According to a bit of street wisdom that has worked its way into the national vocabulary, “You got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” But since the opposite of everything is frequently, if not always, true, we might, on the matter of explicitly Christian rhetoric and the American public square, consider reversing the injunction and asking the question: How do we talk the talk? How, that is, do we talk so that moral judgments born from Christian religious conviction can be heard and thoughtfully considered by all Americans-or at least by those Americans willing to concede that moral judgment plays a crucial role in the public policy process?
The question of how Christians “talk the talk” in American public life will not go away, because it cannot go away; this is a fact of demographics, as well as a reflection of the nation’s historic cultural core. For the foreseeable future the United States will remain at one and the same time a democracy, a deeply religious society, and a vibrantly, gloriously, maddeningly, and, in some respects, depressingly diverse culture. And thus, just as in decades if not centuries past, the 1990s will see a striking diversity of “vocabularies” in the American public square: many of them religious, others determinedly secular.
How, then, to begin with, can Christians of various theological persuasions talk with each other as they deliberate their public responsibilities within the household of faith? And how can those same diverse Christian communities contribute to a public moral discourse that would more closely resemble a reasonable argument than a cacophony? Is there, in other words, a grammar that can bring some discipline to the inevitably polyglot public debate over how we ought to live together?
These questions have been perennials in the garden of American public controversy. But they have been rendered more urgent over the past twenty years by two phenomena, distinct in their provenance but not unrelated in their public consequences.
The first is the return to the public square of conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist Protestants from the cultural hinterlands to which they were consigned (and to which they often consigned themselves) in the aftermath of the Scopes Trial of 1925. For almost fifty years after that great trek to the margins of the public discourse, “the evangelicals” were content to remain in their enclaves, worshipping and educating their children as they saw fit, asking only to be left alone by the larger society. By the late 1970s, however, the Carter Administration’s Justice Department and Internal Revenue Service, by their assault on Christian day schools, had demonstrated the impossibility of sustaining that strategy; and the result was the defensive/offensive movement we have come to know as the “religious new right.” That this movement dramatically sharpened the debate over the place of Christian conviction in public discourse is too obvious to need further elaboration.
And second, the return of the evangelicals and fundamentalists from cultural exile was paralleled in the 1980s by a new assertiveness on the part of American Roman Catholics (and especially several prominent bishops). On issues such as abortion, pornography, school choice, and the claims of the gay/lesbian/bisexual movement, Catholic bishops, activists, and intellectuals who insisted on acting like Catholics in public soon found themselves engaged not simply in political or electoral battles, but in heated confrontations with several of the key idea-shaping and values-transmitting institutions in our society: among them the prestige press, the academy, and the popular entertainment industry. Perhaps the high (or low) point of this trajectory was reached on the 26th of November, 1989, when a New York Times editorial solemnly warned Catholic bishops that their resistance to abortion-on- demand threatened the “truce of tolerance” by which Catholics were permitted to play a part in American public life: a warning that was, even by Times’ standards, an exercise in brazen chutzpah.
Thus through the evangelical insurgency and the revitalization of the Catholics in the public square-through the activism and interaction of two groups who had long eyed each other with mutual suspicion (if not downright hostility) but who now found themselves in common cause on a host of fevered public issues-American democracy was faced, yet again, with the problem of how it could be a e pluribus unum in fact as well as in theory. And for their part, American Christians had to think through the question of how their most deeply held convictions could be brought to bear on public life in ways that were faithful both to those convictions and to the canons of democratic civility. Given that the United States remains, in Chesterton’s famous phrase, a nation with the soul of a church, the two questions were not unrelated.
So far as we know, the apostle Paul was not overly vexed about the public policy of Athens in the first century of the common era; but Paul’s struggle to “translate” the Christian Gospel into terms that the Athenians could understand and engage suggests that the issue confronting Christians has a venerable history. Paul’s invocation of the “unknown god” to the men gathered on the Areopagus was, of course, an evangelical tactic aimed at the religious conversion of his audience; the book of Acts does not suggest that Paul was very much concerned to reform deficit financing, health care, education, or defense appropriations in Greater Athens. But that evangelical instinct which led the apostle to seek a language-a grammar, if you will-through which the Athenians could grasp (and be grasped by) the claims of the Gospel is something on which we might well reflect, as we ponder such decidedly secondary and tertiary questions as deficit financing, health care reform, education, and defense appropriations in the American Republic.
Paul was a man at home with at least two moral-intellectual “grammars”: the Judaic, in which he had been rabbinically trained, and the Hellenistic, which dominated elite culture in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. We may be sure that Paul regarded the Judaic grammar as superior to the Hellenistic, but he did not hesitate to employ the latter when he deemed it necessary for the sake of the Gospel.
This grammatical ecumenicity, as we might call it, was memorably captured in Paul’s familiar boast, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b) Again, the questions behind this present discussion are questions of considerably less consequence than the salvation of souls. But if, in such a grand cause, the apostle of the gentiles could appeal to his audiences through language and images with which they were most familiar-if, to get down to cases, Paul could expropriate an Athenian idol as an instrument for breaking open the Gospel of Christ, the Son of the Living God-then perhaps it is incumbent upon us, working in the far less dramatic precincts of public policy, to devise means of translating our religious convictions into language and images that can illuminate for all our fellow-citizens the truths of how we ought to live together, as we have come to understand them through faith and reason.
There is danger in this, of course, and it should be squarely faced: Christians eager to be heard in the public square today may, through an excess of grammatical ecumenicity, so attenuate their message that the sharp edge of truth gets blunted, and thus debased. Flaccidity in the cause of a misconceived public ecumenism has been one dimension of the decline of the academic study of religion in America, as it has been a dimension of the decline of mainline/oldline Protestantism. Some would suggest that a similar disposition to excessive public correctness, as that set of attitudes is defined by the tastemakers of our society, has also misshaped certain interpretations of the Roman Catholic “consistent ethic of life.”
Moreover, it can often seem as if our cultural moment demands uncompromising confrontation rather than polite dialogue. When unborn children have less legal standing than an endangered species of bird in a national forest; when any conceivable configuration of consenting adults sharing body parts is considered in enlightened circles to constitute a “marriage”; when senior United States senators bloviate about “sexual harassment” in kindergarten while national illegitimacy rates approach 30 percent of all births: one is reminded of Orwell’s observation, two generations ago, that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” There are some hard, home truths to be told on the various Mars Hills of the American Republic, and one need not doubt that the telling of such truths, even in a publicly accessible grammar, is going to bring down upon one’s head the odium of those committed to the establishment of the Republic of the Imperial Autonomous Self. Under such circumstances, the old country saw which tells us that we may as well get hung for a sheep as for a goat retains its pertinence.
But the good news is that the bad news is not all the news there is. For in certain signs of these times we may also be seeing a new public recognition of the enduring realities of religious conviction and a new willingness to concede a place for religiously based moral argument in the American public square. The warm reception given Professor Stephen L. Carter’s recent critique of the secularism of our elite culture, our law, and our politics suggests that seeds first planted by Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square are beginning to flower, however variously or confusedly. The broad bipartisan, ecumenical, and interreligious support that made possible the passage last year of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is also an important straw in the wind (although it remains to be seen just how the creative minds on the federal bench will bend RFRA to various agendas of their own devising).
Then there is the fact that we have a President who, unlike his predecessor, is unabashedly public about his Christian faith, and who seems to understand that the engagement of differing religious convictions within the bond of democratic civility is good for America. It is far from self-evident that President Clinton’s policies (and appointments) are entirely congruent with his religious and moral rhetoric; nor can one dismiss as mere partisanship the suggestion that the President’s rhetoric has been designed in part to divide the white evangelical vote and thus secure his reelection in 1996. But politicians will always be politicians, and those of us who take the bully pulpit seriously can still applaud the fact that the President of the United States publicly acknowledges that “we are a people of faith” and that “religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive.”* However wide the chasm between the President’s talk and his Administration’s walk, it surely means something that President Clinton experiences no embarrassment about using religious language in public.
At the very least, the President’s public appeal to biblical religion ought to remind us just how far from our roots we have strayed when the “naked public square” could even be considered a plausible embodiment of the American democratic experiment. In a nation whose coinage and currency contain the motto, “In God We Trust”; whose Supreme Court sessions open with the plea (admittedly, ever more poignant in recent years) that “God save this honorable court”; whose House of Representatives and Senate begin their daily work with prayer; whose Presidents have, without exception, invoked the blessing of God in their inaugural addresses-it is the proponents of established secularism who should be on the historical, cultural, constitutional, and moral defensive. If President Clinton’s use of explicitly religious language does nothing other than make clear who ought to be prosecuting and who defending in this matter of religion and public life, then the President will have done the country a service indeed.
Still, the sheer fact that religiously based public moral argument seems “okay” again in certain influential quarters does not suggest the end of our problem, any more than the widespread celebration of the film The Age of Innocence, with its celebration of the superiority of marital fidelity over extramarital sexual passion, suggests the end of the sexual revolution. What we may have today, through a confluence of forces (and not least because the crisis of the urban underclass has finally focused the elite culture on problems of moral formation), is an opening through which to begin the slow and laborious process of reclothing the naked public square. Save in some tenured bunkers where cultural vandals make merry while the cities burn and children shoot children over basketball shoes, it is now widely acknowledged that its nudity has been bad for the country. The question is how, and in what livery, the square will be reclothed.
Abraham Lincoln, and specifically his Second Inaugural Address, provides an important historical model. In this speech, remember, Lincoln interpreted the national agony of a violent and sanguinary civil war in explicitly biblical terms, citing Matthew’s Gospel (“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh”) and the Psalmist (“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”) to buttress his general hermeneutic claim that the workings-out of the American democratic experiment were caught up in a divinely ordered plan for human history.
Now, can anyone reasonably argue that, in his deliberate choice of biblical language and in his appeal to the notion of a providential purpose in history, Lincoln was excluding anyone from the public debate over the meaning and purpose of the War Between the States? Can it be reasonably contended that Lincoln’s attempt to prepare the United States for reconciliation by offering a biblically based moral interpretation of the recent national experience constituted an unconstitutional “imposition” of belief and values on others?
We recognize Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as perhaps the greatest speech in American history precisely because, with singular eloquence and at a moment of unparalleled national trauma, it spoke to the entire country in an idiom that the entire country could understand. No one was excluded by Lincoln’s use of biblical language and imagery; all, irrespective of confessional conviction (or the lack thereof), were included in the great moral drama whose meaning the President was trying to fix in the national consciousness.
It is arguably true that, even in the midst of civil war, the United States (North and South) was a more culturally coherent nation than our America today; and it is certainly true that no statesman of Lincoln’s eloquence and moral imagination is on the horizon of our public life. Yet there is still an important lesson here. And the lesson is that biblical language and imagery in public discourse ought to be used, not to divide, but rather to unite: not to finish off an opponent with a rhetorical coup de grace, but to call him (and all of us) to a deeper reflection on the promise and perils of the American democratic experiment.
This principle does not preclude hard truth-telling (as the Second Inaugural amply attests). But Lincoln spoke as one who had understood the frailty of all things human, and especially of all things political; he did not suggest, even amidst a civil war, that all righteousness lay on one side, and all evil on another; he knew, and acknowledged, that the nation was under judgment; and he spoke not as a Republican, and not even as a Northerner, but as an American seeking to reach out to other Americans across chasms of division at least as broad and deep as any we face today.
Such an approach-in which Christian conviction speaks through and to the plurality of our national life, such that that plurality is enabled to become a genuine pluralism-ought to commend itself to us, first and foremost, on Christian theological, indeed doctrinal, grounds.
The treasure of the Gospel has been entrusted to the earthen vessels of our humanity for the salvation of the world, not for the securing of partisan advantage. We debase the Gospel and we debase the Body of Christ (which witnesses in history to God’s saving work in Christ) when we use the Gospel as a partisan trump card. Our first loyalty-our overriding loyalty-is to God in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of that loyalty, Christians are “resident aliens” in any polis in which they find themselves, as the second-century “Letter to Diognetus” puts it. But it is precisely because our ultimate allegiance is to a Kingdom not of this world that we can make a useful contribution to the working out of an American democratic experiment that has understood itself, from the outset, to be an experiment in limited government, judged by transcendent moral norms, and open to the participation of all men and women who affirm belief in certain “self- evident” truths about human persons and human community.
The experiment could fail; it requires a virtuous people in order to succeed. All of this was implied in the Second Inaugural, and that helps explain the enduring power of Lincoln’s address. None of us is Lincoln. But everything we say and do in public should make clear that our purposes are to reunite America through a new birth of freedom, not simply to throw their rascals out and get our rascals in.
And at a far more vulgar level, there are also practical considerations to be weighed here. Playing the Gospel as a trump card is not only offensive to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists; it is also offensive to other Christians-even (perhaps especially) to those Christians who may be otherwise inclined to make common cause on public policy issues. In brief, playing the Gospel as a trump card makes us less effective witnesses to the truths we hold about the way in which we ought to live together. (Moreover, and to go back to our primary concern, the suggestion that Christian orthodoxy yields a single answer to virtually every contested issue of public policy is an offense, not simply against political common sense, but against . . . Christian orthodoxy.)
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and its unchallenged position in the pantheon of American public rhetoric, ought to have secured a place for biblical language and imagery in our public life, the frettings of radical secularists notwithstanding. But, having seen in Lincoln a model for the proper deployment of explicitly biblical language in American public discourse, perhaps a word about natural law is in order.
This is not the place to explore the differences among the various natural law theories, or the points of tangency (and distinction) between Roman Catholic natural law theory and Calvinist concepts of common grace. Rather, the question before us is how Christians contribute to the evolution of a genuine pluralism out of the plurality of vocabularies in American public moral discourse today; the question is how today’s cannonading is transformed, in John Courtney Murray’s pungent phrase, into a situation of “creeds at war, intelligibly.” And the issue is a serious one, for society will descend into a different kind of war, Hobbes’ dread war of “all against all,” unless we can talk to each other in such a way that we make sense to each other-or at least enough sense to conduct the public argument that is the lifeblood of a democracy.
“Natural law” here means the claim that, even under the conditions of the Fall, there is a moral logic built into the world and into us: a logic that reasonable men and women can grasp by disciplined reflection on the dynamics of human action. The grasping of that logic may be (and Christians would say, most certainly is) aided by the effects of grace at work in human hearts; and it may be the case that the Gospel draws out of the natural law certain behavioral implications that are not so readily discernible with the naked eye (so to speak). But that such a moral logic exists, that it is available to all men through rational reflection, and that it can be intelligibly argued in public, is, I think, a matter of moral common sense.
We saw that logic at work in the American public debate over possible U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf in the months between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. From one end of the country to the other, and in venues ranging from radio talk shows to taxicabs to barber shops to bars to the halls of Congress, men and women instinctively argued in the natural law categories of the just war tradition in order to debate America’s responsibilities in the Gulf: Was ours a just cause? Who could properly authorize the use of force? Did we have a reasonable chance of success? Was military action a last resort? How could innocent civilian lives be protected? The country did not instinctively reach for these questions because the just war tradition had been effectively catechized in our schools over the past generation (alas); rather, we reached for those questions because those are the “natural” questions that any morally reflective person will ask when contemplating the use of lethal force for the common good. Moreover, the rather high level of public moral argument over the Gulf crisis (perhaps the highest since a similar natural law argument had been publicly engaged during the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act) suggests that this instinctive moral logic has the perhaps unique capacity to bring grammatical order to the deliberations of a diverse society.
To commend the development of the skills necessary for conducting public debate according to the grammar of the natural law is not to deny explicitly Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist) moral discourse a place in the American public square. All Americans have the right to bring their most deeply held convictions into play in our common life; that is-or rather, ought to be-the commonly accepted meaning of the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise.” But those convictions will be most readily engaged which are translated into idioms that can be grasped by those whom we are trying to persuade. And one grammar capable of effecting that translation is the natural law tradition. Two examples may help illustrate the point.
The abortion license created by the Supreme Court in 1973 remains the single most bitterly contested issue in American public life. It is self-evident that Christian orthodoxy regards elective abortion as a grave moral evil: as a profound offense against the entire structure of Christian morals. And there is no doubt that the steady proclamation of that truth, in love, has been a crucial factor in the perdurance of the right-to-life movement over the past generation. The overwhelming majority of those active on behalf of the right to life of the unborn are committed to that cause, and have remained committed in the teeth of fierce opposition from the elite culture, because they understand that the Lord requires this of us.
But how are we to make our case to those who do not share that prior religious commitment, or to those Christians whose churches do not provide clear moral counsel on this issue? And how do we do this in a political-cultural-legal climate in which individual autonomy has been virtually absolutized?
The answer is, we best make our case by insisting that our defense of the right to life of the unborn is a defense of civil rights and of a generous, hospitable American democracy. We best make our case by insisting that abortion-on-demand gravely damages the American democratic experiment by drastically constricting the community of the commonly protected. We best make our case by arguing that the private use of lethal violence against an innocent is an assault on the moral foundations of any just society. In short, we best make our case for maximum feasible legal protection of the unborn by deploying natural law arguments that translate our Christian moral convictions into a public idiom more powerful than the idiom of autonomy.
A similar strategy commends itself in the face of the gay and lesbian insurgency. Again, the position of orthodox Christian morality is unambiguously clear: homosexual acts violate the structure of the divinely created form of love by which men and women are to exercise their sexuality in unitive and procreative responsibility. Thus “homosexual marriage” is an oxymoron, and other proposals to grant homosexuality “equal protection” with heterosexuality are an offense against biblical morality: what many would call, unblushingly, an abomination before the Lord.
But given the vast disarray wrought by the sexual revolution, by the plurality of moral vocabularies in America, and by the current confusions attending Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, we make a more powerful case against the public policy claims of the gay and lesbian insurgency by arguing on natural law grounds: by arguing that it is in the very nature of governments to make discriminations; that the relevant question is whether any proposed discrimination is invidiously unjust; and that the legal preference given to heterosexual marriage is good for society because it strengthens the basic unit of society, the family, and because it is good for children. Given the fantastic damage done to the urban underclass by the breakdown of family life, this is, alas, an easier argument to make today than it was, say, twenty years ago. But as that asphalt Via Dolorosa comes to impress itself more indelibly on the national conscience, we may well find that natural law- based appeals to public responsibility for the welfare of children and families give us a vocabulary superior in political potency to the rhetoric of autonomy. And we just may find a new possibility for building a conservative-liberal coalition on precisely these grounds, facing precisely these issues.
Similar models of argumentation can be developed for other “social issues,” including censorship, school curricula, school choice, sex education, and public health. In all these cases, it should be emphasized again, the goal is not to weaken the moral claims or judgments involved, but rather to translate them, through the grammar of natural law, into claims and judgments that can be heard, engaged, and, ultimately, accepted by those who do not share our basic Christian commitment (and, perhaps, even by some of the confused brethren who do).
Finally, a word about democratic etiquette. If patriotism is often the last refuge of scoundrels, then what currently passes for civility can be the last refuge of moral weakness, confusion, or cowardice. Moreover, as Mr. Dooley pointed out a while ago, “pollytics ain’t beanbag.” That enduring reality, and the gravity of the questions engaged in the American Kulturkampf, remind us that genuine civility is not the same as docility or “niceness.”
But there is a truth embedded in the habit of democratic etiquette, and we should frankly acknowledge it. The truth is that persuasion is better than coercion. And that is true because public moral argument is superior-morally and politically-to violence.
All law is, of course, in some measure coercive. But one of the moral superiorities of democracy is that our inevitably coercive laws are defined by a process of persuasion, rather than by princely ukase or politburo decree. And why is this mode of lawmaking morally superior? Because it embodies four truths: that men and women are created with intelligence and free will, and thus as subjects, not merely objects, of power; that genuine authority is the right to command, not merely the power to coerce; that those who are called to obey and to bear burdens have first the right to be heard and to deliberate on whether a proposed burden to be borne is necessary for the common good; and that there is an inherent sense of justice in the people, by which they are empowered to pass judgment on how we ought to live together.
Thus in observing, even as we refine, the rules of democratic etiquette, Christians are helping to give contemporary expression to certain moral understandings that have lain at the heart of the central political tradition of the West since that tradition first formed in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome (to take symbolic reference points). And, not so inconsequentially, we are thereby taking a stand against the totalitarian temptation that lurks at the heart of every modern state, including every modern democratic state. To be sure, that is not the most important “public” thing we do as Christians. But it is an important thing to do, nonetheless.
Two sets of obstacles make the transition from plurality to genuine pluralism in contemporary America even more difficult than it necessarily is.
The first obstacle is the legal and cultural sediment of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence about the First Amendment religion clause over the past fifty years. There is no space here to review this sorry history in detail. Suffice it to say that the Court’s strange decision to divide what is clearly one religion clause into two religion clauses, and its subsequent tortuous efforts to “balance” the claims of free exercise and no establishment through Rube Goldberg contraptions like the three-part “Lemon test,” have not only led the justices into a jurisprudential labyrinth of exceptional darkness and complexity; they have also created a legal and cultural climate in which the public exercise of religious conviction is too often understood as a quirk to be tolerated, rather than a fundamental human right that any just state is obliged to acknowledge. Which is to say, the justices’ increasingly bizarre balancing act has elevated no establishment and subordinated free exercise to the point where a new establishment, the establishment of secularism, threatens the constitutional order. And until the First Amendment’s religion clause is sutured together once again, in law and in the popular understanding of the law-until, that is, no establishment is understood as the means to the goal of free exercise-our law will remain profoundly confused and our political culture too often inhospitable to people of faith.
Thus, for example, one cannot applaud Professor Stephen Carter’s suggestion that the answer to the trivialization of religious belief and practice in contemporary American law and politics is something like maximum feasible toleration for religion in public life. No: the free and public exercise of religious conviction is not to be “tolerated”-it is to be accepted, welcomed, indeed celebrated as the first of freedoms and the foundation of any meaningful scheme of human rights. And until we reverse, both in law and in our popular legal-political culture, the inversion of the religion clause that the Court has effected since the Everson decision in 1947, the already difficult problem of bringing a measure of democratic order and civility into our public moral discourse will be endlessly exacerbated.
The second obstacle in the path to genuine pluralism is a certain lack of theological and political discipline on the part of the religious right.
Now this may seem a classic case of “blaming the victim”; after all, we have recently witnessed a campaign for lieutenant governor of Virginia in which the Democratic Party and much of the media portrayed the Republican candidate, an avowed Christian, as a high-tech Savonarola panting to impose a theocracy on the great Commonwealth, the Mother of Presidents, through such lurid policies as . . . well, school choice, informed consent prior to an elective abortion, parental notification of a minor’s intention to seek an abortion, equalization of the state’s personal income tax exemption with that allowed by the federal government, tort reform, and a lid on state borrowing. All of which took place eight brief months after a Washington Post reporter, in a magnificently revealing Freudian slip, unselfconsciously described e
This article was originally published on First Things