Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the National Mall in our nation’s capitol has come and gone. Presumably both the litter and the loiterers have been removed. Now the event lives on only in the memory of those who experienced it or saw it on television, and in the articles and columns and blogs finding their way onto the Internet. This blog isn’t one of them, but it does grow out of a prominent theme at Beck’s rally: God and America!
More specifically, the theme is God’s role in American society. Beck is not the first, but he is the most recent, to call Americans to turn back to God and thereby emerge from a season of darkness. Any summons to return to God, especially as the antidote to misdirection and error, begs the question of God’s role in our social and political order.
Moreover, a call for America to return to God, or the assertion that even now America is turning back to God, raises the question of whether this applies to the nation as such, as a corporate entity, or to individuals as such. Is this a call for the nation as such to act, and if so, to whom or to what might we look to identify the acting agent(s) in this turn? Or is this a call to individuals to act, and if so, what is entailed in this action to make it evident? Or is this a call to the nation’s government to act, and if so, what forms of action would be required in order to accomplish this turn?
These are not dismissive questions. Rather they are relevant because nation-as-such and individuals-as-aggregation, though they are related, are not identical either in social or political terms. It is true that when the architects of our system of government spoke about the “nation,” they had in mind the people themselves, the origin and seat of sovereign authority. Government, on the other hand, was simply the mechanism the people put in place to secure their natural rights to life, liberty and property, and to provide a way to adjudicate different interests and circumstances when those individual freedoms collided. Individuals-as-aggregation were, and still are, viewed as society, the social community in toto, which, upon exercising its freedom to participate in civil affairs and select its public leaders, functioned as the political community. Thus nation-as-such is correlative both to the individuals-as-aggregation when they are construed as organized by a central government, and to that government, under which the people are organized.
However religious or irreligious the people of European descent were on this continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and there were full spectrums of both piety and impiety, belief and unbelief, conformity and dissent), the incontrovertible fact is that religion is neither encoded nor referenced in the U.S. Constitution except to prohibit religious adherence as a qualification for public office, and to provide for the disestablishment of religion and religious freedom.
It is thus reasonable to suppose that any call to return to God does not and cannot apply to government in any way that falls either within or outside the scope of its delegated powers. The same pertains to the nation-as-such, understood as the government under which our citizenry is civilly organized. What remains, then, is a call to individuals-as-aggregation (or to the nation-as-such, understood as individuals-as-aggregation). In other words, the call to return to God essentially applies to individuals who can be construed in their aggregation to be constitutive of society, our social community as a whole. Not to put too fine a point on it, it applies to individuals in their capacity as citizens and participants in a social and civil democracy.
But it is just at this point that we begin to get ourselves into some trouble. In the first place, there are some assumptions here that need to be brought to light because they are not universally shared by all who live here.
Assumption #1. Our country has been in a period of darkness (understood as a period of spiritual, moral, or religious falling away or decline). Whether one holds this assumption depends on what one looks for as evidence. Political/ideological disagreement and controversy do not qualify as evidence of religious decline. On the other hand, sociologists of religion have measured the decline in specifically Christian religious influence in American society, but the measures apply primarily to such phenomena as numbers of adherents and their level of participation in religious practices, and the level of acceptance of and agreement with traditional doctrines or belief systems. These are declining, to be sure, yet it needs to be noted that these areas are the more prominent indices of conventional Christianity. Other religious traditions, including new religious movements, are not undergoing decline. The gradual but inexorable decline of religion in the face of modernization and rationality (the theory of secularization) is no longer accepted as a given by scholars; religion world-wide is indeed alive and well. Furthermore, turning “back” to God is a reversion to an earlier period in our nation’s history judged to have been more spiritually or religiously robust, authentic and vital, usually conceived as an idyllic period of practically universal religious adherence. But in this scenario, the religion that is construed as normative is Christianity, in particular, Protestant Christianity, and adherence was far from being universal.
Assumption #2. The only or primary grid through which we can make sense of our national history is to see it as evidence of divine intent and custodial care, a history that unfolded according to some divine plan and purpose from which we have more recently been diverted. Here note should be taken of the interpretive significance of the view known as American exceptionalism, or the idea that, of all the nations in the world, the United States occupies a special place because its republican ideals expressed in its system of government assure individual liberty and economic freedom. Granted there are impulses in this direction to be found in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature on political philosophy and liberal democracy. But for the most part, these impulses are largely rhetorical devices to accentuate a more fundamental value in political thought, namely the inherent equality of human beings as brought forth by the Creator. The history of this country is remarkable for its achievements in social and political freedom, but this must not be emphasized at the expense of the unspeakable evils perpetrated by the dominant society on indigenous peoples and those forced into slavery from Africa.
Assumption #3. Change in a civil democratic society, particularly social change that results from the initiatives of those with a competing political point of view, is not a good, but rather something to be resisted and undone. However, since this country’s war of independence, we have undergone profound changes that are associated with such forces as westward migration, urbanization, industrialization, two world wars, economic collapses and recoveries, social reform, the civil rights movement, globalization, and terrorism. All of these have brought challenges and changes, a good many of them still resisted, but our primordial national vision remains to be fulfilled: securing personal liberty so all may live as they choose. Widening the net of inclusiveness and equality, and providing for the means—however minimalist they may be—for all to live a life of dignity and worth, are, by comparison to the eighteenth century, evident changes that could not have occurred without the action of government.
And second, in addition to these assumptions, there are some specific problems with the call to turn back to God.
Problem #1. Which “God” are we talking about? America is diverse with its religions. However extensively a view of God informed by the streams of Judeo-Christian heritage may have prevailed in our history, one needs to ask whether it is feasible or appropriate to privilege one religious tradition’s view at the expense of others. In terms of religious pluralism in the United States, is the call to return to God to be understood as religiously exclusive or inclusive? This is not a question of the de jure establishment of religion, but rather the de facto establishment, socially and culturally, of a construal of God that is peculiar to one religious tradition. In the end, de facto establishment of religion is just as enticing and despotic as de jure establishment.
Problem #2. Ultimately the notion of “turning back” to God implies some form of religious observance, and this entails sets of beliefs and worldviews, certain distinctive practices, certain rites or rituals, as well as certain expectations of personal and social behavior. Yet in the history of all religions, these have been subject to social and cultural influence and change. Sacred texts need to be interpreted and applied to changing circumstances. Social and cultural roles undergo alteration, especially to open greater and equal participation of those heretofore excluded. In order to turn back to God truly and fully, what particular religious adherence is to be promulgated as normative? In the final analysis, what will be the signs indicating such a turn, and are these signs primarily social, economic, political, or religious?
Problem #3. For many, the call to turn back to God can be insulting, arrogant, patronizing, judgmental, intolerant, threatening, repressive or even tyrannical. It takes some cheekiness to suppose that another’s worldview or sense of the divine or ultimacy—or just plain unbelief—merits an exhortation to reverse field, eject the faith or views of one’s own fathers and mothers, and embrace a religious sentiment heretofore alien to one’s identity. Typically this sort of appeal is known as evangelism or proselytizing, and it is customarily practiced only by Christians of a certain theological orientation. Thus, is it not somewhat disingenuous to call a nation to return to God when what is being promoted is a particular iteration of Christianity?
Problem #4. There remains some ambiguity regarding the active agent in the return, the one(s) to whom the call is extended and whose actions—so far, largely unspecified—are indicative of the return. The one thing that is certain is that it is not the role of civil government to promote or enforce a particular morality or vision of the good if by doing so it infringes on personal liberty. It is the role of government to assure that one’s—or a community’s—moral code does not injure or deprive others of their personal, civil, and religious freedom. Ultimately, given our religious and social diversity and our historical commitment to political liberalism (i.e., protection of freedom as the right to live as one chooses), will not our government have some role to play as an agent in the return to God? What is the most responsible—and lawful—way to achieve a return to God and protect the freedom of others with whom we share this civil democracy?
In my view, what is called for in our current sociopolitical situation is less a turning back to God, and more a commitment to practice the personal moral and civic virtues that make it possible for all to thrive. Treating others as one wishes oneself to be treated is a moral maxim not peculiar to Christianity; it can be found in virtually all religions of the world. But whether such conduct is grounded in commitment to a religious tradition or in the natural rights of our shared humanity, it is by far a more wholesome civic virtue than demeanor that produces discord, rancor, and hostility.
Religion certainly can promote responsible citizenship in a republican democracy. For example, Paul’s comments about the church as a social reality apply just as well to civil society: “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body” (1 Cor. 12:12, NRSV); “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4); “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:16-18). Who among us, of whatever religious tradition or political ideology, can reasonably deny that the human virtues embedded in these exhortations are applicable to our life as a nation?
Religion can contribute to the cultivation of the common good, understood as the conditions necessary for each one of us to realize our potential and to thrive as a free and equal human being in our social order. In a civil democracy such as ours, the common good does not require religion, but it does require a moral sense of shared responsibility and mutual obligation, and a willingness to act so that what is gained by one’s freedom does not deprive another of his or her freedom. Perhaps this is a turn we all can take, a re-turn we all can make.