Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, January/February 1994

Who "Owns" the Life of the Spirit?

By David Bollier

Save America! Bring back God and religion!

The message that launched the religious Right into its current high-flying orbit fifteen years ago is now "going wide," as they say in the movie business. Not only are journalistic circles abuzz with talk about religion in American life, the Clintons are making bold forays into this territory as well. The First Lady broached the topic in her now-famous "politics of meaning" speech last April in Austin. And early this fall President Clinton called for renewed religious involvement in public life, dispensing lavish praise on Stephen L. Carters new book, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (The portrait of Clinton recently unveiled at Yale Law School depicts him holding Carter's book.)

This new enthusiasm for public discussion about religion, God, and the life of the spirit is filled with great promise; it offers a rare chance for Americans to contemplate deeper meanings in our secular society, perhaps leading to moral and political renewal. But already there are disturbing signs that the public discourse about faith will once again be used in all the wrong ways: to sow seeds of division, to claim divine sanction for partisan political agendas, to degrade the sanctity of some people's search for higher meaning. What is particularly alarming is the unexamined assumption that only credentialized religionists are qualified to talk about the spiritual crisis of our time. Those who don't speak a validated form of God-talk risk being ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed for being spiritually deficient.

The larger issue is the integrity of American religious pluralism. Just as the disintegration of the Soviet state unleashed a riot of destabilizing tribalisms, so it is with the decline of the white, male, Protestant monoculture that so confidently held sway in this nation for generations. As never before, an increasing number of the nation's 1,600 recognized religions are asserting themselves in public life, asking for recognition of their own sacred concerns. And spiritual searchers with no ties to organized religion are proliferating in number and visibility. One need only look at the explosion of books on such topics as mind/body healing, cultural myths, "after-death experiences," New Age regimens, and spirituality in business to realize that this is a broad-based, robust movement.

But will the dominant religious voices in our culture honor this broad diversity of conscience? The facts suggest that our nation's nominal commitment to E pluribus unum will be sorely tested in the years ahead. At stake is who will "own" the life of the spirit.

There is no question that the resurgence of religious participation in public life is a legitimate and generally healthy development. Throughout American history, religious voices have provided a rich source of moral renewal, inspiring the anti-slavery, civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and nuclear freeze movements. The tradition is so esteemed, in fact, that the pro-choice and "Christian family" movements now both claim to be its legitimate heirs and standard-bearers.

What few celebrants of the new religious activism care to acknowledge, however, is that a truly robust spiritual pluralism itself creates new problems--problems that we have barely begun to acknowledge, let alone grapple with. The nominal pluralism of the past--the "melting pot"--did not truly confront America's rich diversity of faiths. Its idea of progressive-minded pluralism was the "Judeo-Christian ethic," a contrivance that often did not extend the mantle of respectability to heterodox sects or non-religionists. The religious pluralism of America today--in which Buddhists outnumber Episcopalians, "new religious movements" are proliferating, and mystical creeds run the gamut from angels to twelve-step groups--is another matter entirely. In the 1980s, Lutheran theologian Richard John Neuhaus gained considerable notice for arguing that Americans live in a "naked public square," a culture devoid of religious symbols and meaning. In practice, Neuhaus used this arresting metaphor to misdiagnose the secularization of public life. He blamed secularization on left-wing governmental elites (a charge that rings hollow after twelve years of Presidents Reagan and Bush) and on liberals who supposedly misused the First Amendment to ban nativity scenes on town greens and prayer in the schools, resulting in today's moral chaos. (Neuhaus has little to say about the great engines of free enterprise that have denuded the public square in their own way by glorifying hedonistic consumption.)

The most pernicious and distortive charge made by Neuhaus and the religious Right is that civil libertarians are secularist bullies seeking to expunge every last vestige of religion from public life. They complain that the First Amendment never intended a naked public square. But what the Right has trouble accepting is America's actual religious pluralism and the role of the First Amendment in protecting it.

The First Amendment does not mandate a naked public square, liberals retort. It simply demands that government not favor one religion over another financially, legally, or symbolically. Otherwise, religious groups are free to participate fully in public life--while also (it is hoped) honoring the spirit of the First Amendment by respecting other religions. Indeed, by avoiding government entanglement with religion and the rule of majoritarian faiths, the First Amendment makes religious liberty all the more robust.

Yet even liberals have not really grappled with the cultural issues that lie beyond this constitutional debate. As the civil rights movement has learned, the protections of law can be subverted by a hostile culture that rejects the spirit of the law. Even with First Amendment protections, therefore, one wonders whether our religiously diverse culture can begin to develop a common spiritual and moral vision. How can dozens of incommensurable faith claims be reconciled in our national culture without unleashing a sectarian free-for-all? These are not idle questions. Many religious voices ardently proclaim a creed of "religious liberty for me, but not for thee" (to adapt Nat Hentoff's phrase). The religious Right, most notably, openly seeks to "Christianize America" and does not cringe from blasting its adversaries as satanic, anti-Christian infidels. Its vision of government is well captured by the words of a Christian Pledge of Allegiance recited by many on the religious Right: "Life and liberty for those who believe." Hardly the stuff of democratic renewal. Liberals, in their understandable zeal to counter the religious Right's political excesses, have generally responded by hoisting up the First Amendment. It is a vital rejoinder, to be sure, well-supported by history. Yet there is more at stake in this debate than politics or constitutional law, and liberals ought to be among the first to recognize this.

There are also spiritual issues at stake. Our secular, scientific, market-driven technological culture has lost a sense of the sacred mystery of life. The religious Right is not alone in sensing that our vast heterogeneous culture is spinning wildly out of control, not just in an administrative sense ("things just don't work any more"), but in a profoundly moral and spiritual sense. How can a conscientious civil libertarian begin to grapple with this deeper truth while not forsaking cherished constitutional values?

Few liberals have shown much relish for this dilemma, which helps account for the attention that has greeted Carter's The Culture of Disbelief. To his great credit, Carter talks openly, unashamedly, of the importance of faith in public life--its legitimacy, its moral importance, its potential for democratic renewal. He celebrates the metaphysical potency of religion, and its "extraordinary power of resistance" against state authority. What secularists may see as irrational, Carter quite properly sees as an alternative way of knowing, with its own mystical logic and magisterial wisdom.

All of these themes offer timely, compelling instruction for our time. Too bad, then, that Carter diminishes the credibility of his arguments by engaging in some unseemly partisan sniping and historical revisionism.

Carter's challenge is how to make a compelling case for religious participation in public life when the most notable contemporary religious activists--Pat Robertson, Donald Wildmon, the LaHayes, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan, and other religious Right stalwarts--espouse such odious views. His basic strategy is to affirm the value of religious activism in the abstract, purportedly eschewing partisan judgments,

Yet in his zeal to defend religiosity per se, Carter's partisan biases become clear. He blames liberals for their supposed hostility to religion over the past twenty years, despite their steadfast support for the First Amendment and despite the activism of liberal religious leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Theodore Hesburgh, Robert Drinan, and others (whose prominence Carter perversely maintains is "a symptom of the problem, not evidence against its existence"). At the same time, Carter generally discounts the actual menace posed by the religious Right. This results in some serious misjudgments of contemporary politics. Carter asserts, for example, that the "fundamentalist Christian Right has lost much and perhaps most of its power." Yet Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition is now the largest political organization in the country; it expected to have one million dues-paying members at the end of 1993, which would make it larger than either the Democratic or Republican National Committees. The coalition is waging many vigorous and effective crusades against gay rights and "anti-Christian" school curricula and textbooks. It has sponsored dozens of "stealth candidacies" for local elected offices, begun new advocacy against health-care reform and environmentalism, and is making a surprisingly effective new outreach to minorities.

While bashing liberals for their supposed anti-religion animus, particularly since Roe v. Wade in 1973, Carter never seems to recognize that mainstream perceptions of "religion" have a lot to do with what "religion" does. If the Catholic Church and the religious Right choose to bear witness to their faith in the political arena, as is their prerogative, it is not unreasonable for the public to judge their political views, tactics, and rhetoric. And if the public finds that advocacy distasteful... well, that's democracy.

Carter insists on seeing liberal hostility toward the religious Right as simple secularist bigotry. Liberals are hypocrites, he essentially argues, because they themselves once invoked deep religious commitments in their crusades against the Vietnam War, racial segregation, and nuclear arms. Activist religious leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and the Berrigan brothers, Carter argues, were "rarely... accused of trying to take over the Democratic party for narrow religious ends. Probably the reason was that the causes in which the word of God was enlisted were causes that were more popular, particularly among the opinion makers who have ever since been dumping on Republicans for daring to mix church and state."

Such revisionism is worthy of Dan Quayle. The civil rights movement was assuredly not "popular" in its early years. Nor, for that matter, were the early protests against the Vietnam War, or nuclear arms. They were all highly contentious, uphill struggles with few friends among the "opinion makers"--Carter's rhetorical equivalent for Quayle's "cultural elite." And the Democratic Party hardly embraced liberal religionists of the 1960s the way that the GOP has embraced the religious Right.

Quite simply, the reason that King, Coffin, et al. were not seen as having "narrow religious ends" was because their ends were anything but narrow. Their faith-witness transcended sectarian theology or dogma. It had a trans-religious, inclusivist appeal to the human spirit. It sought "a social order of justice permeated by love," in King's words, and its broad ecumenical support was a demonstration of that fact. Can the same be said for the faith-witness of the religious Right, which claims God's explicit sanction for hateful invective and politically partisan campaigns?

Carter refuses to concede that the GOPs mixing of church and state has been fundamentally different in character--in pernicious ways--than that of 1960s liberals. He has trouble admitting that the religious Right has failed to make religious liberty in America more robust. Rather, they have undermined it at every turn by attacking the very First Amendment jurisprudence that Carter regards as indispensable.

When talking about religious liberty, the central issue is how to nurture a culture of E pluribus unum--out of many, one. Unfortunately, like so many academic commentators, Carter has an unwarranted faith in the power of law and politics to resolve matters that reside in the subterranean climes of culture and the human spirit. "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it," said Judge Learned Hand. I worry that the "liberty" that many religionists have in mind could easily overrun the power of the courts, constitutions, and law, especially if they win control of those institutions.

It is certainly possible that a new religiosity in America will help our country find its moral bearings and renew its spiritual vigor. But this begs the question of how a spectrum of very different faiths can live together in a common national culture, whether in the public schools, the military, or politics. How will the dominant, mainstream faiths treat those of other faiths, or the great mass of unaffiliated searchers?

A new birth of religious faith in America will not necessarily renew democracy, as Carter argues, if the faith-witness is marked by interfaith bickering and hostility toward "non-believers." It will only hasten the fragmentation of a culture that desperately needs a unifying ethos. A new public religiosity may simply shift the rancorous multiculturalism debate now raging in academia into the religious arena as well, contributing to the same sorts of mean-spirited barbarism.

The great unresolved question, then, is not just how to nurture religious liberty, but how to establish a new cultural ethos of respect (and not just tolerance) for all manners of spiritual pilgrimage. Only now is our mainstream culture coming to terms with the actual diversity of American religious and ethnic traditions. Not surprisingly, it is difficult for the white, Protestant norms of American culture to accept, let alone celebrate, Muslims on Main Street, Native Americans in the suburbs, and even New Age searchers with offbeat notions of the Divine. Looking from within their respective faith traditions, too many Americans see only doctrinal error and moral confusion in others. (In the religious Right's vocabulary, "spiritual" is a catch-all pejorative for any religious pursuits it considers cultish or New Age.) Unfortunately, too many mainstream religionists share this disdain for those who are not affiliated with "regular" churches, synagogues, or mosques. They are not eager to celebrate the religious freedom of crystal worshipers or Branch Davidians, or to find spiritual meaning in works of great art and literature, music, and dance. This barrier must be surmounted if our culture is ever going to recover a sense of unity and common purpose. It is no longer enough to say that we are a people because we all affirm the Constitution and Bill of Rights, important as they are. It is not enough for us to collectively endorse a fair procedural framework for religious liberty. This is the civil libertarian conceit: that a fair, nonpartisan legal process is all that is the sole necessary and sufficient condition for an ethos of mutual respect.

The truth is, Americans in the late twentieth century need more than the First Amendment and its case law to bind them together. They need a new cultural covenant with each other that can begin frankly to address the spiritual void in modern secular society. Call it the politics of meaning, call it a revolt against modernism and scientism; the point is that our humanness has fallen into a disunity, one that today's organized religions have not really succeeded in dispelling.

The current policy debates on church/state separation implicitly assume that religionists alone are capable of talking about our culture's great hunger for spiritual meaning. Only full-fledged "believers" with established theologies and an institutional berth are perceived as having the credentials to comment knowledgeably. Furthermore, these believers must comment from their confessional pigeon-holes; their pronouncements are expected to be recognizably "Protestant," "Catholic," "Jewish," etc.

Typical of this sort of bias is the commentary of neoconservatives such as Charles Krauthammer, who has railed that the "Newfangled new age, new spirituality |of liberals~ is a guilty and pitiful substitute for what they have wantonly dismantled"--namely, that Old Time Religion. "Spare us the group hug rediscovery of the inner-self-cum-the-meaning-of-life," he snorts. Such rhetoric lays bare the real intolerance that often lies behind public piety: Instead of a vehicle for healing and reconciliation, religion is a moralistic cudgel for beating up on one's political opponents.

There are varying degrees of this perspective, of course, and there is no evidence that Stephen Carter or President Clinton want to claim an exclusive copyright on "religious values," as do Krauthammer and his neoconservative cohorts. Carter and Clinton aim at inclusion, yet they fail to propose a common ground upon which our pluralistic and often irreligious citizenry could gather. Yet this is precisely what our society needs: a common vision of human fulfillment and meaning for our secular age that can transcend and encompass particular religious traditions.

It is time for religionists to admit that the life of the spirit is not "owned" by them alone. It belongs to everyone. A great body of Americans may not go to regular worship services or believe in some formal creed, yet they take their spiritual lives quite seriously. Indeed, the religious experience itself is arguably more profound than the outward trappings of religiosity, which are so often mistaken as the essence of religion.

The best way for church/state commentators to recognize this fact is to welcome that broad, heterogeneous constituency of forgotten Americans to the table: the skeptical, the curious, the iconoclastic, and others whose spiritual needs and capacities are also valuable and not to be denigrated.

The religious impulse could be said to be an inherent capacity of the species. We need a new language that can take account of this fact. We need a new ecumenical consensus of the most expansive sort, one that reaches out to people who may not go to synagogue or church but for whom spiritual experience and development are nonetheless important. We need to feel in our hearts that the conscience of our neighbors, however alien from our own, is worth respecting, and not just because the Supreme Court said so. Without such an attempt at cultural reconciliation, America's religious pluralism may well degenerate into a balkanized mess of warring faiths. And it may further erode the civility that a democratic culture needs.

The basis for a new consensus around which all Americans might gather might be the spiritual capacity itself, arguably the most distinctive trait of the human species. The same ocean washes up on many different shores. It is worth trying to imagine that the worlds rich diversity of religious creeds and experiences may similarly have one source. Or, as the mystic Evelyn Underhill put it, "To say that God is Infinite is to say that He may be apprehended and described in an infinity of ways."

If such declarations are too big a leap for some people, it will suffice to recognize the pragmatic truth that living in a pluralistic culture requires a basic religious civility. This cultural challenge--and not just the constitutional legalisms--will require our most ardent attention in the years ahead.

David Bollier is a journalist and political consultant based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Source Citation

Bollier, David. 1994. Who 'owns' the Life of the Spirit? Tikkun 9(1): 29.

tags: Spiritual Politics