Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s widely noticed essay in the New York Times Book Review last summer, "The Opening of the American Mind," illustrates among other things the truth of the old adage, les extremes touchent. Schlesinger's title, of course, announces a categorical rejection of the thesis of Professor Allan Bloom's recent best selling book, The Closing of the American Mind. The extremes in this case are that Bloom argues for "absolutism" over "relativism," Schlesinger the exact opposite. But they hold in common rejection of religion as being capable of founding an acceptable public philosophy for our time. Of the two, I find Bloom on this issue "pretentious" (as Schlesinger designates his entire book) but ingenuous, Schlesinger even more pretentious and disingenuous as well. In any case, no one committed to even the possibility of a religiously founded public philosophy can ignore either rejection.
Bloom, who explicitly follows his teacher Leo Strauss, assumes that philosophy is the pursuit of truth by and from reason alone, something that can only be practiced by an esoteric elite. The masses, on the other hand, need the guidance of religious tradition—which can co-exist with this elitist philosophy—lest they fall prey to irrational ideologies. These ideologies, by masquerading as reason, leave no room for authentic reason and its philosopher practitioners. Unlike religious tradition, they are totalitarian in thought and in deed. Bloom's pretentiousness lies in his assumption that philosophy and religion are so radically unrelated. His system, moreover, leaves religion in a decidedly secondary status: useful rather than true.
Schlesinger's disingenuousness is seen in his insistence that he holds religion "in high regard," which is about as believable as the claim, "some of my best friends are Jews," when uttered by an anti-Semite. Schlesinger states that "religion has an indispensable social function," but the body of his address argues that absolutism is the root of the worst social and political evils, and that all absolutism is essentially religious, whether it is the "Judeo-Christian tradition" or "the totalitarian social religions of our age" (by which, one assumes, he means fascism and communism). The indispensability of religion's "social function" is believable coming from Allan Bloom; it is unbelievable coming from Arthur Schlesinger.
The more interesting substantive questions raised by Schlesinger's essay are: 1) is Schlesinger truly the relativist he claims to be; and 2) if not, does his own position itself have religious presuppositions, even if he himself is unaware of them?
Schlesinger obviously knows that to proclaim any kind of "absolute relativism" will undercut his own position with a contradiction as old as the "Cretan Paradox" (i.e., if a Cretan says "all Cretans are liars," can he himself be believed?). So, Schlesinger stipulates, "our relative values are not matters of whim and happenstance. History has given them to us." Clearly, then, he engages in the same "deference to authority" as the religious absolutists he so roundly condemns. "History" is his authority.
Of course, Schlesinger would retort that his authority is empirically/pragmatically warranted. "They [our relative values] work for us." Aside from the philosophical problem of inferring a prescription ("ought") from a description ("Is"), what does it mean to say that certain values work for us? Who are the "us" here? How do we know when prevailing values are "working" and when they are not? Are they working for the welfare recipient, or for all the other powerless outsiders in our society? They, and millions of other Americans who have other complaints, would surely disagree with Professor Schlesinger, one of the highest paid and most influential academics in America today.
The fact is that it is simply not empirically testable whether anyone's values "work" or not. Values are affirmed because one believes they are true and that it is good to put them into practice. Such beliefs entail the choice of whose voice is to be hearkened—which authority to obey. Pace Mr. Justice Holmes, whom Schlesinger quotes authoritatively, such ultimate choices do involve one's view of the very nature of the universe and one's place in it. To be sure, such choices must have some experience to illustrate their worldly applicability, but they are not defeated when other experience does not function for them. For they apply to experience, they are not derived from it; or to put it more classically, they are in the world, not of it.
Hence, only by revealing his own views of his place in the cosmos—which are religious as even such nontraditionalists as Spinoza and Einstein understood—can Schlesinger argue for the authority of "History," or "our folkways, traditions, standards." Why is "History" or even "history" not "bunk" for him as it was for Henry Ford (surely one of "our national heroes")? Why should our values have "universal application," if they are not universally true? And how can Professor Schlesinger argue for the authority of "our deep seated preference" on secularist grounds with any more weight than the many more Americans who would argue for them on religious grounds? Does not our founding document, the Declaration of Independence (never mentioned by Schlesinger, interestingly), ground its claims in "Nature's God"? Would not most Americans regard that document as more authoritative than Huckleberry Finn, whose words Schlesinger uses as the benediction of his secularist sermon (originally delivered at the secular ritual of the inauguration of the president of Brown University)?
It would seem, then, that Schlesinger's claims do reveal religious presuppositions. An appeal to "what history has given" suggests the same reverence with which my fellow Jewish believers, for example, praise God as "the Giver of the Torah." The issue, therefore, is not religion or secularism, but whose religion.
Finally, the fact that religion—at least in the West—learned something about human rights from democratic experience does not mean that "human rights is not a religious idea," as Schlesinger dogmatically asserts. The advances in human rights of which we Americans can be justly proud (however partial they might yet be) can be traced to the fact that they were successfully advocated as a development out of the traditions which long predate the founding of the American republic. Thus people who first believed that all humans are created in the image of God are quite well prepared to accept the idea of inalienable rights. People who first believed that God authorizes prophets to criticize kings are quite well prepared to accept the idea of discursive freedom. People who first revered Amos are quite well prepared to respect Martin Luther King.
These rights were not presented as something de novo, unlike those of the French revolution (for whose bicentennial Schlesinger's militant secularism might actually be much more appropriate). They were presented as traditional truths in new garb, and the traditions out of which they developed have been clearly understood by most as being religious. That is why, for example, most Americans have likened their national enterprise to a "covenant" more often than to the more secular image of a "contract." Furthermore, despite the emphasis by such theologians as Augustine, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Reinhold Niebuhr (with whom Schlesinger enjoyed a personal association) on the need to distinguish between divine and human authority, it is a gross distortion of all of their views for Schlesinger to impute to them the kind of relativism which makes the existence of God and the reality of revelation (the basis of all western religious traditions) so utterly irrelevant for public life.
At least some modern religious thinkers, Niebuhr most prominently, have attempted to affirm the value of democracy on religious grounds. By locating the grounds of democracy in the religious need to limit any human claim to absolute authority because the revealing God of the Bible is the only absolute, these thinkers provided an impetus for democracy to develop beyond the type of relativistic indifference that has proved to be so impotent in the face of the lure of idolatrous totalitarianisms. They have also thereby provided a religious self-corrective for the abuses of religion by religious institutions, which is one of the main roles of prophecy in the Bible.
Hence, in the current crisis of values in our contemporary culture, their approach provides a more open affirmation of the historical capability of democratic ideas and institutions ("the American mind") to develop by uncovering their deepest roots. Their historical openness shows, by stark contrast, the closed dogmatism of the historian, Arthur Schlesinger.
David Novak is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification.