse of tradition, as it is democratic polities trying to find a new way of doing what democratic polities always do.

One last point. Perhaps in emphasizing that I see this problem-solving as constant (unlike some more apocalyptically inclined communitarians, for whom the problem of dissent has arisen because of a radical disruption/breakdown of the order of things, requiring an equally dramatic response), I sound a little like Reinhold Niebuhr, which in turn could make Damon--for whom Niebuhr is an essential thinker (see pp. 134-136)--decide that for all my romantic and religious bluster I'm really just as liberal as he,. After all, what's the real, on-the-ground difference, he might ask, between constant attempting to solve our divided condition, and accepting that all we can really do is just manage it? In all honesty, I'm not sure. A difference in hope, perhaps? A difference in belief? But if by the latter I mean religious belief, wouldn't that mean I've just argued that people who put their religious faith in things other than liberalism won't understand what liberalism has to teach about religious faith? Maybe...but I don't think so. I have a religious faith, and I've learned much from Damon's very good book. That has to count for something, doesn't it?

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