Sunday, May 15, 2005

Church and state, again and again

Today's NYT Book Review has the best essay I've read in a long time on the highly negotiable line between church and state. I think of it as a coda to an essay I've blogged about before by Stanley Fish, "Mission Impossible: On Settling the Just Bounds between Church and State" (unfortunately not online except via Lexis or WestLaw). The key idea is this:

In truth, the leaders of the British and American Enlightenments shared the same hope as the French lumières: that the centuries-old struggle between church and state could be brought to an end, and along with it the fanaticism, superstition and obscurantism into which Christian culture had sunk. What distinguished thinkers like David Hume and John Adams from their French counterparts was not their ultimate aims; it was their understanding of religious psychology. The British and Americans made two wagers. The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational.

In other words, our Founding Fathers believed, or at least fervently hoped, that the Protestantism they were importing from England, grounded as it was in the Enlightenment, would gradually and more fully embrace reason and tolerance. (Jonathan Edwards is a different story.) But it hasn't worked out that way. And so we end up with some quite interesting attempts at dialogue across the left-right religious line, like this polite impasse, which I reported on before, reached between Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) and Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.):

Price: "When do I push to enact what may be religiously grounded precepts and principles into civil law, and when do I demur?" His position is that "in a pluralistic democracy one does attempt to appeal to more widely shared values."

Souder claims that he has "an obligation" to "bring [his] faith into the debate"--whether his views are widely shared or not.

A liberal Christian like Price wants to know why we can't all reason together. A conservative Christian like Souder knows, as Fish puts it, that "every religion is orthodox unto itself": that there are core principles that cannot be negotiated, that are worth going to the mat for in the name of the "free exercise" of religion. Fish takes Souder's fundamentalism seriously. We all need to do the same, while we jealously, zealously guard the wall of separation. As Lilla concludes,

The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the ''end times,'' the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement -- all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.

Lilla, a Guggenheim fellow, has a book coming out on theology and politics called "The Stillborn God." I can't wait to read it.

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