In God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh’s splendid book on religion in the civil rights movement, the theologian recounts a fascinating anecdote about Fannie Lou Hamer, a founder and the guiding spirit of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). In the summer of 1964 the MFDP waged a challenge to the credentials of the lily–white Mississippi slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention, a slate chosen by the lily–white Mississippi Democratic Party. The MFDP offered an integrated slate of delegates, many of whom, like Mrs. Hamer herself, had tried to register to vote and had been punished for it. The controversy terrified President Lyndon Johnson, who wanted no blot on the celebration of his nomination. So he sent his Vice President–in–waiting, Hubert Humphrey, to visit Mrs. Hamer, with orders to buy her off.
Humphrey, believing that he was undertaking a political negotiation, asked Fannie Lou Hamer what she wanted. Mrs. Hamer, a devout evangelical Christian, responded: “The beginning of a New Kingdom right here on earth.”
Humphrey, evidently stunned, explained that his political future was on the line if he could not close a deal with her to end the credentials challenge. He apparently wanted her to understand that his nomination would create a strong voice for racial equality at the highest levels of the White House, reason enough to compromise. Fannie Lou Hamer, who had survived beating and torture in a Mississippi jail for insisting on her constitutional rights, was unimpressed. This was her reply: “Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you.” This alone must have been hard on Senator Humphrey, who had fought for civil rights long before it became fashionable in the Democratic Party, and whose speech on the subject at the 1948 convention is one of the most important moments of twentieth–century political history. Mrs. Hamer, however, was relentless: “But if you take [the vice presidential nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I’m gonna pray to Jesus for you.” And that, according to Marsh, was the end of the Johnson Administration’s negotiation with Hamer.
I begin with the story of the attempt to make a deal with Mrs. Hamer because it has much to teach us about what can happen when strong religious commitment runs up against the world of secular politics—and secular politics is, of course, the world that produces law. I wish to address the relation of religion generally—and Christianity in particular—to the liberal theory of law. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of liberal democracy. The exercise of political and personal freedoms and the functioning of the market economy both rely on and are constrained by the necessity of obedience to law. Liberal theory in turn relies on rules of recognition to tell us what counts as a law—we develop ways to distinguish between a bill to raise taxes that is passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor on the one hand and, on the other, an order from Joe down at Joe’s Diner raising taxes because he thinks it is a good idea.
In liberal theory, however, legal legitimacy cannot rest simply on the process through which a law is enacted. Liberal democracy rests also on the idea that there are fundamental principles of justice to which laws should cohere. At minimum, these principles enable us to tell good laws from bad ones, so that we know which laws to favor and which to oppose. In addition, some theorists believe that the principles of justice enable us to impose a just order on the society, notwithstanding contrary acts that meet all the requirements to be recognized as laws. In other words, a law’s inconsistency with the principles of justice on which the society rests can be proof of its invalidity. This notion underlies, to take the most obvious example, the contemporary model of constitutional law. It is therefore unsurprising that in political philosophy identifying the principles of justice to which the apparatus of governance should (or must) conform has become nearly the entire game. Contending theorists have created an enormous literature, arguing for and against various ways of deriving the principles. The literature shares two admirable commitments: first, to liberal principles, and, second, to the rule of law.
From the Christian point of view, however, these commitments, while important, are insufficient. The first and highest duty of the individual Christian believer is to Christ. What this means for the community in which the believer lives has been a matter of sharp debate among theologians for centuries. Some have opted for a society run according to Christian mores—for example, the medieval Catholic Church, the early followers of the Reformed tradition, the preachers of the “Christian America” movement in the nineteenth century, some liberation theologians of the twentieth, and, of course, some of the conservative Christian political organizations that have, over the past two decades, so shaken the national political scene. Others have simply insisted that the society should be well ordered, should not require of the believer what Christ forbids, and should basically leave the believer alone to go his own way—for example, some of the very early Christians, the Anabaptists (and their American descendants, including the Mennonites and the Amish), the dissenting preachers of the First Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, and many evangelicals even in the twentieth. (Lately, a fair number of conservative Christian political activists in the United States have also gravitated from the first group to the second.)
Mrs. Hamer, like so many religious activists in the nation’s history, fell into the first group: she wanted to reorganize American society along the lines that she believed the Lord required. In this she stood in the shoes of the abolitionists and the prohibitionists alike, who also wanted to repair human damage to God’s creation. Johnson and Humphrey shared a more modest goal: they simply wanted to win the election. They wanted Mrs. Hamer on board, but only if they could first transform her activism into a more familiar category, so that her religious commitments might either be submerged or be turned to the political purposes of the Democratic Party.
More important to the present purpose, the story may also do service as a metaphor for a larger conversation. Mrs. Hamer may play the part of the unapologetically religious voice in our public councils; Johnson and Humphrey may stand in for liberal theory. In their roles, they could accept only part of what Mrs. Hamer desired—the part justifiable in liberal terms. Insofar as her argument was couched in illiberal terms, however, they could not accept it and, indeed, could not really acknowledge it. And according to contemporary liberal theory, what made Mrs. Hamer’s argument illiberal was not its goal but its nature: she insisted on pressing a religious case in the public square.
The liberal state is uncomfortable with deep religious devotion—and, for the most part, so is its product, liberal law. Religious belief is reduced to precise parity with all other forms of belief, an act of leveling that is already threatening to religion itself. In practice, liberalism often reduces religion to an even smaller role than other belief systems, seeking to limit or shut off its access to the public square and often deriding the efforts of the religious to live the lives they think the Lord requires when those efforts seem to conflict with other liberal goals.
The discomfort of contemporary liberal theory with strong religious commitment poses a particular challenge for me, as a committed Christian, teaching at a university that, despite its religious roots, is committed to a vigorously secular ethos. Unfortunately, like so many secular institutions, Yale now and then loses track of what makes distinctive religion valuable to nonreligionists, and thus falls into the common liberal trap of leveling, trying to force everyone into accepting a given set of meanings that the institution prefers. So in the late 1990s Yale rejected the petition of a group of Orthodox Jewish students who wanted to live off campus (because they believe that the atmosphere in the dormitories encourages premarital sex, which they believe God wants them to avoid) and the request by the Christian Legal Society for the freedom to recruit at the law school while hiring only . . . well, Christians.
It may be that the reader will disagree with my view that Yale was wrong in both cases. But I do not cite these examples to argue against what the university did. Rather, I suggest that Yale’s reactions in both these cases mirror the tragedy of liberal theory when it meets religious commitment. The basic response of liberal theory to serious religion is to try to speak words that seem to celebrate it (as a part of the freedom of belief, or conscience, or the entitlement to select one’s own version of the good) while in effect trying to domesticate it—or, if that fails, to try to destroy it.
This accusation might sound overstated, but it should be unsurprising. Liberalism is a theory of the state in its relationship with individuals, but not just a theory of the organization or output of the state; liberalism also seeks to explain how the state should both stimulate and regulate the search for meaning. Religions, too, seek to provide meanings to their adherents, meanings of a deep and transcendent sort. What is religion, after all, but a narrative a people tells itself about its relationship with God, usually over an extended period of time? And if the narrative is truly about the meaning God assigns to the world, as Christianity’s narrative is, the follower of the religion, if truly faithful, can hardly select a different meaning simply because the state says so. If a religionist believes that God’s love does not allow some human beings to enslave others, no amount of teaching by the merely mortal agency of the state should cause the religionist to change. Quite the contrary: the religionist, if he believes that the state is committing great evil, has little choice but to try to get the state to change.
I should make clear that I do not believe, as some do, that conflict between liberalism and religious commitment is inevitable. The liberalism of the Enlightenment, for example, is generally compatible with a Christian view of the world. Christianity is not, in its essence, opposed to representative democracy, to a regime of individual rights, or to the principle that we should, for the most part, be left alone by the state so that we can pursue individual visions of the good. Quite the contrary: Christianity probably could not survive in the absence of these fundamental assumptions of liberal democracy. Democracy has been good for Christianity. (The distorted Christianity of the Middle Ages, when the Church tried to create, as the historian Paul Johnson says, a “total Christian society” in Europe, soon was barely recognizable as Christian.)
Similarly, the process–based liberalism that formed the heart of legal theory for a large chunk of the second half of the twentieth century is entirely consistent with a Christian view of the world. For the process theorist, law was recognized by its compliance with certain “rules of recognition.” Morality and law were not entirely separate, but their spheres were not thought to be identical. One could recognize a valid law even though it required or allowed something that was wrong; one could recognize a valid realm of private conduct even though my actions within it contradicted the moral judgment of others. Christianity, precisely because the first allegiance of every Christian is to God, must have a reliable basis for comprehending the state’s commands. It is God’s instruction that Christians obey the constituted authorities, the leaders of the state, who hold their offices from God in trust, except when the commands of the state are inconsistent with the demands of the Lord. But one can neither give allegiance to the constituted authorities on earth nor defy them for Christ’s sake until one knows just what the authorities have commanded.
Yet neither Enlightenment liberalism nor process–based liberalism represents the entire story of contemporary liberal philosophy. Liberalism as a theory cannot help but take on a triumphal character, for the ideals of liberalism have largely triumphed in the political world; the state is nowadays a liberal state. The trouble is that the state and the religions are in competition to explain the meaning of the world. When the meanings provided by the one differ from the meanings provided by the other, it is natural that the one on the losing end will do what it can to become a winner. Often, especially in today’s mass–produced world, characterized by the intrusion into every household of the materialist interpretation of reality, religions are just overwhelmed, which leads most of them to change and many of them to die. But more subtle tools are available in the assault on religious meaning. Indeed, all through history, the state has tried to domesticate religion, sometimes by force, simply eliminating dissenting faiths; sometimes through the device of creating an official, “established” church; sometimes—as in twentieth–century American experience—through reducing the power of religion by confining its freedom within a state–granted, state–defined, and state–controlled structure of constitutional rights.
Religion, however, is no idle bystander. If the state tries to domesticate religion, its most powerful competitor in the creation of meaning, then religion tries simultaneously to subvert the state. Liberalism sees this as one of religion’s dangers, which it is: history has demonstrated time and again the mischief the institutional church can cause (especially for its doctrinal purity) when it grabs for the reins of secular authority. But the tendency of religion, at its best, to subvert the state is also one of religion’s virtues. Every theory of the state—at least when put into practice—tends toward hegemony. When theory becomes law, it becomes power, and power works to sustain itself. Another lesson history teaches us is that every state seeks to restrict or eliminate competing centers of meaning. Thus every state, however noble the theory on which it is constructed, needs its subversives.
The liberal state is no exception to the general rule. Liberalism, too, tends toward hegemony. Not content to serve as a theory of organization of the state, it has grown into a theory of organization of private institutions in the state. If the state itself cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race or sex or religion, then private institutions, it seems, should not do so either. One need not support any of these forms of discrimination to see the obvious conceptual difficulty: a theory that developed in order to explain the organization of the state (from which there is no simple exit for dissenters or subjects of discrimination) becomes a theory about the organization of everything. And that, I think, is the true source of the supposed conflict between liberal theory on one side and religion on the other.
There are in the United States of America a number of private colleges that accept only women as students. As of this writing, there is but one that accepts only men. A few decades ago there were significant numbers of both. The change in numbers is an artifact of the liberal idea that private organizations should follow the lead of public ones. (The democracy that the theorists of pluralism celebrated in the fifties and sixties believed exactly the opposite, but that is a rather moot point.) If it is wrong for public organizations to discriminate on the basis of sex (specifically, against women), then it is wrong for private organizations to do so. This idea is often dressed up in plausible theoretical garb—private male–only organizations may be conceptualized, for example, as supporting bulwarks for women’s oppression—but no matter how it is dressed, it remains the same animal. That animal is hegemony. Its enemy is diversity.
I have no particular brief for male–only colleges. I would never have dreamed of attending one and would not wish it for my son. But I am not prepared to say that no rational, public–spirited parents could ever decide that such a school would be better for their son than a sexually integrated campus would be. Certainly enough parents think that way for the choice to be one that the market would support. But it is the tendency of liberalism, as for all successful theories of the state, to find danger in competing systems of meaning, and so to strive to eliminate them. Consequently, male–only colleges, male–only private clubs, and (on many campuses, including my own) male–only bathrooms have all died, or are on the way to dying, sacrificed to the public virtue of sexual equality. One may celebrate the public virtue and, at the same time, mourn the death of private diversity.
Democracy needs diversity because democracy advances through dissent, difference, and dialogue. The idea that the state should not only create a set of meanings, but try to alter the structure of institutions that do not match it, is ultimately destructive of democracy because it destroys the differences that create the dialectic. Yet the idea is a popular one—and religions, precisely because the meanings they offer can be so radically different from those proposed by the state, often bear the brunt of hegemony. Thus, for example, America’s anti–Catholicism during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was not simply a matter of private discrimination; the state, especially through the curriculum of the public schools, was heavily involved in what might fairly be described as an effort to wean Catholic children away from the “un–American” religion of their parents. The reason? The meaning thought to be basic to the Catholic way of life was inconsistent with the meaning thought to be basic to the American (in this case, Protestant) way of life. (Some of the most prominent voices of the early Republic expressed doubts that Catholicism was even covered by religious freedom, for religious freedom was the freedom to practice a free religion, which Catholicism, according to its critics, was not.)
To take a more recent controversy, the Platform for Action and Beijing Declaration, adopted at the close of the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995, seems to commit the signatories to undoing centers of power, including private ones, in their own countries that are oppressive of women as the phrase is understood politically in the West—a proposition that traditional religionists, men and women, all over the world see as a threat to their freedom to build communities of meaning independent of the state. By liberal standards, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, a variety of Bible–centered Protestant communities, and the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam are all oppressive of women. One reading of the Beijing Declaration is that the signing states must try to alter the substantive content of these religious traditions.
But why not set out to change the religion of the people? No state is truly interested in preserving independent communities of meaning. States, historically, have been interested in preserving themselves. The liberal state should be different, because of its supposed neutrality among competing conceptions of the good; but in practice, and more and more in theory, the liberal state is just as insistent as any other that everybody should believe the same basic things . . . as long as they are liberal things.
It is not surprising that the conference seemed to view religion as a special danger to its effort to impose a single set of meanings on the world, because religion has been one of the few institutions that have had modest success in resisting the hegemonic pull of liberalism. I do not mean to suggest, obviously, that no religion can have tenets that are politically “liberal,” or that an institutional religion always errs when it reinterprets traditional doctrine in light of the lived experience of God’s people. Quite the contrary. Religions always understand the will of God imperfectly; consequently, they may come to a richer understanding of that will with the passage of time; and thus does doctrine evolve. Moreover, for all that critics may deride traditional religion for purportedly antiquated understandings of sexuality and the role of women, the Western religious traditions have often been, and are today, well to the left of the American norm on such matters as sharing the wealth and caring for the oppressed.
On the other hand, some Western religions have caved in to the pressure to organize according to the meanings propounded by the state, more or less agreeing with the proposition that the same rules that guide the state should also guide private institutions within the state, and so they have decided to change their teachings to fit the changing beliefs of the people—they have tried to be, in a word, popular. As a Christian, I find mysterious the notion that God’s will can be decided by majority vote, because it seems to confirm the ancient critique of religion, that man has created God in his own image. When religion surrenders to the political or cultural passion of the moment, whether a passion of the left or a passion of the right, it yields the transcendent character that marks the religious sense as potentially distinctive among ways of understanding the world. One sees this process at work, for example, among those politically active conservative evangelicals who seem confident that there is a correct biblical position on everything from building a strategic missile defense system to cutting the capital gains tax; and also among those progressive Protestants who seem to believe that only a shameless homophobe, rather than a careful student of God’s word, could possibly oppose the blessing of same–sex unions.
The conflict with liberal theory, however, is posed not by those faith traditions that surrender to the pull of the world but by those that struggle against it, exercising their power of resistance. These resisting faiths, as we might call them, are those that insist on teaching different meanings from those imposed by the state, even in the face of public disapproval or, in many cases, actual state pressure. The resisting faiths have insisted on their right (and perhaps their responsibility) to be different, to teach different meanings, and, in some cases, they have amassed sufficient political clout to remain so.
In America, Christianity has sometimes been a resisting faith, and has sometimes surrendered to the culture instead. Yet Christians are, without question, called to resist: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The resistance to which Christians are called is not necessarily active dissent, though it sometimes may be. The more important form of resistance is active difference, living life in a way that sets the Christian apart from the culture. Active difference is necessarily resistance in an era when cultural, political, and legal pressures combine in an effort to influence fundamental values.
For a resisting faith to survive and thrive, political clout is often crucial. The courts are not usually helpful; as Frederick Mark Gedicks has pointed out, no adherent of a non–Christian, nonmainstream faith has ever won a First Amendment religious freedom case in the Supreme Court. Dissenting Christians have not fared well either, notably in recent years, as the courts have more or less abandoned any serious protection of religious liberty as a distinct constitutional right. In particular, the federal judiciary has all but abandoned the once–lively theory of accommodation, under which, in certain circumstances, the dissenting religionist is excused from compliance with a law that applies to others. This theory was used in the nineteenth century, for example, to allow churches to hire pastors from abroad in defiance of restrictions on immigration; and it was used in the twentieth to permit Amish parents to keep their children home from school after the eighth grade. But from the mid–1980s onward, the theory has largely disappeared, so the Supreme Court had no trouble, in 1986, allowing the Air Force to punish a Jewish officer for refusing to remove his yarmulke indoors. Today’s judges have forgotten what yesterday’s recalled: that religious freedom is nothing if it is not the freedom to be different. The different meanings of life that religions at their best supply translate into different ways of living—in short, into diversity—if the state allows believers sufficient space.
With the courts largely out of the picture, the legislature has become the principal battleground of religious freedom, as different traditions jockey for advantage, or at least survival, resulting in all the favoritism and all the discrimination that one would expect. The devolution upon the legislature of the duty to carve out exceptions from general laws for the benefit of religious liberty helps explain why, for example, the Roman Catholic Church maintains its freedom to ordain only men as priests, notwithstanding the nation’s antidiscrimination laws, but adherents of Santería are often prosecuted when they sacrifice animals (as their faith requires) in violation of animal rights ordinances. It is not that we value animals more than women, but that we value Catholics more than Santeros.
Resisting faiths have been an important source of dissent in our democratic polity, and sometimes the dissenters have prevailed. The abolitionist and civil rights movements are the most prominent examples, but they are far from the only ones. Liberal theory tends to celebrate the results achieved by those movements—an end to slavery, the development of formal legal protection against racial discrimination—without ever having very much to say about the actual source of the power of resistance. But the source matters. Not only do religions often teach different meanings than the state does, but religion, because it is at its heart a communal rather than an individual exercise, provides moral and spiritual support to the dissenters, strengthening them to stand against a tide of public disapproval. Sometimes, as with Fannie Lou Hamer, the lonely religious dissenter helps spark a movement that changes America. At other times, the lonely dissenter, along with the resisting faith, drowns in the sea of hegemonic meaning, as many Native American and African religious traditions did in the nineteenth century, and as the Mormons nearly did at the same time.
But the resisting faiths, at their best, are able to survive, and sometimes even to thrive, in the face of state pressure. As the legal scholar Robert Cover once pointed out, it is at the moments when official disapproval is greatest that the resisting faith learns most firmly what constitutes its core. The subversive power of religion is tested precisely at the moment when the meaning it teaches and the meaning the state teaches are most sharply opposed. If the state teaches the virtues of enslaving human beings and the resisting faith preaches the opposite, those who hear the Word will be forced to choose. Sometimes the nation will choose to continue to do whatever the religion, through its witness, seeks to end. But more often than many observers realize, the resisting faith will persuade citizens outside the faith that its set of meanings is (on one issue, at least) the correct one; and if the resisting faith persuades enough citizens, the state is forced to change.
This last point matters. Although some liberal philosophers have argued that religious language in public debate will lead only to cacophony, history suggests otherwise: at times, the religiously defended proposition prevails. The philosopher Charles Taylor argues that liberal uneasiness with strong religious commitment rests in large measure upon this historical truth, or its contemporary resonance. According to Taylor, an important reason that so many theorists of the present age seek to design rules for public argument from which religious language is absent is that religious language often wins. Unfortunately, it does not always win on behalf of good (that is, liberal) causes. The obvious solution is to inhibit the ability of religious commitment to alter the nature of the state.
Yet is such a goal attainable—let alone desirable? Let us ponder for a moment what has become a commonplace of liberal theory: that actions must be justified according to principles that are accessible, through dialogue, to all citizens. Different writers have different visions of what this means, but all of them seem to agree on the need, whether as a thought experiment or an actual model of dialogue, for the development of a mediating language in order to facilitate a conversation open on the same terms to all citizens. To such theorists, religious arguments on behalf of P or Not P make dialogue more difficult. And when the institutions of the state (and sometimes citizens themselves) actually act publicly out of religious commitment, a deeply illiberal moment has arrived. In liberal theory, the argument that the society should do P because God wills it is not merely wrong in the sense that it is insufficiently justified—it is, literally, incomprehensible.
Why incomprehensible? Consider the approach of Bruce Ackerman, who offers the following hypothetical. Suppose that two citizens are having a conversation. The first of them, Diviner, has before him a black box. He says that the black box has authoritatively determined which policy the state should pursue—let us continue to call it P. The black box, he adds, is in direct communication with God, so, really, it is God who has determined that we should do P. How is his fellow citizen to respond? According to Ackerman, it is sufficient for his skeptical fellow citizen (Ackerman calls him Democrat) to point out that he himself is unpersuaded that the black box is in communication with God. Therefore even if it happens that Diviner is right about the content of God’s will, he must find a way to justify P that will persuade the skeptical Democrat. And so, in the end, the supporters of P must repair to the tools of secular political argument.
As an observation about practical politics, Ackerman’s account is entirely persuasive; that is, members of a given resisting faith are unlikely to persuade skeptics of other faiths, or of no faith, simply by consulting their sacred black box and then repeating, “God commands it!” Perhaps that is why relatively few groups that have any actual access to the levers of decisionmaking power behave this way. Even the Christian Coalition, that great bogeyman of contemporary liberalism, no longer couches many of its public appeals in biblical terms. The Contract with the American Family, the public platform of the Christian Coalition in the mid–1990s, reads, almost in its entirely, as a secular political document that any conservative organization might have produced. Both the goals the Contract with the American Family proposes and the arguments offered to promote them read like secular policy analysis. This result should scarcely be surprising: if one wants to prevail in politics, one must do what politics requires.
Some liberal critics of the Christian Coalition have argued that, by creating public documents that do not discuss religion, the group is concealing its true motivation. I agree with this criticism and am profoundly troubled by it—but I do not think political liberals should be. In contemporary liberal theory, religionists who wish to enter the public square are supposed to restate their arguments in the language of secular politics. The Christian Coalition should be applauded by liberals for its willingness to do what liberal theory requires.
Why, then, am I troubled? For the same reason I am always concerned when the people of the garden decide that the wilderness is attractive. As C. S. Lewis pointed out many years ago, the practical need to be other than itself is one of the reasons that a religious organization should be wary of engaging in partisan politics. He was writing against the establishment of a “Christian Party” in England, and his argument was persuasive. In a multireligious democracy, the need for political compromise is so extreme that the putatively religious organization that decides to be actively political will, inevitably, be transformed into a political organization that was once religious—in the same way, for instance, that Yale is a secular university that was once religious. This, I believe, is what is happening, or perhaps has already happened, to the Christian Coalition. Democrat is prevailing over Diviner: the Christian Coalition is learning not to talk too much about the will of God. That is why liberal theorists who oppose religious language in politics should be pleased that religious conservatives have gained such power in the Republican Party: the process of domestication of politically active white conservative evangelicals is well under way, and may be irreversible.
But perhaps we have erred in considering the story only from Democrat’s point of view. Diviner might not be quite so ready to accept dialogic defeat. For example, Diviner might persuade a majority of his fellow citizens that the voice emanating from the box is indeed the voice of God. Then the majority would have a perfectly adequate reason to follow the voice . . . or perhaps we should say the Voice. Moreover, our analysis assumes the stability of Democrat’s preferences when, in practice, who knows? Democrat himself might be converted to Diviner’s faith, and so accept the judgment of the box. In other words, there is no reason, a priori, to suppose that Diviner cannot persuade the majority of his fellow citizens, or perhaps all of them, that the Voice is to be obeyed simply because it is the Voice. If the goal is to find a language that all citizens might in principle accept, the language of the Voice might turn out to be it.
But even if a society–wide religious conversion is theoretically possible, liberal theory need not concede that the possibility is relevant. The dialogue liberalism envisions is, for the most part, a hypothetical one—that is, a thought experiment. Ackerman, for example, need not be read as seeking to demonstrate how an actual conversation between Democrat and Diviner might flow. He is trying to show why the individual (or the state) already committed to liberal principles should not act on a proposition merely because the Voice has commanded it. The question, therefore, is not whether a majority of citizens agrees with what the Voice commands, but whether what the Voice commands is itself justified according to the principles of the liberal state. In short, it is not the actual dialogue of the liberal state but the work of the liberal state that must, in its formal justification, be liberal.
Consequently, it may matter less what language citizens use in arguing over policy than whether it is possible, through a dialogue according to liberal principles, to justify the policy itself. Liberalism, as a political theory, is nowadays about output, not input; ends, not means. This in turn suggests that the liberal concern about religion in public dialogue is at least partly misplaced. It turns out not to matter much what language citizens actually use in arguing over policy; what matters is liberal analysis of the policy itself. One can therefore, consistently with Ackerman’s thesis, envision two separate dialogues—one among the citizens, who are trying to govern themselves, and the other by the actual instrument of organized state power, as it tries to justify what it has done. What matters is the work of the state, not the reasoning behind it. And although I suspect that my colleague and friend Bruce Ackerman and I would often test the output of the state against somewhat different principles, I think we agree on this point.
But it is not a point liberal theorists generally are prepared to accept. Ackerman’s vision might ultimately be about ends, not means, but many theorists seem perfectly serious in trying to set forth limits for real debate. The philosopher John Rawls, whose fine book A Theory of Justice is taught to undergraduates everywhere as a thought experiment, strongly implies in his more recent book Political Liberalism that he is serious in trying to design an actual dialogue, not a hypothetical one. Even writers otherwise sensitive to the need to preserve the distinctive religious sphere against liberalism’s assault—I have in mind, for example, the legal scholar Kent Greenawalt—have been unambiguous in their preference for a public square in which debate is carried on in a secular political language.
If the language of public debate must be secular, religious citizens are required, as Michael Perry has put it, to “bracket” their religious selves, leaving behind, before entering the public square, the very aspect of personality that lends meaning to their lives. The idea that religious citizens must remake themselves before joining debate might have an abstract logical appeal, but in practice it simply represents another form of official pressure on the religious to be less than their full selves. Why should anybody be surprised? It is hard to build a liberal public order (or any official public order) in the face of powerful sources of resistance. Despite liberal disclaimers, I have always believed that this is one of the reasons that liberal theory worries so about religion: it might indeed seek to destroy the state. Better to destroy religion first. The destruction may be subtle, as in the morally nonsensical idea that it is possible for schools to teach sex education without moral content, even though few if any religions teach that sexuality is amoral. (Certainly the Christian tradition does not.) Or the destructive urge can be quite direct, as in the notion, presented by a growing number of political theorists but really going back to Dewey, that the state should wean children away from any illiberal religions their parents might try to teach them. Liberal theorists seem to believe that deep faith commitments pose serious threats to the order they are trying to create. I hope they are wrong. If they are right, then the order is not worth preserving.
Which brings us back to the summer of 1964 and Lyndon Johnson’s sabotage of the Freedom Democrats, led by Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s solidly Christian faith, as Charles Marsh meticulously details, was the wellspring of her public activism. She believed herself to be answering a divine call. Yet what happened after the abortive negotiation with Humphrey is quite instructive. Rebuffed by Hamer, who claimed to be guided entirely by her faith, the party turned to other leaders of the MFDP, people who were better educated than Hamer and who were, in Johnson’s eyes, easier to handle. They knew how the game was played in a way that Hamer did not. A compromise was worked out behind her back, the lily–white delegation was seated, and the brief challenge to the segregationist Democrats was turned back by a President who despised them.
It is fascinating to think that most Americans who have heard of her consider Fannie Lou Hamer a hero. In contemporary liberal theory, Mrs. Hamer could perhaps be viewed as a villain in her effort to use openly religious language in a nefarious scheme to impose a frankly religious order on the nation, and Humphrey and Johnson as heroes for going behind her back, sabotaging her inspirational leadership in order to negotiate with more practical MFDP members to destroy their leader and their movement. If Hamer is viewed heroically rather than villainously, then perhaps Charles Taylor is correct, and the purported liberal distaste for religious voices in political dialogue is simply a distaste for a particular set of political results that those voices, as articulated today, might conjure.
Let us, in any event, make no mistake: the mass protest wing of the civil rights movement, the part that was moved by religious inspiration and in turn inspired a nation, did not truly achieve its goal. America was reformed but not remade. The state did not come to revolve, as Hamer hoped and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, around a Gospel of Love; rather, it retained its capitalist core and widened somewhat the set of beneficiaries. The state came to see its job, not as permanently changing the nation in a fundamental way in the search for a greater vision of love (for Hamer, Christian love), but rather as the permanent establishment of vast civil rights bureaucracies to monitor those aspects of equality that are measurable. The existing order was not subverted; it was reformed in minor ways that siphoned off enough support from the more radical aspects of Hamer’s vision (and King’s) so as to avoid grappling with the more fundamental challenges that the civil rights movement posed. The state, in short, refused to allow itself to be subverted by the resisting faith. It was a lot cheaper to invent affirmative action and buy people off.
I hope that this does not seem unfair, but it is easy to forget that Hamer was hardly alone in understanding racial oppression in religious terms. The civil rights era was a time when the fabled separation of church and state utterly dissolved, as if by some divine magic. In those heady years, the nation’s politics was moved by the openly religious appeals of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. True, we saw the wonderful courage of heroic lawyers and heroic political leaders and heroic judges—but it was the remarkable heroism of ordinary black people, facing police dogs and assassins’ bullets, that captured the popular imagination. And many of those ordinary black people believed profoundly that their cause was just because God was on their side. They saw no need, as philosophers today seem to think is the better course in a liberal democracy, to reconfigure their arguments in terms of secular morality. On the contrary: to speak in some other, more acceptably secular language would have been to leave their own best selves behind. So they marched and suffered and praised God, and, in some ways, changed America forever. This, surely, was a resisting faith in action.
Why was it necessary to go behind Fannie Lou Hamer’s back? America, it seems, was not prepared to receive the message she insisted on bringing. Neither was the Democratic Party. In particular, neither Johnson nor Humphrey was prepared to receive a message that did not result in the two of them getting precisely what they wanted. And this is at the heart of liberalism’s notion that committed religionists are dangerous in the public square because it is hard to do business with them: what is meant is, they may be hard to persuade and, therefore, we might not get what we want.
The what we want of contemporary liberal theory is the exercise of our freedom of choice, or, more properly, our freedoms of choice. Modern liberalism shares its ideological foundations with free–market capitalism, because both envision human beings as bundles of preferences. The role of the liberal state (like the role of the market) is to create spaces in which the maximum number of preferences can be pursued, with the minimum amount of interference with the pursuit by others of their own preferences. In contemporary partisan politics (not to be confused with liberal theory), all sides have surrendered to this ideology. The fact that Republicans seem to think the preferences that matter most are economic and the Democrats seem to think the preferences that matter most are sexual and reproductive should not blind us to the simple truth that both parties are up to the same mischief: in real America today, as in the hypothetical America of liberal theory, it is the individual, unconnected to any sense of self–restraint, who matters most.
The point bears emphasis. The seeming incompatibility between liberal democracy and strong religious commitment is said, by the theorists of liberalism, to be about means. But it is really about ends. Much of liberal theory before the middle of the twentieth century focused on the question that has driven the Western religions from their founding—What is best for man?—and thus was about ends. This should scarcely be surprising, because the supposed humanism of such thinkers as Kant, and certainly the dogmatic liberalism of Locke, was shaped by the experience of religious ferment in a Europe in which the answer to this question (what I will call the basic question) carried abiding political and social significance. The project of the Enlightenment, like the project of the Protestant Reformation that preceded it and in most ways inspired it, did not hold that the basic question had no proper answer, or that all answers were equally good; the Enlightenment project held, rather, that human reason was sufficient to discover what the answer was.
Contemporary liberal theory has built from the Enlightenment project an ideal of process, pushing the state into the background, not because the state is unimportant but because the individual is more important—a valuable and still mostly unlearned lesson. But liberalism has gone past this sensible point, pressing for a reinterpretation of the basic question itself. If each of us, in the exercise of individual reason, has the ability to answer the basic question, the state, say today’s theorists, should not interfere (beyond a carefully prescribed minimum, designed to maximize the freedom of others) with our freedom to live whatever answer we happen to have found. But note what has changed in liberalism. No longer is the basic question that each of us must ask the communal and perhaps even transcendent What is best for man? Now the basic question is What is best for me? (What we might call basic question two.) The role of the liberal state is not to provide us with a space in which to reason together about the answer to the question—an answer that might then suffice for an entire community—but to provide us with the space to invent our own glorious diversity of answers, among which the state, with rare exceptions, will assiduously refuse to choose.
Many contemporary theorists—I have in mind, for example, Stephen Macedo and William Galston—seem willing to discard the solid post–Rawlsian liberal tenet that the state must be neutral among competing conceptions of the good. In order to create a world in which citizens are able to pursue their own answers to basic question two—What is best for me?—it is important, evidently, to develop citizens who themselves see the pursuit of basic question two as important. Education for democracy, or for liberal citizenship, is the way the proposition is sometimes put: children must be trained, from the time they are young, to accept liberal precepts, including the central importance of basic question two. That is why so many liberal theorists are so scathing in their attacks on Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 decision in which the Supreme Court allowed the Old Order Amish to remove their children from school after the eighth grade. The Amish, and the Supreme Court, saw further formal education as a threat to the Amish tradition, which is based in the terrible suffering of the Anabaptist experience and thus quite understandably preaches separation from the world. The critics, led by Justice William Douglas, argued that the refusal of Amish parents to send their children to school for ninth grade and beyond harmed the children—by denying them the tools they would need to lead lives in pursuit of the answer to basic question two.
Contemporary liberalism has constructed a worldview that exalts the individual self as a bundle of desires, the fulfillment of those desires in turn protected by rights. This criticism of liberalism is hardly new, and many theorists would not consider it a criticism at all. But Christianity, almost by its nature, must reject the liberal edifice, for Christianity constructs a worldview exalting not the individual but the connection—connection to other humans and, ultimately, to God. The Christian tradition teaches that the believer must die to self in order to live in Christ, and must reject the world for Christ’s sake. Christianity, in short, is more about duty than choice. Parents who raise their children to understand their lives this way are training them to be other than what liberal theory says they should be; but a liberal state that tries to interfere is one that many committed Christians are likely to see as the enemy.
There is something chilling, as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, in the inability of liberal theory to give an account of why bearing and raising children is a positive good—children are mere choices, the outcomes of the exercise of rights—or, for that matter, to find a stronger explanation of what is wrong with murder than the argument that the victim of the murder is deprived of his or her rights. Most people would consider the value of children or the horror of murder to be obvious. It is not merely an instinct but a part of their vision of the good.
The orthodox Christian vision of the good is that goodness is exactly coextensive with the will of God. Humans do not create good and, except through God’s grace, do not do good either. In the words of the 1801 articles of faith of the Episcopal Church, “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the inspiration of the Spirit, are not pleasant to God; . . . we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.” For Christians the vision of the good is the faith–guided and Spirit–inspired vision of God’s will. But Christianity, unlike liberalism, does not treat this vision as a choice. One does not decide to be a Christian. One is called to be a Christian. Christians differ sharply on whether mortals have the power to resist God’s call, but Christianity has never taught that it is possible to become a follower of Christ if the call itself is absent.
The dedication to this worldview is created in Christian community. Parents who are serious about their Christianity consider it a responsibility to teach it to their children, not as one of several possible options but as truth. Nor are Christians alone in resisting the liberal idea that children should be raised to be neutral (as Rawlsian liberalism properly believes the state should be) among competing conceptions of the good. Few people want selves quite as unencumbered as many liberal theorists seem to propose. Such theorists as Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre have been forceful advocates for the proposition that there may after all be little value to the life lived in radical separation from others, in which all obligations are voluntary and all choices are available to be made.
Choice is not wicked. Choice is the essence of freedom, and liberalism has done more than any political idea in history to promote and protect it. Liberalism, however, is like neoclassical economics: a theory about the availability of choice without a theory about the virtue of good choices. It should not be surprising, then, that the liberal state has generated a market that produces all the gore and horror people demand. When the heavy metal group Cannibal Corpse sings about masturbating with the severed head of a murdered child, liberal theory possesses no tools with which to explain why such music is bad and is unable to accept the notion that people who derive utility from listening to such music should be discouraged from doing so. What religion provides, and liberalism by its nature cannot, is a mechanism for selecting among the available choices. The mechanism of choice is morality. If our day–to–day activities are unmediated by morality, the same market that produces the cars and shampoos and breakfast cereals that people want will also produce the child pornography, the blackmailers, and the Klan hoods that a morally unencumbered public might demand.
Most Americans, of course, do not want these things, and the reason is the operation of the moral sense, honed since childhood, that helps us to understand the difference between good and evil, even among choices we might legally make. And although it is possible to raise moral children without the aid of religion, few Americans are interested in making the attempt. Most Americans are people of religious faith, and most people of religious faith learn right and wrong with the aid of their faith. Liberal theory can explain neither why there are bad reasons to want a billion dollars nor why there are bad reasons to want an abortion, but the great majority of Americans would have no trouble identifying bad reasons to do either. For the Christian, the point is particularly sharp. There are no actions that I take beyond the sight of God and, therefore, no actions I take beyond the scope of moral judgment. “Everything that you do, do for the sake of God,” wrote the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. The orthodox Christian teaching is identical: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Even though this famous epigram may seem impossible to live perfectly, it nevertheless presents an approach to living, to understanding the good, that is sharply distinct from the self–seeking self of liberalism.
Systems of secular morality (if one rejects the contention of Hauerwas and others that the secular is a myth) can also provide reasons to choose among alternatives. But precisely because secular morality is not linked to any sense of the transcendent, its hold on human personality is often weaker than the hold of religion. I do not contend that the hold is always weaker, any more than I contend that religious moral systems always generate better choices than secular ones; history refutes that idea. I contend only that virtuous adult citizens could believe quite rationally (pace Hume) that their religious faith is the appropriate source of values to guide both private and public actions, and that a theory of the state that implies that it isn’t will neither win, nor deserve, their adherence.
Liberal theory, of course, is a theory. It need not be psychologically accurate; it need not deal with people as they are, but can consider people as they should be. So when Stephen Macedo, for example, suggests that liberalism should set out to combat illiberal religions, we can take him quite seriously. He is uninterested in constructing the state for the benefit of the people. He would rather construct the people for the benefit of the state. That is the reason that liberal theory focuses so heavily on public education. The theory pretends that education will give children the tools they need as citizens, tools of critical analysis, for example. In practical operation, however, the liberal theory of education means competing actively with families for the privilege of creating meaning in the lives of children—more fundamentally, trying to wrest the children from the grasp of the religion of the parents, thus denying the putatively illiberal religion the opportunity to extend itself into the future.
In the Christian vision, children are to be raised not for the purposes of the state but for the purposes of God. “Train a child in the way he should go,” admonishes the Proverb, “and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). And how are young Christians to be trained? For one thing, Christians are to focus their minds only on what is good and noble (Philippians 4:8). They are to be “living sacrifices,” to resist conformity to the world (Romans 12:1–2). And they are, in the traditional Christian teaching, to die to self, to seek Christ rather than the fulfillment of their own desires. But in the liberal vision, the horizons of the traditionally trained Christian child must seem narrow indeed. And the agents of that illiberal constraint are the parents.
Small wonder that the schools are the great contemporary battlegrounds for the struggle over the role of religion, not only in our public life but in our private lives. This is not the place to recapitulate the sad history of the use of compulsory education laws as weapons for the destruction of religions opposed by the state, especially Roman Catholicism. Rather, I simply wish to note that the educational approach preferred by liberal theory, with its emphasis on critical skills that enable the child to choose what to believe, flies in the face of the traditional Christian understanding of family responsibility: the Christian child is trained to follow God’s commands, not to question them.
What can one make of this? Simply that liberal political theory, for all its virtues, is woefully incomplete because of its persistent refusal to accept the force of religion as a genuine and vital expression of human personality. Few Americans see religious faith as an aberration in the way that many leading theorists of liberalism do. Few religious Americans (and most Americans are religious) will value a theory of the state that not only dismisses their most cherished beliefs from the public sphere but even tries, through the device of public education, to make it harder for those beliefs to function in the private sphere.
Yet there are obviously limits on how accommodating public education can be. In a multireligious democracy, it would be difficult, and sometimes wrong, for the schools to embrace traditional religious notions of right and wrong—at least if the embrace is explicit. Character education, for example, although generally popular among parents, leaves some evangelicals uneasy. How is it possible to teach moral rules, they wonder, if one fails to mention the source of all morality? This difficulty helps explain why so many parents support vouchers and other forms of tax support for private education. (Nearly four out of ten parents of public school children say they would put their children in private schools if they could afford to do so.) I do not think that vouchers, even for religious schools, pose any interesting constitutional problems. There is reason to believe, moreover, that the traditional resistance to vouchers among liberal policymakers is softening a bit. Even should we ultimately reject a system of school vouchers, the strong support for it suggests that the state has an obligation to ponder why its public schools, once the glory of our nation, are making so many parents so unhappy.
African Americans are particularly unhappy. Black Americans are among the nation’s strongest supporters not only of vouchers to assist poor parents in purchasing private education for their children but also of classroom prayer, even more powerfully anathema to liberal theory. It is mere stereotyping to suppose that the reason for these data is simply that the public schools black children overwhelmingly attend do not do a good job at basic education, although that, sadly, is true. A better explanation, consistent with the rest of what we know, is that the data reflect the abiding evangelical Christianity that is the dominant faith within African America. Black Americans understand, often better than white Americans, the deadly danger in raising children without the aid of the tight moral cocoon that religions of genuine power can still offer. But this bit of unfinished business from the civil rights movement—assisting African Americans in the moral education of their children—is one that the liberal state cheerfully ignores.
Undeniably, religion can be dangerous to the basic human liberties of believers and unbelievers alike. But religion is not uniquely dangerous. The state itself poses a threat to basic human liberties, and the secular ideological wars of the twentieth century killed far more people than all the religious wars of history combined. Yet secular ideologies are not banned from the liberal public square because of their dangers.
Naturally, a liberal public order must set limits on what religion is able to accomplish through the legislative process—but it is not obvious why those limits must be different from the limits on what any other powerful force is able to accomplish. It is foolish, and fruitless, to try to assess the validity of a public policy according to the motivation underlying it, as the Supreme Court has too often tried to do. It is unwise, and perhaps unfair, for liberal theorists to single out religious motivations as belonging to the set of evil state motives, such as racial bigotry. Far better to assess the work of the state by what it actually does, so that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is perfectly acceptable in the liberal state even if, as the evidence suggests, many supporters considered it a religiously necessary piece of legislation; and organized classroom prayer is impermissible even if, as is certainly plausible, a school adopts it for a secular reason, such as the studies suggesting that people who pray regularly live longer, healthier lives.
What the liberal state should never do, however, is design a way of testing either the input or the output of the state that freezes out Americans like myself, people who believe that their understanding of God’s word is the appropriate guide for both their public and their private actions. Certainly a state that freezes us out, or that demands that we pay for the privilege of having our children attend public schools that will seek to wean them from our faith, has no serious claim on our allegiance.
Little of this analysis is new. Critics of liberalism have made many of these points for years. Liberal theory, however, continues to be unwilling to accommodate itself to the systems of meaning preferred by the most religiously committed citizens of the nation. Instead, liberalism has grown ever more muscular, pressing theories about education and the public square that few religious citizens will ever support. That is a flaw in liberal theory, not a flaw in religion. For serious religion understands that the life lived without attention to the basic question is life not worth living. In traditional Christianity, discerning God’s will and doing it is prior to everything else. If God’s will is that we suffer, the Christian must suffer. If God’s will is that we change, the Christian must change. If God’s will is that we fight, the Christian must fight. Even when, in secular terms, the battle the Christian is fighting seems to be an appealing one, the Christian’s motive for the struggle must always be to glorify God—and the Christian must never be afraid to say so.
That was the import of Fannie Lou Hamer’s answer to Hubert Humphrey’s awkward attempt to buy her off in 1964. Liberal theory can only find her response incomprehensible. Most Americans, however, would probably find it heroic. Fortunately for America.
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and author, most recently, of God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics (Basic). This essay is adapted from a chapter in Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, edited by Michael W. McConnell, Robert F. Cochran, Jr., and Angela C. Carmella, just out from Yale University Press.