Today's civility discussion centers on who properly should occupy the public square, extremism and three crucial questions for the 21st Century. More excerps from Os Guinness:
Narrowing the field to the American public square, we can see that the extremes have long been defined as two opposing answers to how religion and public life should be related to one another. On one side are the advocates of a sacred public square, the “reimposers” who would give a privileged place to one religion at the expense of others; and on the other side are the advocates of a naked public square, the “removers” who would antiseptically cleanse the public square of all religion.
[It's a choice between] common dialogue approach to civility, which I shall argue is attractive in the short run but finally ineffective, and the covenant approach, which alone holds the key to a worthwhile truce and a tough-minded civility.
Hollowed out by the specious lies, half-truths, and nonsequiturs of ceaseless advertising and by other factors such as the ubiquity of ghostwriting, American verbal commitments do not mean what they once did. In a world of “words, words, words,” someone’s saying that their word is their bond is not so much a commitment as a rhetorical flourish or a piece of pious nostalgia.
Instead, the complex global world of the twenty-first century confronts a series of grand questions, the answers to which will decisively shape the next fifty to one hundred years. Three are especially urgent. First, will Islam modernize peacefully, forswearing its tendency toward militancy, pacifying its violent extremists, reversing its low view of women, acknowledging the right of religious liberty for all, including those Muslims who convert to other faiths, and accommodating to the fact of social diversity? Or will its continuing violence, its insistence on coercing faith, and its adamant refusal to allow faith to be privatized be the catalysts that force the modern world to reconfigure its structures and policies, either for better or for worse? Second, which faith will replace Marxism as the dominant ideology in China as the Middle Kingdom reemerges on the world stage as a superpower and responds to the opportunities and challenges of forces such as capitalism, democracy, and massive social change? And third, will Western civilization sever or recover its Jewish and Christian roots—either severing them according to the pattern of state-favored European secularism or recovering them according to the better angels of the American experiment?
The French writer and statesman André Malraux may have come closer than anyone else to the central issue of our time: “The twenty-first century will be religious, or it will not be.”
For any thoughtful student of world affairs who understands the role of religion in American and Western history, or in international affairs today, this view is preposterous. It flies squarely in the face of facts, and it rests on premises that are unexamined as well as secularist. What is out of step, Berger notes, is not the religiosity of the world but the secularity of the observers. (“The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian Mullahs but American university professors.”
One does not have to agree with Thomas Aquinas that unbelief is contrary to human nature, with Edmund Burke that man is by constitution a religious animal, or with Berger that religion is a perennial feature of humanity to see that, at the very least, the prejudice is the product of what Max Weber called the tone deafness of certain elites: they do not hear or appreciate the music by which most people have, do, and always will orchestrate their lives. Sam Harris’s vision of the “end of faith” is as much wishful thinking as Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.”
Whatever the source of the prejudice, the tone deafness has to be taken seriously because it affects public life and the freedom of many citizens whom those who are prejudiced simply do not take into account because their faiths are reckoned to be on the way out like an ebbing tide. The historian William Lee Miller captures the comic side of the “unmusicality” in the remark of an attorney: “What is the matter with these people? Why do they persist? Millions of those people out there believe what nobody believes anymore.”