The developments and conflicts over religion and public life of the past generation are coming to a head in a way that could produce a watershed moment for the United States.
From the rise of the Religious Right in the mid-1970s to the role of the Religious Right in the election of George W. Bush in 2004, the tide has flowed powerfully in the direction of conservative religious influence. The tide is now turning. The tie-in between the Religious Right and the Republican Party, and in particular between the Religious Right and the person and policies of George W. Bush, has provoked a mounting backlash that has made the liaison a severe liability for both.
The antireligious backlash can be seen at the popular level—for example, Rosie O’Donnell’s recent claims on an ABC talk show that conservative Christians are even more dangerous than Muslim terrorists, and the comparison, on NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, of Christians to Ku Klux Klansmen.13 But the backlash is far more lethal in educated and liberal circles, where it can be seen in the explosion of attacks on the Religious Right, either in the name of opposing views of religion and public life or in the name of a vehement, reenergized, and openly intolerant secularism—for example, such books as Sam Harris’s End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great.
How we live with our deepest differences is a question that lies at the heart of American freedom, and soon it may be a matter of survival for the planet. Americans have both high ideals and a wealth of experience to share with the wider world.
For countless reasons, the prospects for civility in the global public square in the short term are bleak. Immanuel Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace” and the Enlightenment dream of a single, universal civilization are utopian and unrealizable.
America has been wrestling with the dilemmas longer, with better foundational resources, and with a generally better outcome than in any other nation. On the other hand, in spite of recent problems such as the culture wars, America has still not developed the levels of extremism that bedevil solutions elsewhere.
None of us speaks from nowhere; that would be impossible. None of us speaks from everywhere; that would be incoherent. All of us speak from somewhere—which is our freedom and responsibility as well as our fate.
Christians have at times talked of the Prince of Peace but flagrantly betrayed him with their dark record of state-sponsored coercion and violence from Constantine to the eighteenth century.
The latter burden comes right down to the present, for certain Christians form the bulk of one of the two great extremes in the American culture wars and are stirring up against themselves some of the most vehement antireligious animosity in the modern world.
First, there are people for whom conflict should be a contradiction of all they stand for (in the medieval case, conflict between fellow believers; in modern America, between fellow citizens). Second, summary private responses to disagreements (in the medieval case, characteristically violent; in modern America, through the myriad ways of culture warring) are to be replaced by orderly processes of settling disputes.
First Amendment in 1791. Of these three settlements, the American is the most original, the most conducive to freedom and justice for all in pluralistic conditions, and the one that James Madison justifiably called “the true remedy.”
The reasons are different in each case, but each in its way has so far proved incapable of accommodating certain modern developments.
Expressed differently, two options are now being put forward in terms of how we are to relate to others in the global public square, and both have a tendency to swing toward the extremes. On one side are the progressive universalists, those who believe that their way is the one way, the way for everyone, even at the cost of coercion—a position that leads inevitably toward conflict. And on the other side are the multicultural relativists, those who believe that all cultures are different and that there are no universal values, and that therefore no one has the right to judge another culture or its values, let alone intervene in the affairs of another culture and impose his or her values on another culture. More tolerant-sounding at first, this option is also an extreme because it leads to complacency. If we are never able to judge or intervene in the affairs of others, we will inevitably turn a blind eye to evil, injustice, and oppression.