September 24, 2006

Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance, Part IV: Moral Recovery via Rediscovering the Meaning of Words

Donald B. Hawthorne

The comments sections of

Part I: The Difference Between Religious Freedom and Religious Tolerance
Part II: Are We Hostile Toward or Encouraging Religious Belief?
Part III: Consequences of Excluding Religion from the Public Square

of this Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance series, plus Justin's Favoring the Non-Participatory posting, offer up many statements which present a largely incoherent vision for how our society will develop, share, and sustain a set of core values necessary for it to exist in a cohesive manner.

Distilled to their essence, the comments highlighted four major issues:

1. Do moral truths (discovered via either faith or reason) exist and belong in the public square - and how should they affect our public life?

2. How do we define reason and religious freedom?

3. What does religious freedom - as defined in the 1st Amendment - mean and how has jurisprudence and societal practices changed our interpretation of religious freedom over the years?

4. What role and importance did the Founding Fathers assign to religion in our society and why?

This posting focuses on the first part of question #1 and subsequent postings in this series will address the remaining issues.

To provide a context before tackling question #1, here are some of the statements from the comments sections:

At no time do I want to interfere with your right or anyone else's right to practice [religion] as you choose...It is impossible for the state to speak on religion without giving the impression that one has been preferred. As you increase "liberty" for one, you decrease it for others. The Founders wanted balance for all...The Government does not have the right to allow one advocacy over another even if we can't figure out what the other is...We can never figure out what "all" advocacy is...Since the "all" universe cannot be determined, the only way to keep balance is the "no" universe...The Government cannot allow the advocacy of religion on public grounds because it limits the freedoms of others to express their religious views when they are not advocated. The non-advocated position has been de-established by the Government�How do you know with certainty that every religion has been asked to participate? You assume so because as a mainstream sect, you were. However, the guy who worships Kelly Clarkson as a demi-goddess was not...he was left out, his religion is valid, and therefore demeaned...Since everyone will not choose to participate...you cannot allow some belief system to obtain an advantage because they choose to participate. Therefore, no one gets to participate.

There are two striking features to these comments: First, they avoid any discussion of substantive issues such as freedom, justice, rights, and moral common sense. Instead, they devolve into ideas emphasizing how our government should restrict the freedom of citizens to express their beliefs in any public forum.

And when we equate the suggested religion of Kelly-Clarkson-as-a-demi-goddess with either the Jewish or Christian tradition, have not we just endorsed an unserious moral relativism which denies there are any moral truths discoverable by faith or reason? If there are no moral truths, have not then words like freedom and justice lost all meaning?

Reflections on Pope John Paul II's role in the demise of Communism - as highlighted in an article in the extended entry below - offers some guidance about where to begin:

Language, then, and the restoration of its relationship with reality were critical to the Communist collapse. This was no small feat since, for many in the West, words had lost their meaning. A recovery of meaning was essential before a real challenge could be presented...You cannot use "evil" as an adjective until you know it as a noun...the new struggle [today] is over the meaning of freedom...In Veritatis Splendor, the pope warned of "the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible." If truth is impossible, so are the "self-evident truths" upon which free government depends. Then, one can understand everything in terms of power and its manipulation...[John Paul II] raised the hope that moral recovery is possible by calling for it.

That loss of meaning means we - at least implicitly - deny the existence of moral truths and, by default, fail to address the societal consequences of the moral relativism now dominating the public square, as described by these words from Pope Benedict XVI:

No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless...

The culture of relativism invites its own destruction...by its own internal incoherence...

Yet, acknowledging the existence of moral truths is part of both our American and Western Civilization heritages. As Lee Harris writes, our heritage is a rich one:

Christian Europe, after all, was a fusion of diverse elements: the Hebrew tradition, the experience of the early Christian community, the Roman genius for law, order, and hierarchy, the Germanic barbarians' love of freedom, among many others. In this cultural amalgam, Greek philosophy certain played a role. St. Clement argued that Greek philosophy had been given by God to mankind as a second source of truth, comparable to the Hebrew revelation. Benedict argues that the "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history."

Our heritage not only acknowledges the existence of moral truths but argues that these truths can be discovered by either faith or reason - thereby confirming what has been true for centuries: This public conversation about the role of moral truths in the public square does not require everyone to hold identical religious beliefs. It does require us to be morally serious and to firmly place moral relativism in the dustbin of history.

Moral truths belong in the public square to avoid the societal consequences of moral relativism. Only with a belief in moral truths can words become meaningful again and enable us to begin a public conversation about principles such as freedom and - from there - to discuss proper ways to introduce their meaning back into the public square.

As a first step toward the recovery of meaning, let's next ask ourselves whether we truly understand the meaning of freedom - including religious freedom - and reason as we explore how best to live our American experiment in ordered liberty.

Robert Reilly wrote these words in Fearless: How John Paul II Changed the Political World:

John Paul II was a shaker of world events. He regraded the political landscape of the 20th century and was counted among the few who were responsible for the relatively peaceful demise of the Evil Empire...

Language, then, and the restoration of its relationship with reality were critical to the Communist collapse. This was no small feat since, for many in the West, words had lost their meaning. A recovery of meaning was essential before a real challenge could be presented to the East. No single individual did more for this restoration than John Paul II, who insisted upon calling things by their proper names...You cannot use "evil" as an adjective until you know it as a noun...

Everyone now celebrates "our" victory over Communism, conveniently forgetting that the struggle was not only with Communism but within the West as to what Communism meant. The anti�anti-Communists in the West were frightened by the vocabulary of the pope and President Ronald Reagan for the Soviet Union because they feared it might lead to war, but also because the use of the word "evil" had implications for themselves with which they were extremely uncomfortable. As English writer Christopher Derrick once said, the only real Iron Curtain runs through the soul of each one of us. If we can know what evil is, how then does that apply to our own lives? Rather than answer that question, many preferred to attack the people using it and to explain the Cold War away as just another variation of power politics and realpolitik. Communism was simply a mask for traditional Russian imperial expansionism and could be dealt with similarly. Power dealing with power can reach an understanding.

So long as this view was regnant in the West, Communism was a form of absolutism fighting a form of relativism. As such, Communism had the clear advantage and gained it on the field with stunning geographic advances�in Central Asia, Africa, and Central America�and strategic advances in both conventional and non-conventional weaponry. So great was the progress of the Soviet Union in the 1970s that anyone looking at these factors alone would have expected it to win. Those expectations were defeated by a factor outside of these calculations...

Reagan was the first political leader to use the moral vocabulary of "evil" to describe the Soviet empire in the recent era. The reaction was hysterical. How reckless could Reagan be? Yet the president calmly responded that he wanted them, the Soviets, to know that he knew. This acknowledgment inspired great hope behind the Iron Curtain. Then, finally, the Soviets used the term themselves. Once the proper vocabulary was employed, it was over. Semantic unanimity brought the end not in the much-feared bang, but a whimper. Truth�the splendor of truth�turned out to be the most effective weapon in the Cold War. The bearer of that truth in it fullest splendor was John Paul II...

Radek Sikorski, the former deputy foreign minister of a free Poland, wrote in a tribute to John Paul II that, "Before people demand democracy and social rights, they have to gain faith in their own human dignity." That was the prerequisite for liberation: You must know you should be free before you can be free. This is what the pope restored to them. "Be not afraid" were his first words as pope. You need not be afraid because of the truth. Know that truth, and it will set you free.

One needs not only physical courage to be free but, above all, courage of the mind in identifying and speaking the truth. Living in the spirit of the truth is what banishes fear...It is difficult for people in the West to appreciate how galvanizing the Truth is when it is spoken publicly in a society oppressed by a lie�an institutionalized lie about man that is enforced by state power.

The pope�s "politics" were really quite simple, as they derived from his conviction that God is sovereign and man�s human dignity and rights are endowed by Him. Without God, they have no origin. He stressed the irreducible fact that the source of man�s dignity is in his Creator...

The political implications of this are clear: If you wish to save man, first restore God to His rightful place. Then, "If you want peace, remember man"�that is, man made in His image, blessed with reason and free will. Therefore, the political arrangement of man�s life should comport with his nature as a free and reasoning creature, ordered to a transcendent good...

Then what about the rest? What about John Paul II�s excoriating critique of the West after the Cold War, and the puzzlement with which it was greeted? Why did he interrupt our victory celebrations? Those who had reduced the pope�s role to the political results of his actions missed, perhaps deliberately, the transcendent moral standards that animated his actions. The same people who failed to grasp the true nature of the Cold War also failed to appreciate the pope�s critique of the West. Those who did not understand what was morally wrong with Communist ideology also do not understand what is wrong with us.

While the struggle within the West during the Cold War was over the meaning of Communism, the new struggle is over the meaning of freedom...In other words, it is not putting yourself into relationship with what is that frees you, but making up what you wish. This became the empty credo of modernity.

The same moral relativism that weakened the West during the Cold War remained after the war ended...The pope�s critique of Communism is important to understand because its principles apply to his critique of the West after the Cold War. It is, in fact, the same critique of modernity, albeit modernity in a different manifestation. Apparently, getting to make up reality for ourselves is not a harmless endeavor. In fact, John Paul II used the same terrible word to describe it: totalitarian.

In this case, however, the pope startlingly juxtaposed the words "totalitarian" and "democracy" and warned of "totalitarian democracy" as the new danger, even in America. A "totalitarian democracy" may seem a contradiction in terms. However, when its context in the "laws of nature and of nature's God" is removed, democracy loses its authority in higher law and becomes simply another vehicle for the expression of the primacy of the will. This is the basis of totalitarianism. What one wills, not what one reasons, is paramount. Force, not free will, is the means. Whether it is the force of the majority or of the minority matters not...

In his brilliant [Crisis Magazine] article, "Why the Pope Loves America" (February 1997), Dennis Teti pointed to the source of John Paul II�s affection for the United States in the natural law grounding of its founding documents. The pope consistently spoke of "the paramount value of the natural law." That love for America was clearly still intact when he addressed President Bush during a 2001 meeting:

Your nation�s founders...were guided by a profound sense of responsibility towards the common good to be pursued in respect for the God-given dignity and inalienable rights of all. America continues to measure herself by the nobility of her founding vision in building this society of liberty, equality, and justice under the law...

...In Veritatis Splendor, the pope warned of "the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible."

If truth is impossible, so are the "self-evident truths" upon which free government depends. Then, one can understand everything in terms of power and its manipulation. The concern is not simply with evil but with its institutionalization...

John Paul II continued to call things by their true names. As he had refused to comply with the old lie of slavery, he would not bend to the new lie of false freedom. He preserved the integrity of words because of his fidelity to the Word. People celebrate him because of the victory over Communism but not for the deeper reasons behind that victory, because they do not like being told that they are abusing their freedom. However, he raised the hope that moral recovery is possible by calling for it...

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Morality, conscience and the Face of God

When the founders of this republic conceived our limited yet free society the very basis of their collective actions presupposed and declared that they were creatures created by an intelligent being who actually existed outside of and without the necessity of their belief. The reality of God was not a foreign concept but the accepted underpinning of their rational thought. For without a creator God there is no rational thought.

If we are a cosmic accident there is no past, present or future, just a current secular existence with absolutely no basis for any meaning or morality whatsoever. If I am mistaken here please correct me.

On what do you base your standards if not on the reality of an objective transcendent standard maker? If this sovereign does not exist to justly mediate all our thoughts and actions then throw out the rulebook and do whatever you want. Who cares if you do good or evil? There is no objective standard other than what the strongman says is law, and who cares about the strongman anyway. He makes it up as he goes along to suit his needs and desires.

If we are to continue to exist as a great nation our humble submission to an almighty necessary being (God) must remain central to our national conscience.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at September 28, 2006 10:32 PM

This is a well-formed and clear argument, which underscores how important it is for all to think very seriously about the fundamental issues of constitutional order and not submit to the penchant to imagine that a mere assertion of preferences is the foundation of our common life. The notion that everyone's "views" deserve resepct merely by being held is so incredibly indefensible, that it needs to be a source of more than mere wonder that it is so widespread in our time.

You may be interest in a rough excerpt of the discussion I am working through in my commentary on Montesquieu's "Spirit of the Laws" and which I have been going over just today:

"In further summarizing this and again still focusing on the difference between Christians and Mohammedans and their kinds of quarrels, he says, 'in ordinary disputes each person knows he can be wrong, and hence is not extremely opinionated or obstinate. But in our disputes over religion, by the nature of the thing, each person is sure his opinion is true, and we are indignant with those who obstinately insist on making us change instead of changing themselves.'

"Now this is a necessary characteristic of religion, which one probably comes to appreciate best when one reads the early discussions of toleration in people like Milton (or even John Locke, whom we wouldn't identify as especially pious, whereas we would see Milton is pious). But in both cases one thing is very clear when they write about toleration. They understand it as a principle which is only established in the context of the recognition of error. One tolerates errors, not rival truths. That's what the definition of toleration originally is based upon. And so the reason of the argument for toleration within certain sects of Christianity is not any lack of confidence in the truth of Christianity, but because of the connection of Christianity with certain approaches towards other human beings. Certain intrinsic notions of gentleness or vulnerability, which rather counsel, as Montesquieu will say, the love of all without regard to their beliefs, and therefore engenders a spirit of tolerance for their errors. 'One should pay great attention to the disputes of theologians,' Montesquieu writes here, 'but as covertly as possible. For the trouble one seems to take in pacifying them adds to their prestige. It shows that their thinking is so important that it determines the tranquility of the state and the security of the prince.' Clearly the voice Montesquieu uses here is one that sees its audience as the prince or the Constitution, if we may say so. 'One can no more put an end to their involvement [in politics] by listening to their subtleties than one could abolish duels by establishing schools for refining upon the point of honor.' So it's very important not to permit politics to get mixed up in the disputes of religion, according to this account. And that's, of course, precisely what happened in Rome. In a certain sense he's arguing that what led to the overthrow of the Roman empire is the Chrstian era. He continues, "it is an error to believe that any human authority exists in the world, which is despotic in all respects." So no despotism is complete or absolute. There never has been one and never will be; the most immense power is always confined in some way. 'Let the Grand Signor impose a new tax on Constantinople, and a general outcry immediately makes him aware of limits he had not known. A king of Persia can easily compel a son to kill his father or a father to kill his son -- but as for making his subjects drink wine, he cannot do it.'

There exists in each nation, a general spirit on which power itself is based. And when it shocks the spirit, i.e., when power shocks this general spirit, it strikes against itself and necessarily comes to a standstill. So the constitutional formula is to discover the general spirit and respect it and avoid the disputes that may arise within its contexts, which are principally theological disputes. The theologico-political problem is the problem of holding power or politics as distant as possible from the intrinsic internecine struggles of theology. 'The most vicious source of all the misfortunes of the Greeks is that they never knew the nature or limits of ecclesiastical and secular power. And this made them fall on both sides into continual aberrations. This great distinction, which is the basis on which the tranquility of peoples rests, is founded not only on religion but also on reason and nature.' And reason as we see in books 24 and 25 of "Spirit of the Laws" is politics, on the side of politics. There is a contrast betwen politics in its use of reason and religion in its use of passions or sentiment.

And so, the argument is founded not only on religion but also on reason and nature, i.e. we resolve the theologico-political problem by in effect reconciling religion and reason or nature, which ordain that really separate things-- i.e., reason and nature ordain that really separate things; things that can endure only by being separate -- should never be confounded. Now this argument, which is not merely our argument for separation of church and state as I hope is clear, is in effect a preface to the argument Montesquieu makes in the Spirit of the Laws, where the point is to draw out as fully as possible the constitutional significance of that distinction -- the constitutional significance of the resolution of the theologico-political problem. That's what books 24 and 25 are about. Another way of stating the same principle or raising the same question is to make the observation that since what one is concerned with particularly in politics is to reconcile the necessities of the Constitution with the aims of humanity, or the ends of man, if you will, there's no way to do that without taking into account the usual sources of information regarding the ends of man. The usual sources of information are not philosophy. Philosophy is a source but not the usual source of information about the ends of man. The usual source of information about the ends of man is religion. So we have a theologico-political problem, because the usual source of the ends of man is an inadequate foundation for a constitution. But a constitution cannot come into being without taking it into account. Thus, the very opening of book 24, the 1st chapter offers: 'as one may judge among the darknesses those which are less thick and among abysses those which are less deep, so too one may search among false religions those which are the most conformable to the good of society and those which, although they might not have the effect of leading men to the happinesses of the other life or the next life, can still more contribute to their happiness in this life.' Now that is a formula which implies that, thinking constitutionally, it is a mistake to respond reflexively to false religion, because some false religion might in fact, be conducive to political happiness, to the happiness of human beings in this life. And hence one needs to be able to think of religion politically in the same way that Socrates does in the "Republic" and the "Apology" of Plato. 'I will not only therefore examine the different religions of the world in relationship to the welfare or good that one derives from them in the civil state," he says, 'whether I am speaking of that which has its roots in heaven, or even that which has roots on earth.' It doesn't matter whether he's talking about religion based on the next life or those religions that are simply earthly, materialistic, or anthropomorphic. He's going to talk about them only in the terms of whether one can find there a good in the civil state as deriving from them. 'Now in this work, I'm not a theologian but a political writer. It could occur that there will be here things which would only be entirely true in a human manner of speaking.' This is an odd statement, isn't it? There might exist things here that are true only in a human manner of speaking, which already raises the huge question: Is there any truth apart from what is available to human thinking -- i.e., If we understand by human thinking the assimilation of the mind to reality, the assimilation of the mind to what is, then the truth is of course a truth independent of human thinking but accessible to human thinking; and there are not two distinct truths.

But that's only true if we abstract from religion. A philosophical argument or disposition that regards truth to be the assimilation of the mind to reality is a disposition that is fundamentally areligious. And Aquinas makes this very clear in his "summa contra gentiles," in which the question is whether indeed the power of the mind is sufficient unto salvation. And the answer is no, even though Aquinas demonstrates that the mind can discover every pertinent truth up to and including the existence of God. What the mind cannot do is to direct or compel God vis-a-vis man. And hence the mind is insufficient to salvation. So the truth beyond the truth discoverable by human intellect is precisely the truth of the will of God, which one must distinguish from the existence of God, and that's a distinction that underlies this particular statement that something might be true only in the human manner of thinking, not having been considered in its relationship to truths more sublime. The more sublime truths are the truths about the will of God. And of course how one discovers the will of God at all is a disputed matter.

'With respect to THE true religion' -- we see here that we've talked about many false religions, we've talked about diverse religions and now Montesquieu says with 'respect to THE true religion.' This is a contrast which is meant to be felt as a contrast. 'It will not only be necessary, but it will require only a very little fairness, a very little equity,' says he, i'n order to see that I could never have pretended to make its interest yield to political interests, but rather to unite them.' Now in light of passages in the "Consideration of the Romans" that we reviewed above, we can conclude that the theologico-political problem is not resolved by using a political philosophical argument to refute the claims of religion."

Posted by: W. Allen at September 28, 2006 10:54 PM

There are many facets here. My opinions are my own and I would never think of forcing or coercing anyone to agree, follow, believe, perform, or choose the way I do. Our great country provides this freedom for all with the balancing limitations so written in the constitution and laws of the land. We can all freely exercise our beliefs within these limits.

Truth on the other hand is a higher quest than personal freedom of choice since it provides no room for opposing positions, though many exist. Truth excludes all competing claims by its very nature whereas personal volition and the resulting choices so made can run the spectrum with only the extremes perhaps running foul of the law.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at October 7, 2006 2:24 PM