In The Brothers Karamazov , the rationalist and unbelieving Ivan is visited by the devil, who lays out the moral consequences of atheism. After belief in God is extinguished, “man will be exalted with the spirit of divine, titanic pride, and the man-god will appear.” Of course few will have the courage of the “man-god” to live in an entirely secular world. Ivan has the courage to face the fact that God is dead, or so the devil seductively suggests. And thus for him, “everything is permitted.”

I used to think that Dostoevsky was echoing a long tradition of anxious concern about atheism, one that presumes that without religious belief people will descend into a nihilistic state of self-regard and the moral order of society will crumble. This has not come to pass, at least not yet. Secular Sweden remains well-ordered. New York City, where many people don’t believe in God, is run by a neo-Puritan mayor who crusades against cigarettes and soft drinks. Today’s unbelievers have rules, plenty of them. Dostoevsky, it would seem, was wrong.

Or not. When the devil tells Ivan that “everything is permitted,” he was not suggesting that without God there are no rules. Instead, “everything is permitted” means that nothing is always wrong. Everything is, at least at some point and under some circumstances, permitted.

I should have seen this earlier. After all, Ivan is the moralistic brother, not the hedonistic one. (Dmitri plays that role.) Moreover, the devil urges Ivan to assume the role of the new supreme rule maker, not that of an impulsive rule breaker.

It was a recent and ongoing debate on the electronic pages of Public Discourse that clarified Dostoevsky’s concerns for me. The debate has focused on moral absolutes, the prohibitions that admit of no exceptions, things that are never permitted. The principle that one should not directly intend to kill an innocent person provides a prime example. There are never situations or circumstances in which one can justifiably kill the innocent.

Christopher Tollefson and Robert T. Miller argue that there are natural or non-theological reasons”reasons that don’t require beliefs about God”to believe in moral absolutes, and that’s enough to give them force. One doesn’t do what one knows to be wrong, because it’s sufficient to know that it’s wrong.

Matthew O’Brien allows that there may be natural reasons to believe in moral absolutes, but argues that they are not enough. Sometimes circumstances are such that following a moral absolute seems to invite disastrous consequences. The classic example is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States directly targeted innocent civilians”a violation of the moral prohibition against killing the innocent”but the alternative of invading Japan would probably have resulted in the death of many more people, perhaps even more innocent people.

Saturation bombing with conventional explosives in Europe involved a similar suspension of the moral absolute. Ever reliable as a theorist of our secular age, John Rawls (whom O’Brien helpfully cites) defended the total-war doctrine that we tacitly adopted during World War II: The “incalculable moral and political evil for civilized life everywhere” that a Nazi victory portended “justifies invoking the supreme emergency exemption.” The same way of thinking underwrote the West’s Cold War nuclear policy of massive retaliation: mutually assured destruction. In dire situations, we can suspend moral absolutes. The “supreme emergency exemption” is plenary”and thus “everything is permitted.”

This is not a morally frivolous position. Faced with what Rawls describes as “incalculable moral and political evil for civilized life everywhere,” what are we to do? To fail to do what is necessary would seem a dereliction of our duty to humanity. Ought we not to break moral rules in order to save the possibility of morality? If not us, whom?

It’s a vexing question, one for which religious belief plays a significant role. Those who believe in God as the providential Lord, overseeing creation and guiding history, will naturally believe that he responds to the “supreme emergency” in his own way and in his own time. Those who don’t believe in God? They can grit their teeth and insist that a moral absolute is a moral absolute. But that’s hard to do without a belief in God as the providential governor of history who eventually rights all wrongs. Rawls identified an alternative, the one that requires moral relativism. In dire circumstances we can set aside moral absolutes. It’s our call.

The way in which atheism tempts us to take ultimate responsibility is what Dostoevsky evokes with the chilling formulation, “everything is permitted.” In The Brothers Karamazov , Ivan suffers from a profound sense of the moral injustice of history. He sees the moral disorder around him”the widespread suffering of the innocent, his brother’s unjust arrest for the murder of his father”and he feels the absence of a supreme sovereign who ultimately puts things right. That’s what makes him so susceptible to the devil’s seductive words. If God is dead, then Ivan himself must take ultimate responsibility for the moral order of the world. He must right the wrongs, and if that means invoking “supreme emergency exemptions” or re-legislating moral laws, well, such are the divine duties forced upon us in a God-abandoned world.

I’ve come to see that this describes the moral atmosphere of our times quite well. We each take on the role of commander-in-chief, often invoking the “supreme emergency exemption” to address what we imagine to be dire circumstances in our lives, or the lives of others. For example, a friend recently asked me if I honestly believed that abortion is always immoral. “What if your daughter was fourteen and became pregnant? Would you really refuse to make an exception? Would you really force her to live with the consequences?” The question is typical, reflecting not an insouciant and amoral relativism, but instead an anguished awareness of dire circumstance. Most Americans who support Roe v. Wade see abortion as a personal Hiroshima. The same holds for euthanasia. It’s “tragic,” but “necessary.” We’re to respect life”except when, regrettably, we’re not.

Something similar is at work in relaxed attitudes toward divorce and permissive views of sexual morality. Both involve a desire to make accommodating adjustments. “Would you really want a couple in conflict to stay married? Do you actually think that homosexuals should have to live with the unhappiness of their sexual desires unfulfilled?” These questions and others that point out the hard demands of rigorous moral judgments give rise to the paradox of moral relativism, one that Dostoevsky saw emerging in his own day. We must deny moral truths for the sake of humanity, for the sake of a moral task that seems urgent in an unbelieving world. We need to reengineer right and wrong to make everything come out right in the end.

The language of human rights has become very influential in recent decades, suggesting that our secular world is capable of a new set of strong moral norms that can replace the old absolutes. Yet, without religious belief I doubt that the West can sustain a robust commitment to rigorous moral principles of any sort. Relativism has a moral mission. Its goal is to allow us to adjust to difficult situations, making exceptions to moral principles, or revising them to better fit human realities and mitigate human suffering. In dire circumstances what is normally prohibited is permitted. And as we get accustomed to our roles as moral commanders-in-chief the threshold gets steadily lower.

As a young professor, I observed a bit of Rawls’ reasoning in action. The supposedly dire circumstances of an overly white and male faculty were sufficient to justify various supreme emergency exemptions so as to reach the goal of more women and minorities. It was a small matter, but a telling one. What counts as just in hiring is by no means simple and straightforward. It admits of many nuances and distinctions. But that was (and remains) beside the point for proponents of “diversity” who felt that we needed (and still need) to ensure “progress” by whatever means necessary.

The progressive mentality tends to see dire circumstances everywhere, and this mentality, in conjunction with the way in which atheism tempts us to take charge and ensure justice by whatever means necessary, helps explain the contemporary dictatorship of relativism. The sort of reasoning Rawls provided to justify the total-war doctrine against Nazism justifies the violation of every moral principle, including the essential rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And in a world dominated by an atheistic elite, I’m afraid they very likely will be violated, always for the sake of the high moral purpose of preventing an “incalculable moral and political evil for civilized life everywhere.” It will be part of the moral mission of relativism.

Which is one very important reason why religion makes such a fundamental difference in the public square. A belief that God is the providential governor and lord of history is not logically or conceptually necessary for belief in moral absolutes. But it provides moral reassurance, and it encourages us to reject the basic assumption that motivates the moral mission of relativism, the assumption that we need to make things come out right in the end.

We need this reassurance. Moral absolutes invariably limit our ability to mitigate suffering in some cases. I can’t relieve a pregnant teenager of the consequences of sexual intercourse, or a gay friend the trials of an ill-suited celibacy. But faith lets me say that it’s up to God, not me, to ensure that in the final accounting moral truth reliably brings about human flourishing. Without this religious belief I’m like Ivan Karamazov, forced either to suppress my moral sensitivity to human suffering, or to take charge by making moral revisions and exemptions that, however well-meaning in my own mind, are very likely designed to serve myself.

The Myth of Public Reason

In recent decades a consensus has emerged that religious ideas and theological notions are sectarian and private in character, and therefore they should not be offered in the public square. A genuine “public philosophy,” to use the term of art, must appeal to principles of “public reason,” another term of art, which are accessible to all citizens. It is therefore supposed that a public philosophy can’t rely on the sorts of claims about God, providence, salvation, and morality that religious people make. Religious themes can be used for their rhetorical effect. Martin Luther King used a rich biblical imagery to promote civil rights, and his sermons and speeches are widely admired. But his core ideal of equality remains non-theological, or so it is claimed.

Religious people should not confuse good preaching with effective political witness. But some of the arguments against using religious beliefs as part of one’s public philosophy are actually very weak, casting doubt on blanket claims that religious convictions and principles have no role in public debates.

Take the oldest one, the argument from controversy. Throughout the modern era it has been taken as self-evident that religious beliefs are uniquely controversial, tending toward social divisions and even sectarian violence. People point to the Wars of Religion in the past, Northern Ireland more recently, or Islamic terrorism and Sunni/Shiite Muslim conflict today.

John Rawls tried to avoid these conflicts by ruling them out of bounds. Public reason, he argued, should be “political” and not “metaphysical.” He thought that theology (and, for that matter, most robust philosophies that have strong views of our moral purpose) should be kept out of the public square. They are “comprehensive doctrines” that by their very nature militate against the give-and-take of democratic discussion and compromise. St. Augustine is fine for the seminary, and Aristotle for the seminar room, but their overall vision of our nature and destiny should be kept out of the public square.

Most proponents of “public reason,” Rawls included, secretly know that the argument from controversy is specious. In the first place, the idea that we ought to rule out “comprehensive doctrines” amounts to a “comprehensive doctrine” about the relation between politics and morality, and for that matter between politics and theology. And it’s a controversial one, as the vigorous debates about Rawls and his theory indicate.

More importantly, nearly all the distinctive aspects of a modern liberal society were at some point profoundly controversial and divisive, from the question of universal suffrage, through abolition, to racial equality. Winning these battles was necessary for liberals like Rawls to endorse the argument from controversy. When your side has the upper hand, it’s very tempting to define dissent as illegitimate.

But liberals can’t help themselves. When Rick Santorum makes the altogether rational and sensible observation that racism involves moral judgments about skin color (an odd basis for moral judgments) while opposition to homosexual acts involves moral judgments about behavior (the usual basis for moral judgments), his views are labeled as “controversial.” Meanwhile, proponents of gay marriage make arguments that are controversial and divisive, as the current political climate indicates, and yet are deemed acceptably “public.” One cannot avoid the conclusion that a “controversial” stance largely means a policy, principle, or position that liberals oppose.

I’m not in favor of the conservative tendency to criticize liberals as imposing a double standard. It’s better to argue that the main premise of the argument from controversy is mistaken. Controversy is the stuff of democratic politics. Instead of trying to determine the criteria of a “public reason””and thus risk the temptation of defining as non-controversial what you believe ought to be widely accepted”the relevant question is whether partisans in public debates are willing to accept the constraints of civility and the rule of law. In recent decades it’s been modern liberals and their radical friends who have shown themselves less trustworthy on these points than the supposed theocrats. For example, gay activists harass and intimidate those who have supported and signed petitions that defend traditional marriage, a tactic the liberals rarely criticize.

More penetrating and serious is the argument from democratic participation. A governing consensus in a genuinely democratic society must be open to argument and capable of analysis by those who dissent. For example, if judges depend upon seers or oracles, then we cannot debate the merits of their decisions. The oracle says what it says”or at least what the judge says it says”and we have to accept the outcome. Thus says the Lord.

There is a great deal of truth to this objection. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others base many of their beliefs on divine revelation, and direct appeal to this source in a pluralistic society poses significant problems. However, few religious traditions formulate their doctrines by raw appeals to authority, and certainly not their doctrines about social and moral questions.

A Christian theology of marriage, to take a current and timely example, involves biblical, philosophical, and historical arguments, all of which can be engaged and weighed by non-Christians who take the time to study them. Moreover, when it comes to applying that theology of marriage to the public square, a Christian draws upon centuries-old debates about just how and to what degree civil society should legislate moral and theological truths.

So even if a Christian speaks in a distinctly theological way in the public square, there’s plenty for everyone to debate. An atheist is not going to accept an argument based on the story of the union of Adam and Eve, the Song of Songs, and St. Paul’s evocation of the mystery of marriage, just because it’s biblical. But these sorts of arguments made by the Church fathers, medieval scholastics, Reformers, and modern theologians are much more than citations of Scripture and appeals to authority. They express a vision of human flourishing that secular people can recognize. Because biblical concepts and images saturate Western culture, a Christian theology of marriage (as well as a Christian view of the relation of law to morality) is accessible to the moral and political imaginations of most citizens, no matter what their religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs).

What makes truth claims “public” is their currency, not their pedigree. Most Americans are capable of grasping the moral import of St. Paul’s understanding of marriage as a binding, exclusive covenant, and it is condescending to say that an atheist is unable to entertain this biblical vision and cannot make up his own mind whether it ought (or ought not) to shape public policy. As anyone who has taught a seminar or led a discussion knows, the fact that a moral ideal is Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu)”and the fact that the most elegant and persuasive way to expound the ideal involves drawing on Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu) sources”does not make the ideal inaccessible to a diverse range of people and incapable of varied and vigorous debate.

The capacity of religious sources to engage (and sometime enrage, which since we’ve already set aside the argument from controversy is not a mark against it) stands in contrast to the social-scientific studies that are often championed as the very best sort of fact-based public reason. For years I served on university committees that had to make policy decisions. I was consistently struck by how many well-educated people, many with doctoral degrees, could not understand the logic and force of arguments based on statistics. It was a lesson: Human beings are engaged far more easily and deeply by stories, symbols, and rituals, as every politician knows.

Intellectuals may not like this, but it’s simply false that fact-based arguments encourage or even permit democratic participation. On the contrary, this sort of “public reason” promotes governance by experts, an approach to making laws and formulating regulations that, when it comes to the experience of most citizens, isn’t all that different from the consultation of court prophets. For anyone outside the small world of fellow specialists, the modern expert is as beyond question as the ancient oracle. By contrast, as Reinhold Niebuhr demonstrated in his supple use of biblical sources and theological concepts, a religious person speaking religiously can provoke thoughtful public reflection among a wide range of citizens.

Closely related to democratic participation is the argument from fairness. The loyal follower of Rawls may allow that most citizens aren’t equipped to follow complex arguments about policy. But with enough education and under ideal circumstances they could. But that’s true for religious arguments, as well as metaphysical arguments.

For example, a Thomist of the strict observance argues that a just society should encourage, perhaps even compel, religious observance. It’s an argument that depends on deeper arguments about human nature”we have a natural desire to know and serve God”as well as a theory of justice that requires legislators to actively promote the sorts of behaviors that lead us to satisfy our natural desires in the proper way, including our natural religious desires.

The idea that government should promote religion sounds rather extreme to an American. After all, some of the Founding Fathers rejected this line of argument, often for good reasons. But that does not make the Thomistic argument unfair. The loyal followers of St. Thomas think along the same lines as advocates of “public reason” who champion fact-based arguments. Under ideal circumstances and with enough education, people will see their obvious human interest in acknowledging and offering proper service to the Creator.

At a practical level, a commitment to public reason and the desire for a public philosophy make a great deal of sense. The kinds of arguments best made at a theological conference are not the same as the ones best used in the public square. That’s as it should be. St. Augustine recognized and taught that what ought to govern the inner life of the Christian community is not the same as what ought to govern secular society. The decrees of church councils are not civil constitutions. But the supernatural love that animates the City of God is by no means irrelevant”or inaccessible”to the City of Man. To a certain degree divine truths (as well as metaphysical truths) are rightly brought into the public square. Just how and how much is a matter of prudence and practical judgment rather than the application of bright-line tests and specious, hollow doctrines of “public reason.”

Contraceptive Controversy

The Obama administration was surprised by the degree and intensity of resistance to the Health and Human Services regulations that refused to exempt all religious organizations from the general requirement to buy insurance policies that provide contraceptive coverage. This led to some backtracking, or at least a show of it. The White House fact sheet explained the supposed concession: “Contraceptive coverage will be offered by their employers’ insurance company directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception,” and “insurance companies will be required to provide contraceptive coverage to these women free of charge.” Bottom line: Religious employers who offer insurance to their employees are still required to provide (and pay for) policies that are required to provide contraception.

Time will tell whether this difference that makes very little difference defuses the political uproar. But for now I find myself mystified. Why is the administration so determined that women get contraceptives for free? The current arrangements are not financially burdensome, at least not for middle-class women who have jobs that provide the health insurance that the contraceptive mandate targets. The Planned Parenthood website tells us that the pill can cost somewhere between $10 and $50 per month. That’s less than a cable subscription or a monthly cell-phone bill. It’s less than ten or twelve lattes per month. So why push the mandate?

Feminism probably plays a role. Women have come to realize that contraception is almost entirely their responsibility. It no doubt galled the generation of women now in the White House that as college students they had to plan ahead for”and pick up the cost of”the pick-up culture. For them, free contraceptives are a matter of justice, an imperative of gender equality. Men need to pay as well, which is precisely what will happen when everybody’s insurance premiums go toward subsidizing the “free” contraceptives now mandated by the administration.

The abortion license also may be exercising its malign influence. The administration defends the contraceptive mandate as “preventive health care,” which presumes that pregnancy is an affliction to be prevented. This reinforces the mentality that thinks of abortion as a necessary part of “women’s health.” Contraceptives are essential for preventing the disease of pregnancy, and abortion is the necessary “cure” when prevention fails.

But perhaps the most important reason has to do with the prevailing liberal view of sexual freedom, which is that it is a basic human right because it serves the fundamental good of ensuring that we can enjoy the conclusion of what John Haldane calls in this issue the argumentum ad consummationem . If one adds the liberal premise that rights are empty if we suffer any financial limitations or social impediments”and that government is positively obliged to remove those limitations and impediments”then contraceptives become like decent housing and food for children. They are among the bottom line, basic necessities that a just society must provide if men and women are not to live in a dehumanized condition, which is to say are not able to have sex without worries.

Perhaps I’m over-interpreting this strange episode in American politics. But perhaps not. How else can we explain why the Obama White House is willing to spend so much political capital to subsidize the sexual choices of middle-class American women?

Articles by R. R. Reno