“The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.” That is bracing stuff.
Professor Fish makes a very important argument about, inter alia, religion, reason, liberalism, and tolerance. I will not offer a point by point response to his article, but will develop along rather different lines some of the questions that he so provocatively raises. (Quotes that are not attributed are from Professor Fish's essay.)
The usual secularist telling of the story of modern freedom is that liberal democracy, with its devotion to civility and tolerance, is most importantly an achievement secured in opposition to the truth claims of religion. There is, let it be admitted, some historical justification for that way of telling the story. For the liberal project to advance, truth—claiming religion must retreat or be vanquished. Many Christians agree with that way of telling the story. They suspect, although they may not say so, that their faith is incompatible with a liberal regime. They put up with tolerance, they tolerate tolerance, but they have an uneasy conscience about it. If they had the courage of their convictions, they tell themselves, they would be aggressively intolerant of those who do not accept the truth that they know to be true. Perhaps they even experience a pleasurable frisson at the thought of forcefully overturning liberalism's table rather than politely taking a seat.
There is no doubt that the dominant rules of liberal discourse, especially in sectors of the academy, militate against any claims to truth, and not only religious truth. But the hostility to truth that is identified as religious is especially sharp. Many and seductive are the ways in which the ostensible acceptance of religion at liberalism's table can mean, in fact, the gelding of religion. If the opponents of religion cannot exclude it completely, they are practiced in the arts of coopting and neutralizing it. This they feel they have to do because authentic religion is threatening. It raises, for instance, the question of faith, and most liberal secularists are in deep denial about their articles of faith and acts of faith. Religious truth also proposes a comprehensive meaning system that offends and threatens those who insist that no one reading of reality should, as they say, be privileged.
The offense and threat of religion goes deep. It forces, for instance, the fundamental decision as to whether we are “self-made” or “created,” and the logic of that decision, one way or the other, has consequences that are not under our control. Not just what currently passes for liberalism but the liberal regime itself must, as its critics say, vanquish, exclude, or coopt the challenge of principled antiliberalism. The interesting question is whether religion necessarily poses such a challenge to the liberal regime. According to one reading of John Stuart Mill and the liberal tradition, religion is incompatible with liberalism because it requires obedience to authority, and obedience to authority is incompatible with the open-endedly critical mindset required by the liberal view of freedom. An alternative claim that needs to be considered is that obedience to authority can be not the surrender of freedom but the exercise of freedom in response to truth. It may be that that truth, in turn, does not end the civil conversation but sustains it through history until, as Christianity holds, the fullness of truth is undeniably obvious to all.
In exploring these questions, we should know what we mean by liberalism. Both its critics and its champions frequently identify liberalism with one strand of the tradition that goes by that name, and with habits of mind and behavior currently called liberal. John Stuart Mill's liberalism condemns what Mill takes to be religion's demand that one submit uncritically to the will of God. A critic of liberalism such as Stanley Fish commends that demand, at least for the religious. For both Mill and Fish, religion is the enemy of the autonomous individual, which Mill thinks is bad and Fish thinks is good. In contrast to both, I will suggest that Christianity proposes a more complex and interesting idea of the responsible person acting in obedience to truth.
But first we must know what liberalism we are talking about. According to one liberal doctrine, the liberal regime is based on belief in the autonomy of the individual, historical progress, the essential goodness of man, and public skepticism about moral truth. The liberal regime of, for instance, the American constitutional order is very different from that, and the difference is a difference of kind. Its origins, doctrines, and practices are explicated by, for instance, The Federalist Papers and Tocqueville. The religious foundation and development of this kind of liberal regime are traced by historians such as A. D. Lindsay, while theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray have in recent times explored with great care its presuppositions and practice. This kind of liberal regime is based on a belief in the responsible person in communities of legitimate interest, and in man's capacity for good ambiguously joined to his inclination to evil. It is agnostic about historical progress, and understands itself to be premised upon public truths, as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .” Such truths, in turn, are derived from and point to authority that transcends the regime itself, as in “Nature and Nature's God.”
Currently dominant modes of liberalism, on the other hand, subscribe to a mindless open-mindedness that precludes commitment to existing truth because truth is, as Fish says, “located in an ever-receding future.” Critics of this kind of liberalism, however, must be careful not to fall into the trap of pitting commitment to truth (religious or otherwise) against critical thought, for they thus end up in giving liberalism a copyright on man's critical faculties. Critical thought is hardly an invention of liberalism. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine (to whom I shall return), Maimonides, and Aquinas were wondrously familiar with the rules of reason, evidence, and critical judgment long before James Mill blessed the world with his prodigious son.
The proponents of a liberalism that puts truth forever on hold are undoubtedly powerful in our culture, but I do not think the liberal field in its entirety “is already theirs.” Nor should we concede to nine unelected lawyers on the Supreme Court the right to define the liberal tradition. In many ignorantly arrogant dictates of the last fifty years, the Court has indeed presumed to divorce public life from religion, from religiously grounded moral truth, and from truth itself. To the extent that these dictates are the law of the land, we may say with Mr. Bumble that the law is an ass. The fact that more and more Americans are saying that is at the heart of what some of us have called the Kulturkampf in which our society is embroiled, and likely will be embroiled for decades to come. Very much at the heart of this battle is a contest over conflicting definitions of the liberal regime.
A corrupt form of liberalism that some take to be normative for liberalism tout court has many tangled roots, and perhaps none more tangled than confusions about the relationship between faith and reason, authority and truth. It is a serious mistake, typical of this kind of liberalism, to suggest that religious decisions are arbitrary, while secular or nonreligious decisions are reasoned. Another kind of liberalism—usually associated today with fashions called postmodernist—suggests that all really fundamental decisions are arbitrary. Thus, for example, Stanley Fish says that in Paradise Lost there is no way of adjudicating between Adam and Satan when it comes to the decision for or against God.
This seems to me highly doubtful. Whether then or now, the assertion that the universe caused itself is incoherent and therefore implausible. The same is true of the assertion that my consciousness is not necessarily related to the consciousness of others, and finally of an Other. Of course there is not space to argue these claims here. Suffice it that one's decision for a “first premise” is a reasoned decision. It is sophistry to say that in that case one's real commitment is to reason and not to God. The fact is that my decision for God is truly my decision. Because I am, among other things, a rational person—in light of the decision for God I should say, “Because God has made me a rational creature”—no decision is truly mine unless my reason is engaged in the making of it.
In our reasoning, we begin with basic decisions that have a strong bearing on where we end up. But it is misleading to say that, for example between Adam and Satan, each begins with an act of faith—a commitment to a first premise—”and then each begins to reason in ways dictated by the content of his faith.” Also misleading is the statement that “In the absence of a fixed commitment—of a first premise that cannot be the object of thought because it is the enabling condition of thought—cognitive activity cannot get started.” What is in play with such statements is the currently fashionable notion that people live in, as it is said, realities created by incommensurable traditions of discourse. Incommensurable means that there can be no accurate translation from one discourse into the other. This view usually goes by the name of anti-foundationalism. There is no foundation that is shared by those committed to opposing first premises; they are incapable of agreeing or disagreeing because neither can know what the other is talking about. This view is espoused by some who are critics of liberalism, but it is in a crucial respect a variation of liberalism in that it puts the question of truth forever on hold.
It is important not to confuse “first premises” with the laws or rules by which logic works. People committed to opposing major premises are not thereby operating by opposing systems of logic. We can agree that Adam and Satan hold opposing major premises without agreeing that they hold opposing views about how one then reasons from whichever premise one holds. Nor is it the case, as Professor Fish would have it, that their opposing first premises “cannot be derived from anything in the visible scene; it must be imported—on no evidentiary basis whatsoever.”
Such statements confuse the deductive logic by which the syllogism works with the inductive logic by which we construct universal propositions out of imperfect and partial experience. A universal major premise—for instance, Aristotle's “All men are mortal”—can be based on generalization drawn from partial experience. I haven't seen all men die, but I've seen enough men die to reasonably hold that all men are mortal. Of course, there are universal major premises that are true, as the logicians say, “by definition”: “All cows are mammals,” “No cats are dogs,” and so forth. It is arguable that these statements may be held with “no evidentiary basis whatsoever.” But with respect to universal major premises that we hold by induction from partial evidence, it is obvious that we start with some evidence that we think supports them. And it follows that people who accept opposing premises can reasonably talk about that evidence.
Also important is the distinction between the falsity of a proposition and the inability to conceive a proposition. There are many things that I think are false but not logically impossible. We encounter propositions all the time that we can quite well understand but happen to believe are not true. For instance: “Jesus never lived,” “Christians are intolerant,” or “St. Augustine sacrificed reason to faith.” Whether the proposition “God does not exist” is logically possible is a much disputed question. (Anselm thought it an impossible proposition, while Aquinas thought it false but possible under some definitions of possibility.) In any event, a Christian can understand what a liberal atheist is saying, and can even imagine what the world would be like if what the atheist says were true, without believing a word of it.
There are numerous problems with the idea that opposing first premises necessarily result in incommensurable discourses that make it impossible for people to understand one another. Were that the case, a non-Christian could not understand the poetry of the very Christian John Milton, but in fact non-Christians such as Stanley Fish are recognized as authorities on Milton. Were that the case, the Christian Milton could not depict the reasonings of both Satan and Adam in a way that enables the reader to see both positions. Then too, if Adam and Satan, if Christians and liberals, have systems of reasoning that have nothing in common, we could not call them both “systems of reasoning.” To call them systems of reasoning is to assert that they have in common the fact that they both belong to the genus called “systems of reasoning”—which of course they do. Finally, the person who wants to make the point that nobody can stand outside his belief system and compare it to another belief system has to stand outside belief systems and compare them to one another. In other words, he has to do what he says cannot be done.
In thinking about the connections between faith, reason, and discourse, St. Augustine is particularly helpful. It is possible to find snippets, especially from his devotional and homiletical writings, that can be used to suggest that Augustine is a fideist, someone who sacrifices reason to faith. But that would be a grave misunderstanding. Augustine addressed with great sophistication why it is that faith is reasonable and why it is that reason without faith is incomplete. There is, for instance, the very engaging essay, The Usefulness of Believing. The very title reflects Augustine's assumption that Christian and non-Christian are able to consider together what would be useful in understanding the truth. Augustine makes the case that belief is necessary for understanding. He explains in great detail to his unbelieving interlocutor the reasonable case for believing. It is clear that Augustine and his interlocutor share a common “a priori” in what they mean by reason and reasons. The argument is that belief is necessary to understanding—in everyday life, in science, in friendship, and in matters religious—and why belief is necessary is itself rationally explicable.
“Understand my word in order to believe,” says Augustine, “but believe God's word in order to understand.” As Etienne Gilson writes in The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine, “[In Augustine] the very possibility of faith depends on reason . . . because only reason is capable of belief.” Again, “The Augustinian doctrine concerning the relations between reason and faith comprises three steps: preparation for faith by reason, act of faith, understanding of the content of faith.” But Augustine himself said it best: “No one believes anything unless he first thought it to be believable. Everything which is believed should be believed after thought has preceded. Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks.” Augustine was a firm opponent of what would later come to be called fideism. The claim that faith is utterly arbitrary—that it is not supported by and cannot appeal to an a priori about what is reasonable—finds no support in Augustine or, for that matter, in the mainstream of the Great Tradition of Christian thought.
In this century, Michael Polanyi in particular has demonstrated that human thought, and especially scientific thought, can get nowhere without acts of faith. At the same time, reason can always revisit the reasons for the act of faith. Whether in science or in religion, one does not have to take time out from believing, one does not have to become a temporary unbeliever, in order to reexamine the reasons for believing. It is not the most important reason why I am a Christian, but one reason I am a Christian is that Christianity makes more sense of more facts than any other way of construing reality that I know of. And yes, that assumes that the non-Christian and I have a similar, and in most cases an identical, way of determining what counts as a fact. It is also my reason that tells me that Dante was right: “Even when supported by the senses, reason has short wings” (Paradiso, canto 2).
As reason is incomplete without faith, so also reason is not alien to faith. The religious question is that of the whole person being ordered to truth, and to the absolute truth who is God. Reason participates in the Divine wisdom, the Logos (Jesus Christ) by whom and for whom all things were made. In the First Letter of Peter, Christians are exhorted to be always ready to give a reason for their hope, which assumes that there are intelligible reasons to be given. It is not the case that the reasonable mind is the “closed mind.” True, St. Paul says that our minds are to be taken captive to Christ, but in this view such captivity is perfect freedom, for when reason is ordered to truth the promise of Jesus is fulfilled, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The reasonable mind is the mind opened to truth. Of course, we are always “free” to reject the truth, but such an exercise of “freedom” is in fact bondage to error. The decision, in sum, is not between faith and reason but between the truth or falsehood of Jesus' claim that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
I am speaking, of course, about Christianity, rather than about “religious conviction” in general. Whether Christianity is a religion at all some, such as Karl Barth, have sharply disputed; but there is no doubt that generic religion is not Christianity. (The argument could be made that the relationship between Christian conviction and liberalism is true also for Jewish conviction and liberalism, but I will leave that argument for others.) Professor Fish asserts that “the religious impulse, fully felt” would lead one to want the public world to be controlled by “a unified conception of life in which the pressure of first principles is felt and responded to twenty-four hours a day.” Christianity does propose a unified conception of life, but that unified conception of life comprehends and makes possible the pluralistic character of life as we experience it.
A unified conception of life does not require monism. John Courtney Murray said that pluralism is written into the script of history, and I would add that it seems God did the writing. By pluralism, I mean a world in which people live by significantly different accounts of reality, including moral and religious reality, and must learn to live together. Given the variousness built into creation—and especially into people and cultures—ours would be a pluralistic world even if everybody on earth became Christian, for there are obviously and necessarily different ways of being Christian. “Unity in diversity” is a maxim affirmed by both Catholics and Protestants in ecumenical discussions. There is argument about the degrees and kinds of permissible diversity, but that is precisely the point: people in quite different traditions can argue about it and know what they are arguing about. Just as believers and nonbelievers can know what they are arguing about.
The Christian understanding of reason, faith, and how the world is created to be is the best guard against the totalitarianism, whether liberal or religious, that is invited by a monistic view of reality. There is a large overlap between ultimate truths (about, for example, God, creation, human nature, and redemption) and penultimate truths (about, for example, jurisprudence, medicine, and how to make a really good martini). That this should be the case does not surprise the Christian for, after all, all the world is of God's making. However partial our knowledge, and however stumbling our ability to communicate, we finally do all participate in one discourse, the one Logos of the mind of God. This gives the Christian confidence that he can enter into conversation with the non-Christian. In this view, what is religious—or at least what is Christian—is not posited against the secular, for this age (saeculum) and all ages belong to God. Therefore, when Christians in conversation with non-Christians “rephrase” what they want to say, they are not necessarily surrendering to the opposition. The reason and language of the non-Christian, when rightly exercised, is ordered to the same truth. The Christian therefore tries in various ways to enter into the reason and language of non-Christians in order to help reorder them to truth.
With respect to moral questions in the public realm, this participation in which all rational creatures share is what Catholics mean by natural law and other Christians call by different names—for example, general revelation as distinct from special revelation or common grace as distinct from saving grace. In the civil and political realms, it is, as a result of this common participation, both possible and necessary for Christians to use a language also used by non-Christians. Luther is said to have said (although he probably didn't), “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” The point is that a wise Turk would better understand the penultimate (and antepenultimate) truths pertinent to the ordering of political life.
Intellectuals who “rephrase” their language in order to enter the liberal conversation are accused of betraying their own “interests” as Christians. They should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas, it is said, but to shut it down. To which these intellectuals might respond that it is their interest and their duty to try to transform the marketplace, but before transforming it they must gain entry, and to gain entry they must demonstrate that they understand the existing liberal rules that need to be changed. This is a tricky game, and, unless one is exceedingly careful, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of being coopted by the very liberalism one set out to transform. Whether that is the case with the writers so sharply criticized by Stanley Fish is debatable. Christians who write on these matters would no doubt write more precisely if they knew that gimlet-eyed critics were waiting in the wings, ready to pounce gleefully upon their every turn of phrase.
My point is that talk about a “conflict of rationalities” must be sharply tempered. As we have seen, opposing premises need not mean opposing ways of reasoning. The so-called conflict of rationalities does not, to use the phrase of Richard Rorty, “go all the way down.” There is a level at which conflict can be replaced by conversation, and only by entering the exchange of ideas can one discover where that level might be. There are preliminary moves appropriate to what some Christians call “pre-evangelization.” The venerable precedent is St. Paul in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17). You engage people at the point where they are engageable and then hope that they can be moved, step by step, toward the fullness of truth. It doesn't always work, of course.
Similarly tactical is making the “debating point” that the vaunted inclusiveness of liberalism is actually exclusive of religious truth claims, and perhaps of truth claims as such. It is not merely a debating point. Making the exclusion argument can put the arrogance and intolerance of liberalism on the defensive, forcing liberals to face the incoherence of their dogmatic commitment to unqualified open-mindedness. On the other hand, some liberals of a stridently anti-foundationalist view are not at all embarrassed by that incoherence. Rorty, for instance, merrily declares that his “ironic liberalism” is but a game and people who disrupt the game by claiming that their truths are, well, really true should simply be declared crazy and constrained from causing public mischief.
Nonetheless, Christians persist in trying to create a conversation and keep it going. Christians cannot counter liberal intolerance with Christian intolerance, for Christian truth makes tolerance morally imperative. In the Christian view, tolerance is not a compromise of truth but obedience to truth. As I have written elsewhere: We do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God because it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God. While we cannot get around using it, “tolerance” is not the right word. The Christian is enjoined to exercise humility, forbearance, patience—in a word, love. But, for purposes of this discussion, we can call it tolerance.
This tolerance is made necessary by two factors: cognitive humility and love for neighbor. The Christian truth about God, man, and the world of which we are part includes the truth that we are not the masters of all the truth there is. For starters, there is original sin, which distorts and disorders also our reason. The truth about sin helps us understand why we frequently fail to understand. Then there is what we might call the eschatological proviso. Now we see through a glass darkly; only in the Kingdom of God will we know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13). This is not a matter of locating truth “in an ever-receding future.” It is knowing that the fullness of our grasp of the truth is in an ever-oncoming future.
Cognitive humility is joined to love of neighbor. The Second Vatican Council's declaration on religious freedom is titled Dignitatis Humanae. Respect for the dignity of the other person created in the image of God requires that we not silence or exclude him but try to persuade him. Authentic faith can never be coerced; assent to the truth must be an act of freedom. Dignitatis Humanae asserts, “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Or, as John Paul II says in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” I hardly need add that Christians have not always understood that, and it is not understood by some Christians even today. It is by no means a new doctrine, however. The understanding of the dignity of the person and the necessary freedom of the act of faith helps explain why—secularist propaganda to the contrary—Christianity, when it has possessed the power to persecute and exclude, has been singularly tolerant of those who reject its teachings. Anyone who doubts that is invited to examine the history of other religions and worldviews when they are in power.
And yet there is a certain plausibility to the claim that, if people are seriously religious, they should not tolerate error. Catholic teachers used to say that “Error has no rights.” The difficulty is that errors are attached to persons, and persons do have rights. Only persons can, by their own free decision, detach themselves from their errors. Meanwhile, we must put up with them or tolerate them or, much better, respect and love them. Although apparently bound to their errors, each is capable of knowing the truth and thus of becoming truly free. We do not know what the Holy Spirit is doing with people. We do have a promise that God's word will not return empty (Isaiah 55:11). The Christian's job is simply to bear witness to the truth, and to do that you first have to get within speaking distance of those who need to hear the truth, which is to say you try to enter into conversation.
Conversation requires civility. I suppose it could be said of a Christian or two whom I know that “civility is his religion.” But I do not think it can fairly be said, for example, of George Marsden when he contends against the exclusion of religion from the university. There are religiously imperative reasons for being civil that do not entail turning civility into a religion. In this connection, too, I think we should understand the person at Stephen Carter's lecture who says that we had the Enlightenment and religion lost. That is not true. We had, inter alia, the wars of religion, the Enlightenment, the further development of Christian doctrine about faith and freedom—and religious coercion lost. Religious coercion lost for many reasons, the most important being that Christians recognized that it is incompatible with what they believe as Christians. Religious freedom is mainly an achievement of religion. It is hard to believe that any sensible person today would want to revive the coercion of belief. Rather, we need to resist it where it still survives and flourishes—as in the Middle East, in large parts of Eastern Europe, in China, and in secular liberalism's intolerance of religion.
Christians have a duty to make the free market of ideas freer still. Since God is one, truth is one, and we owe obedience to all that is true. The liberal clerics and university heads of the nineteenth century were right in saying that Christians have nothing to fear from truth. Their tragic error was in subordinating revelation to truth defined as a “progressive illumination” offered by a truncated view of reason. It is the same error that is found in the motto of some liberal Christians of our time, “The world sets the agenda for the Church.” That can be understood in an unobjectionable way, but typically it means that Christianity should adapt itself to and be conformed to a liberal notion of truth that ends up in putting truth forever on hold. Orthodox Christian teaching is that the ultimate truth has already appeared in the past—in the covenant with Abraham, at Sinai, and, preeminently, in Jesus Christ. The oncoming manifestation of the fullness of truth is not coming for the first time. That's why Christians call it the Second Coming. In this view, the mind that is open to the truth is obedient to the tradition that bears witness to what has been and anticipates what will be. In the final analysis, everyone must find his place in a tradition, and it is indeed one of the more galling conceits of liberal antitraditionalism that it refuses to admit that it is a tradition. (On this score, Alasdair MacIntyre has provided us with the best critique of liberalism.)
Christians need not worry that, when they engage in conversation with others, “it will not be religion that specifies what the rules of evidence and argument to be honored are.” That two plus two equals four is true can be agreed on by Christian and non-Christian alike; it requires no reference to a religious specification, although the Christian will note that it does testify to the coherence of God's creation. What Christians know to be the truth does exclude some views that claim to be true. Evolution is an interesting example. Thoughtful Christians are divided on whether some form of evolution may be involved in the development of species, but they are united in rejecting evolution as a materialistic worldview premised upon the “Satanic” idea that the universe caused itself. Even here, however, they need not reject that worldview on specifically Christian grounds, since it is quite insupportable by “the rules of evidence and argument” that reasonable people employ with respect to almost all other questions. (For the Carl Sagans and other village atheists, materialistic evolution is clearly a faith commitment which they appear to be incapable of subjecting to critical examination.)
One might ask whether this Christian confidence in the unity of truth means that Christianity, too, can be “falsified” by the prevailing “rules of evidence and argument.” At a purely theoretical level, I think the answer is yes. Were a corpse to be identified beyond reasonable doubt as that of Jesus of Nazareth, essential Christian truth claims would be in very deep trouble. If at the end of history Christ does not return to establish the Kingdom of God, it will be clear that Christians got it all wrong. The first has not happened, and Christians are confident that it will not happen. In the event of the second, nobody will be around to point out the Christian error. Meanwhile, Christians live, with full deliberation, by faith and not by sight. Christian confidence is supported also by very long experience with challenges to the faith. Consider, to take but one example, that after two hundred years of systematically destructive criticism, the person of Jesus comes off pretty much today the way the Gospels depict him and the Christian tradition remembers him. My point is that we do not need any specifically Christian “rules of evidence and argument.” Our problem—not qua Christians but as reasonable people—is with an overweening liberalism that arbitrarily limits what counts as evidence and argument, and is in deep denial about its own acts of faith.
This brings us to a factor that is critical to the entire argument. Liberalism's table of public discourse is, for Christians, neither the only nor the most important table. Far from it. The most important table is the eucharistic table at which Christ is faithfully present to his pilgrim people who there anticipate the wedding feast of the Lamb in the final consummation. It follows that, for Christians, the community gathered at that table—the Church—is the most important community. It is also the only community that can be and should be “controlled” by the fullness of Christian truth. It would be nice if the whole world could be controlled by that truth, but, short of the Kingdom, that goal is inherently contradictory; it could only be done by coercive means that violate the freedom of the act of faith by which alone one comes to know the truth that makes us free.
Because there are different tables, a liberal regime that Christians can affirm (for instance, the American constitutional order) assumes that the most important questions are not and should not be political. Dr. Johnson (and Oliver Goldsmith) had it right: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” I would add, though, that laws and kings can cause a great deal of grief, which is why we should be thankful for the liberal regime, which means, most crucially, limited government. More precisely, the liberal regime means a limited state, with self-governance exercised by the many communities gathered at different tables. The regime is not to be equated with the state. The state is but one, albeit very important, part of the regime.
This understanding of the liberal regime makes no sense to those liberals who assume that there is only one table, one discourse, one community. For such monists, “public discourse” is the only discourse there is; it must try to deal with all the important questions of life. When it discovers that public agreement on some important truths is not possible, it is faced with the choice of civil warfare or an agreement to put conflicting truths on permanent hold. Debased liberalism opts for the latter, which is why the liberal “community” established by its rules is so very shallow and desiccated. By limiting themselves to the liberal table where the gruel is so very thin, liberals are deprived of the nourishment of much richer traditions of moral wisdom, including two millennia of Christian thought. ‘Tis a pity.
The complaint is heard that, because it divorces “facts” from “values,” liberal politics brackets the question of moral truth. Those who live their lives in the political order—who have only one table at which to sit—understandably find this very unsatisfactory. I suggest, however, that it is a very good thing that the political order—the sphere of “laws and kings”—should try to bracket questions of moral truth, to the extent possible and consistent with the common good. The state has little competence—competence meaning both authority and ability—to determine questions of moral truth. And yet it sometimes must do so. There are, for example, the constituting truths that we hold to be self-evident. Among those truths is the truth that the state should restrain itself, as much as possible, from defining moral truth.
The public truths officially determined are, in today's jargon, “thin” rather than “thick” truths. It is good that we say that we are a nation “under God,” thus pointing to the Supreme Sovereignty by which the sovereignty of the state is limited. It would be a very bad idea to make a “thicker” official declaration; for example, that we are a nation “under God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Neither should we say that we are a “Christian nation” (except demographically), not because the people in a democracy do not have the constitutional right to make such an official declaration but because the nation is not worthy of the title, and Christians would be foolish to tie the name of their ultimate allegiance to this or any other political enterprise. That, as I understand it, is one of the things Our Lord meant when he said his kingdom is not of this world.
The limited state of the liberal regime is not wired to handle high-voltage questions of moral truth. In the last century, the question of slavery overloaded the system and the government was brought to ruin in civil warfare. The same may be happening today on the question of abortion. It is noteworthy that the pro-life movement makes a very precise and public argument. Christians do believe many things about the dignity and destiny of human life, but the public pro-life position begins with the indisputable fact—a fact not questioned by any reputable scientist—that a human life begins with fertilization and ends with death. It is the pro-choice position, not the pro-life position, that introduces a “value judgment” with respect to the “quality of life” that must be achieved in order to warrant legal protection.
The abortion debate—as some pro-choice proponents are now reluctantly beginning to acknowledge—is not about when human life begins but about who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility, and about the criteria by which we exclude some and include others. When that is recognized, a serious debate about abortion can get started. Maybe. It may also be that our polity cannot handle such a heavy-duty question. In any event, the question will not go away, and, if we do come to ruin because of it, the chief responsibility rests with a Supreme Court that illegitimately and arrogantly abolished abortion law in America—and with a liberal establishment that has with such uncompromising fanaticism championed Roe and its judicial offspring. I believe Professor Fish is wrong when he says, “No conversation between [the sides] can ever get started because each of them starts from a different place and they could never agree as to what they were conversing about.” A generation or two from now, I am reasonably confident, our society will be as clear-minded about the evil of abortion as it is today about the evil of slavery, and then there will be no doubt about who had the better of the argument during these morally confused years.
No matter how limited the state, and no matter how much we restrict the sphere of the political, we still have to deal in public with substantive questions of moral moment. Those liberals are in error who claim that ours is or can be a purely procedural democracy. Aristotle said that politics is the deliberation of the question, How ought we to order our life together? That is inescapably a moral question, and in this liberal regime it is to be answered by the people—mainly around the many tables of the mediating institutions of civil society, and only when necessary through representative political institutions.
In the political order, the principle is majority rule with minority protections, which means it is an awkward and inefficient system that typically comes up with answers that do not entirely satisfy anybody. But Christians are not surprised by that since, short of the Kingdom, nothing is entirely satisfactory. They certainly do not expect to be satisfied at the table of politics, no matter who sits at the head of the table. The liberal regime, however, can provide a rough approximation of justice that allows people to get on with more important business—worshiping God, building families, trying to be decent to others, engaging in good arguments, making a living, and rooting for the Yankees.
The pitting of freedom against truth is the original sin of the liberalism that we must oppose. The truth about freedom is that there is no freedom apart from truth. The truth claims I have proposed do not stop the conversation but provide the firmest foundation for sustaining it. A particularly compelling statement of the theory and practice of liberal democracy is the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year), in which John Paul II observes:
Today there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without moral truth easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.
Of course there is no end to the debate about what constitutes the liberal regime, which is part of its appeal. We can argue these matters until the cows come home and there will still be many questions unresolved. But that is no cause for despair. In the end, we can trust God to tie up the loose ends. As St. Augustine would say, that is yet another good reason for believing.
Lest anyone mistake this argument for a roundabout defense of contemporary liberalism's indifference to truth and facile agreement to disagree, they should know that it is grounded in the supreme and indispensable confidence, celebrated at the table of the Lord, that St. Paul had it right when he declared, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11).
In the meantime—in the time short of the time when that truth will be evident to all—we can, by the grace of God and the logic of that truth, try to get along.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.