Thursday, July 28, 2005

What kind of religion ought to support liberal democratic government?

Rick Garnett has a pretty profound post on government endorsing the “proper kind of religion.” His post illustrates two competing schools on religion and government in the Enlightenment thought that founded America. On the one hand we have Madison’s ideal view that government in no way should ever take cognizance of religion, a very high and lofty ideal, one in which Madison, as a public official did not always live up to. On the other hand, we have the view posited by Washington and Adams, arguably a more dominant view than Madison’s, that because religion is important for virtue and keeping the civil order, government can be more involved in promoting religion in general, so long as government endorses “the right kind” of religion.

Here is Garnett:

On the one hand, it seems hard to deny that liberal governments have a strong interest in the content and development of religious traditions and doctrines. (I wrote an article about this interest a few years ago). In fact, it seems to me that liberal governments have an interest in convincing people -- whether they belong to the religion in question or not -- that the religion in question really teaches in accord with liberal values. After all, religion matters to many people, and it shapes the citizens on whose judgment democratic governments purport to rely. It is better, then, that religions inculcate some values, commitments, and loyalties rather than others. As I wrote in my article,"Governments like ours are not and cannot be 'neutral' with respect to religion’s claims and content. [T]he content, meaning, and implications of religious doctrine are and have long been the subjects of government power and policy. Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching." On the other hand, there's the longstanding maxim that governments like ours should not -- and perhaps even may not -- take "cognizance" of religion, or "entangle" themselves with religion.

The context of Garnett’s post is the claim that we commonly hear from Western pols like Bush and Blair that Islamo-theocracy (Bin Laden et al.) does not represent, “the real Islam.”

Our founders dealt with a similar “religious problem.” On the one hand many versions of Christianity were quite illiberal and did not believe in tolerating the other sects. But as many of our Founders argued, Christianity, “properly understood” was perfectly compatible, complementary even with our liberal democratic order. And according to Adams, Washington et al., if government should be in the business of taking sides and supporting one religious view over another (but while never denying the basic free exercise rights and equal government privileges to any sect, no matter how illiberal), it should promote this “right kind” of Christianity.

But this is not necessary “good news” for the religious right – the “Christian Nation” crowd – because arguably, their kind of Christianity is not “Christianity, properly understood.” In other words, they may be better off endorsing the Madisonian-Jeffersonian view of complete Separation, or government doing its best to never involve itself with religion in any way.

Interestingly, when the “Christian Nation” crowd offers their “proof quotes,” often they cite an out of context quote by a founder talking up religion in general or Christianity in particular. But as the deeper context reveals, our Founders don’t assert that our public order is based on fundamentalism or revelation, but rather “the right kind” of Christianity – one consistent with and complementary towards the Enlightenment teachings which truly found our public order. For instance, this quote by John Adams (from a letter to Jefferson, dated June 28, 1813) is commonly cited by the “Christian Nation” crowd:

“The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were...the general principles of Christianity….”

But what we don’t see is what Adams goes on to say:

Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System. I could therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present Information, that I believed they would never make Discoveries in contradiction to these general Principles. In favour of these general Principles in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.

In other words, these “general principles of Christianity” are completely consistent with and affirm the teachings of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Newton, Hume, Rousseau, and Voltaire.

Anyone interested in what our Founders, particularly Jefferson and Adams, really thought about religion must read Jefferson's and Adams's correspondence with one another. You will see that they did not believe what came from the Calvinist, fundamentalist clerics of the founding era was “Christianity, properly understood.” Don’t get me wrong, they believed that all Christian sects, no matter how illiberal and irrational their teachings, should be guaranteed basic free exercise rights and equal access to government privileges. John Adams's quote (again in correspondence with Jefferson) on the Roman Catholic Church is quite apt:

I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.

Roman Catholicism, along with Trinitarian Calvinistic Christianity (which was far more dominant in American than Catholicism) were two illiberal forms of Christianity in which our key founders arguably did not think good for society or should receive support from government. In other words, this was not the type of Christianity to which our founders referred when they talked up religion in general or Christianity in particular.

Therefore, I completely disagree with Thomas West when he writes:

First, it is a good rule of historical interpretation to distinguish between the private thoughts of a man and his public works. Jefferson believed a great many things that never found their way into his public life. His private rants against priests, Calvinists, and some of the more obscure doctrines of Christian faith tell us very little about the principles of the founding or even of Jefferson's own public actions.

The “private thoughts” of Jefferson to which West primarily refers are taken mainly from his correspondence with Adams, and some others. Jefferson’s and Adams’s correspondence with one another were not some obscure rants, but rather explications of their ideals which they intended to be absorbed by future generations. They privately wrote things that they could not publicly utter, given the historical context of the times in which they lived. Jefferson was nearly ruined as a public man for his public candor on religion, and Paine was absolutely ruined for his.

And that historical context guaranteed a “public life” that in many ways failed to live up to the philosophical ideals of our founding principles.

Therefore, the “private thoughts” of Jefferson, Adams, et al., arguably shed more light on the “principles of the founding” than their actions in public life. For instance, our Founders, as public officials, preserved the legality of slavery when founding this nation, even though in their private writings and thoughts, they excoriated the institution and knew it violated natural right.

So when Jefferson and Adams railed against Roman Catholicism and Calvinistic Christianity, they were stating, quite frankly, that these sects did not represent “Christianity, properly understood,” that they were not the types of Christianity that provided the good support that government needed from religion.

Jefferson went so far as to state (to Adams) that Calvin’s god was a “false god,” “a daemon of malignant spirit” and that “his religion was Daemonism.” Jefferson even held that, "It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin."Adams similarly wrote to Jefferson that “The Calvinist, the Athanasian divines [Trinitarian Christians]... will say I am no Christian. I say they are no Christians, and there the account is balanced.”

As Mark Lilla wrote in the NYT, the type of Christianity that our Founders endorsed – the one in which they desired to dominate the citizenry’s religious conscience – was one that was far more “sober and rational” than the Calvinistic fundamentalism that was quite influential in the day (as it is today).

Jefferson’s and Adams's understanding of Christianity was a far more benevolent version than what we see coming from today’s fundies. When Jefferson spoke of an America “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence," he certainly was not referring to the Calvinistic fundamentalist versions of Christianity which he and Adams personally loathed, but rather those attributes of Christianity that complemented the Enlightenment values in which he believed. Jefferson’s ideal version of Christianity was theologically Unitarian, denied the doctrine of eternal damnation, and held man’s reason – as opposed to Biblical revelation – to be the ultimate arbiter of what is Truth. Moreover, Jefferson’s and Adams's ideal Christianity had no qualms about rejecting traditional, orthodox Christian doctrines, or cutting out entire parts of the Bible which did not comport with notions of “reason” or otherwise represented “defective” or “doubtful” accounts of history.

Is this the kind of Christianity which the religious right endorses? I don’t think so. If we can properly call Jefferson’s and Adams's personal beliefs “Christian,” then they are closer to the “Cafeteria Christianity” of today that uses reason and contemporary notions of morality – as opposed to literal accounts recorded in the Bible – to decide the ultimate nature of morality and Truth.

So – to tie things back to Garnett’s original point – are religious conservatives better off with Adams's notion of an accommodation between liberal government and the right kind of religion or Madison’s notion of government that may not, of right, take cognizance of religion? Arguably, they are better off with Madison’s version of strict separation. If government is in the business of deciding what is the proper kind of religion that liberal government should endorse, in many circumstances government will endorse a version of Christianity that contradicts the tenets of Christian fundamentalism. If as Garnett notes, “liberal governments have an interest in convincing people -- whether they belong to the religion in question or not -- that the religion in question really teaches in accord with liberal values…” then perhaps government has an interest in endorsing that Christianity, properly understood, teaches that homosexuality is not a sin, and that God made gay people as gays and wants Christian churches to marry them. After all, some Christian Churches really do teach this. And doesn’t this represent the cutting edge of contemporary “liberal values?”

If the religious right fully understood the implications of Adams's notion of government endorsing “the right kind” of Christianity, they’d probably jump on board with the ALCU in calling for a complete “Separation of Church and State.”