Thursday, June 29, 2006

Tyranny of the Christian Right

Want to understand what the secular side of our country thinks of evangelical Christians? I've never seen it put forward much clearer than this article.

AlterNet: Tyranny of the Christian Right: "Tyranny of the Christian Right"


  1. A Continuing Survey
    of Religion and Public Life
    Richard John Neuhaus
    Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 46 (October 1994): 74-88.

    This Month:

    * Truth and Tolerance
    * To Step Gingerly Over the Cliff
    * From the People in Charge of Creative Excellence
    * Jews, Christians, and "The Great Fear"
    * While We're At It

    Truth and Tolerance
    "Tolerance is not a religious virtue," a feisty rabbi friend is fond of declaring in public, gleefully scandalizing the properly liberal in his audience. Truth, not tolerance, he goes on to say, is what religion is about. None of us should want to dispute that religion, at least biblical religion, is about truth. And there may be a pedagogical shock value in challenging our liberal culture's uncritical attachment to tolerance. But in our more serious moments we are compelled to recognize that an awful lot turns on whether we think there is a tradeoff between truth and tolerance. Historically and at present, many (most?) religious folk have assumed that there is such a tradeoff. Forced to make a choice, the militantly orthodox opt for truth at the expense of tolerance, while the flaccidly liberal opt for tolerance at the expense of truth. Dissenting from this view of the matter, some of us have been arguing for a long time that truth and tolerance go together, and necessarily so. Put differently, it is Christian truth that makes tolerance imperative.

    These reflections are prompted by a remarkable new book by a young Englishman who teaches theology at the University of Exeter. His name is Ian S. Markham and the book is titled Plurality and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, $30). Markham's argument has many parts, and following it requires close attention even by the theologically and philosophically trained, but it richly rewards the effort. In summary form, Markham is making two claims, one philosophical and the other historical. They are admittedly very big claims, which is why he devotes an entire book to defending them. Markham also knows that his claims run counter to conventional wisdoms about tolerance and truth, which is why he attends so carefully to the arguments of his opponents.

    The philosophical claim is this:

    [T]he contemporary threats to plurality do not come from religion but from secularism. The secularist, who has given up the quest for truth and therefore moral debate and rational dialogue, is the greater danger to tolerance. A religious foundation for tolerance is grounded in the reality of God that ensures the intelligibility of the universe. This foundation is the only effective antidote to secular reason, which cannot avoid the dangers of nihilism. Truth claims depend upon the conviction that the universe is intelligible, and that in turn depends upon belief in God. And the historical claim is this:

    [T]he United States has made a cultural discovery. It has found good religious reasons why we ought to affirm plurality. The British [and European] debate about plurality is still firmly rooted within the confines of premodernity and modernity. However, the nation of immigrants was forced, right from the start, to engage with plurality. And slowly a culture emerged that was both religious and tolerant. This led some to suggest that America had created a new religion-civil religion; but in fact Christians, Jews, and Muslims were discovering the importance of plurality. . . . In this sense, Americans are postmodern. Do not be distracted by Markham's use of "plurality." He avoids "pluralism" because that term is associated with another set of arguments in the United Kingdom. By plurality he means what most of us call pluralism-a society in which people who subscribe to quite different accounts of reality, including moral and religious reality, are thrown together and must decide what to do about it. It is the very considerable achievement of modernity that people decided that the thing to do is to be tolerant. It is the very considerable problem of modernity that tolerance is often purchased at the price of denying the differences, including the differences that make the most difference, such as differences over what people believe to be most importantly true.

    The Courage of His Conclusions
    At this point I must declare interest, as the lawyers say. Plurality and Christian Ethics is in large part a sympathetic analysis of my own writings on questions related to religion and public life, moral legitimacy and democratic governance. With few exceptions, Markham has my argument right, and an author is of course grateful for that. He very usefully pieces that argument together as it has developed over-it hardly seems possible-almost thirty years. The important contribution of the book, however, is that it places the American experience and arguments about that experience into a much larger historical and transcultural context. Unlike so many scholars who timorously trim and equivocate lest they step on toes in their academic guild, Markham typically exhibits the courage of his conclusions. Here he is at his most forthright; some will call it grandiose, others will call it daring; the pertinent question is whether it is true:

    It is given to certain cultures at certain times to discover a different way of understanding their religious tradition. Often the discovery is embedded in existing beliefs; sometimes it is a distinctive innovation. More often than not it is a combination of the two. The discovery, if it survives, becomes so "obvious" that people wonder why it was not discovered before. It was given to the eighth century b.c.e. prophets of Israel to discover the high moral standards God expects of his people. It was given to medieval Europe to experience the all-pervasive influence of the Christian narrative, thereby showing the way in which everything we value can be understood. It was given to the Reformers to discover the democratic implications of the gospel. And now I have shown it has been given to the Americans to discover a religious affirmation of plurality. One may at first be staggered by the suggestion that the "American discovery" is somehow comparable in historical importance to Sinai, the creation of Christendom, and the Reformation. But careful attention to the supporting argument makes it clear that Markham's claim, while certainly controversial, is not an indulgence in reckless hyperbole. The argument, to paraphrase it all too briefly, runs like this. In the modern era, tolerance has been the trump card in the secularists' construction of what has been called the naked public square. After the wars of religion in seventeenth-century Europe, sensible thinkers concluded that religion is inherently divisive and destructive of civil society. The antireligious set out to destroy religion; the more devout agreed to confine their religion to the private sphere; many others simply expected that religion would wither away as people became more "enlightened." Tolerance was necessary to civil peace, and religion was the chief threat to tolerance. In this account, tolerance is a secular achievement won at great cost in a battle against religion. This secular narrative of the history of tolerance, Markham recognizes, has a good deal of truth to it.

    But a number of funny things have happened on the way to the end of the twentieth century. For one, secular tolerance has become profoundly intolerant. For another, there is widespread agreement today, also among secular liberals, that secular liberalism cannot provide a convincing philosophical defense of the tolerance that was once the great achievement of secular liberalism. The truth about tolerance is that tolerance requires truth. But, as Markham demonstrates with impressive erudition and panache, from Hume to Kant to Nietzsche to Richard Rorty, modernity has ineluctably corroded intellectual confidence in the possibility of truth. In his extensive and intriguing discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, Jeffrey Stout, and others, Markham obviously agrees that a historically specifiable tradition of secular rationality has come to an intellectual dead end. With MacIntyre in particular, he champions a rival tradition that draws significantly on Thomas Aquinas, and this alternative Markham typically calls theism.

    The discussion of current philosophical disputes constitutes a monograph within this small book of only 225 pages. But it is a necessary discussion, and one filled with frequent juxtapositions that sharply pose what is at stake. This, for example, on Jeffrey Stout's insistence that the threat of public religion still makes necessary a dogmatically secular practice of tolerance, even if that practice cannot be philosophically defended: "Stout wants to resist religious solutions because he does not trust religion. He wants to affirm liberalism because he wants to affirm tolerance. Much of his argument would crumble if it could be shown that a religious culture can also be a tolerant culture. Such a demonstration is the object of this book." At times Markham suggests a stronger form of the argument: not only can a religious culture be tolerant, but only a religious culture can give a convincing reason for being tolerant.
    "But a number of funny things have happened on the way to the end of the twentieth century. For one, secular tolerance has become profoundly intolerant."

    Said even better then Sir Jason the Longwinded can

  2. Such displays as Sir. Chuck has copied for exibit are unfortunatly not uncommon. I was rather shocked when I first saw that kind of thing myself-presuming rather naively that seemingly educated people would know how to argue in a courteous manner. There was no reason to assume that of course but still...
    In this particular display the commentators seem to be egging each other on into a frenzy. They also are probably quite young, and haven't learned discretion.

  3. I believe where Christian would be most effective would be to learn to separate politics from religion. There's nowhere in Bible that says Christians must be Republican, support the war in Iraq, vote for Bush, etc.
    I'm conservative, but I can understand the frustration liberals might have with Christians who force their political views into the Gospel message. In a way Christians have brought this stereotype upon themselves.
    I have no problem with churches standing up for moral issues that has gotten into politics such as abortion, which is a murder with an excuse.
    I'd just say, pick your battles where you need to. Other issues should be saved for the political arena, where they aren't lobbying in the name of the church.

  4. The truth about tolerance is that tolerance requires truth.

    Well said, Sir J! I hope that was one of your originals!

    You might add, that the burden of possessing truth is the submission to tolerance. Or is it?

    Sir C :-)

  5. I'd just say, pick your battles where you need to.

    No need to, Sir Josh. Dragons will always seek you out.

    Read the article closely, especially where she talks about the liberal responsive strategy. Her causes are all against The Word. And her allies are Legion.

    Sir C...