May 12, 2005

Religion and Civic Virtue

Marc Comtois

In the left-leaning Boston Review, Princeton professor Albert J. Raboteau, a Christian Orthodox, writes of the how religion inspired many social reform movements throughout America's history and that it continues to form the basis for our nation's civic virtue. I don't know (but can guess) Raboteau's political leanings, and I sense a bit of Christian Orthodox proselytizing, but that doesn't matter. What he says is important and I've excerpted some of it in the continuation of this post.

In short, Raboteau reminds that we cannot remove religion from our political society without repercussions, some of which have already occurred. He concludes with this observation about secularism

Secularism is not antireligious. It approves of religion by turning it into what Niebuhr called an “idol,” one among others suited to our self-gratification. Secularism, in this sense, robs the Church of its eschatological dimension. It is no longer the primary community for us, the source of our life and our joy, but one more activity in a busy week, competing with work, social life, and entertainment.
Thus, it cannot be denied that the morals and virtues of a civilized nation are derived from religion. Many of us grew up in a time when it was OK for religion to be considered a valuable part of our national heritage. We, just as the Founders, believe that "civic virtue" is nothing if not supported by religion or faith. However, some have accepted the morality outlined by religion, but have rejected the need for it to be as integrated into our society as it was when they themselves developed intellectually, philosophically and politically.

They forget that the morality they have internalized was ultimately derived from someplace other than themselves or other men. They seem to believe that morality and virtue are somehow self-evident and that man and his government can adequately convey some set of widely-agreed upon values without having to call upon the religious and cultural tradition on which these values were originally based. Yet, it is arrogant to believe that we will be able to tell the next generation that virtues, variously defined (if at all), are "good" simply because "we say so" without providing the heritage and history, including religion, that informs our judgement. It will ring hollow. "After all," they may ask, "if these morals are so important, why is it that you ignored that which so obviously inspired and supported them?"

Here are some further excerpts:

The prominent presence of such figures as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, and Roman Catholic priests and nuns in the front lines of civil-rights marches demonstrated the deep moral resonance that moved peoples of different faiths to protest injustice, based upon the age-old call of their traditions to seek justice and show mercy. Religions throughout history have motivated some to stand on the margins of society as critics of the dominant cultural and religious values.

The American experiment offered these traditions a special role. Freedom of religion, despite the long-lasting cultural hegemony of evangelical Protestantism, gave leeway to various religious groups to fight discrimination and establish public worship and public institutions. And by so doing, they made politically viable in this nation the principle of freedom of conscience and resisted the age-old tendency of governments to absorb religion into systems of state ideology.

The principle of religious freedom provided a powerful opportunity for religious-based dissent. In addition to democracy’s inherent capacity for self-criticism and renewal, the mobilization of the prophetic role of religion in the political life of the country has served as a critique of national ambition and hubris, from the Puritan Jeremiad to the Abolitionist Movement to Lincoln’s Second InauguralSpeech to the anti–Vietnam War protests.

However, Raboteau adds that something has been lost.
The American idea of freedom is centered on the rights of the individual person, but with the premise—more strongly observed at some times than others—that the respect due to the individual makes possible his participation in common, public, civic life. Freedom of conscience and freedom of choice enable individuals to participate in civil institutions, which exist to serve the commonweal.

The democratic tradition defines authority as public service. It encourages participation and treasures the voice of each because you never know when it might be the voice of a prophet. This tradition is profoundly antithetical to status and power based on inherited aristocracy

He also reminds that too many seem to be pursuing liberty without thought to responsibility.

At its best, democracy balances the rights of the individual with the responsibility to participate in the public conversations and tasks that make civic community possible. However, the possibility of so stressing rights that we forget responsibility is a perennial threat to American liberty. The choice of privileging one over the other comes down to a simple, but profound question: “What is freedom for?” When Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence he copied from John Locke the famous list of inalienable rights endowed upon us by the Creator—with one significant difference. Jefferson substituted for Locke’s life, liberty, and property, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Tragically, Americans ever since have found it too easy to reverse Jefferson by turning the pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of property. . .

If American democracy offers religion an opportunity, American pluralism offers it a challenge. Pluralism challenges us to experience religion as more than a cultural identity. Pluralism means encountering the values and attitudes and beliefs of others with respect for those who hold them. Pluralism, when taken seriously as respect for difference, rejects relativism for avoiding the hard truth that we do indeed differ. It is the difficult road we walk to achieve a mature understanding of the truth and the opportunity to share that truth with others who are seeking it. It challenges us to appropriate, internalize, and live out the religious identity passed to us by family and society. It creates an opportunity to discuss and to argue for one’s own position.