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Saturday, January 2, 2016

The right to be wrong - 'Faith in the end of faith is irrational, incredible, fantastic (imaginary)'

Here are the rest of my highlighted passages from The Case for Civility by Os Guinness, well worth reading the book in its entirety. The aim is to respect and allow a diversity of believes (secular is a belief) and to recognize one's right to be wrong! My last post on this, separately to follow, will be a 31-point summary.

Guinness concludes that, rather than a law mandating civility and the art of persuasion, we need a compact, which he comprises in THE WILLIAMSBURG CHARTER. He concludes:
Whereas a law is a command directed to us, a compact is a promise that must proceed freely from us. To achieve it demands a measure of the vision, sacrifice and perseverance shown by our Founders. Their task was to defy the past, seeing and securing religious liberty against the terrible precedents of history. Ours is to challenge the future, sustaining vigilance and broadening protections against every new menace, including that of our own complacency. Knowing the unquenchable desire for freedom, they lit a beacon. It is for us who know its blessings to keep it burning brightly.
It appears that the temperature is mounting. In the six weeks after the election of George W. Bush in 2004, the press and airwaves were thick with the vented anger of disappointed liberals and secularists whose dire alarms were as apocalyptic as the wildest pages of the “Left Behind” novels. Many accusations are as overheated as they are ludicrous—for example, the claims mentioned in chapter one that Christians are as dangerous as Muslim extremists, or that fundamentalists are as bad as Ku Klux Klansmen. Which would such accusers like to have following them down the street to their home on a dark evening—an al Qaeda jihadist wearing a suicide belt or a Focus on the Family radio listener carrying a Bible?
Doubtless there will be detailed replies to arguments such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s bestselling The End of Faith and his Letter to a Christian Nation. In fact there already have been, though astonishingly Dawkins and Harris brush off reasoned replies and keep on as if some of their arguments had not been decisively refuted.
For a start, they write out of a frustration that betrays the irrationality of what they declare is their fight for reason. Dawkins joins John Lennon in imagining a world without religion, and hopes for his book that “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”3 He also says he hopes to drive religion not only from the public square but from society altogether. Harris, as his title indicates, has as his object “the end of faith,” and claims that “the days of our religious identities are clearly numbered.”4 Yet he also acknowledges that his second book “is the product of failure—the failure of the many attacks on religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand.” 
Do Dawkins, Harris, and their ilk really hope to succeed in consigning faith to the dustbin of history? Do they really believe that religion will disappear under the scrutiny of their arguments? What philosophical, anthropological, and historical reasons do they give for their trust in the end of faith and the triumph of their narrow secular reason? When has such reason ever been able to justify itself without toppling into skepticism and irrationality, as we have seen once more with postmodernism? Where has secularism ever appealed widely to most ordinary people when it has not been imposed by coercion, as under the communists? For all its strength in certain educated circles, the secularist worldview is simply too bleak and too bloodless for most ordinary people. (As one atheist leader admits, atheists are predominant among the “upper 5 percent. Where we’re lagging is among the lower 95 percent.” Even at the higher level, many of the greatest philosophers and scientists today are not only unconvinced by the atheist arguments, but give equally powerful arguments for the rationality of their faith in God.
From everything I know and have ever read about humanity and the deepest human thinking about religion, Dawkins’s and Harris’s faith in the end of faith is irrational, incredible, and fantastic, though in some ways deeply touching. By all means join John Lennon and “imagine a world without religion”—“Let it be,” as the famous four sang elsewhere—but have the candor and humility to admit that such a world is entirely imaginary, and likely to remain so. Like all utopias, the atheist utopia is literally “no place,” and when real atheists have tried to inaugurate it in the real world, their efforts have been murderous beyond belief, as my boyhood in China never allows me to forget. No leap of faith by the most anti-intellectual of religious believers could be more blindly trusting and irrational than that of these self-professed devotees of reason.
If they are to sustain their faith in reason, and at the same time prevent it from becoming a religion of Reason that will once again be a spawning ground for terror as secular reason has so often been since the eighteenth century, they will find that they need faith as both a basis and a boundary for their reason. At the end of the day, reason generates faith just as faith guarantees reason. We understand in order to believe, and we believe in order to understand.
For someone who declares himself so committed to reason to be so irrational means that Harris’s frustration can only mount. He is either in for a rethink or in for even more frustration.
It is tempting to wonder whether there is a link between the rise in secularist ire and the collapse of secularization theory. Secularism, the philosophy, could afford to stand back and watch when secularization, the process, was said to be sweeping everything before it. There was no need for the atheist’s helpful shove when religion was about to disappear anyway. But regardless of explanations, what is beyond doubt is that secularist anger has risen in America in direct reaction to the perceived extremes and dangers of the Religious Right, with Islamic extremism behind them. Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre’s lifelong companion, showed an atheism with a humbler face. When asked by a journalist what she felt about creating a body of work that negated the existence of God, she replied wryly, “One can abolish water, but one cannot abolish thirst.”
Nothing is more precious and potent than truth, but nothing is more dangerous than to debate such arguments in the public square. Before long the different sides will go for the jugular, and verbal violence will issue in conflicts that are as ugly as they are insoluble. As Erasmus warned many centuries ago, the danger is that the long war of words and writings will end in blows.
Please do not misunderstand my point. I am not arguing that faith should be “privileged,” as if it required kid-gloves discussion for fear of causing offense and of setting off politically correct protests among the hypersensitive victimized or riots in other parts of the world. Truth and tough-minded debates about truth are the oxygen of a free society. So if any beliefs, held by any citizens, are thought by any others to be irrational and a delusion, they should be addressed trenchantly and fearlessly. The politics of “no offense” is a recipe for cowardice and appeasement. Atheists have every right to speak out, to argue for, and to attack whatever they choose. The question for them is whether their arguments are good arguments, or whether they will suffer the fate of most of their predecessors before them.
What is more, followers of Jesus are not offended by attacks, and at this point Christians part company with followers of the prophet Muhammad. The sort of attacks that Muslims take as an insult to the Prophet are what Christians see as central to the mission of Jesus. The symbol that is literally the crux of the Christian faith is not a fashion accessory but an instrument of torture and execution for criminals, and on it is one who was spread-eagled naked at the moment of his most excruciating pain and abandonment. Yet such insult, humiliation, torture, disfigurement, and death were at the heart of what Jesus came to do, and knew that he came to do. Far from complaining about a “dire insult” or a “blasphemy” to be avenged with a fatwa or a riot or a lawsuit, Christians should see any continuing prejudice or malice toward Jesus and his followers as something to be embraced as an undeserved honor rather than protested as unfair victimization.
In short, my opening answer to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other secularists is to call for civility first—to establish a civil public square, within which we may all learn to respect our deepest differences and discuss them robustly but civilly and peacefully—and then in the appropriate setting, human being to human being, to explore the reasons for why we believe and all that it means. At the very least, vicious attacks on each other’s faiths in the public square will aggravate the culture wars further. More serious, a climate of repeated assaults will raise the specter of the violence becoming more than verbal. Such a call for the total eradication of religion, not only from public life but from life altogether, is unprecedented in American history, and its success unproven. Early attempts to implement it in a Communist form were murderous, to put it mildly, and current proponents must show that their purportedly liberal versions of the “end of faith” are less utopian and likely to have a constructive result. At the very least, such total secularist antagonism toward faith creates the situation today in which the great divide is not between religions but between those who take faith seriously and those who exclude it altogether. Were it not for the smugness born of the education gap between most liberals and most fundamentalists, the starkness and the significance of this chasm would be taken more seriously.
Richard John Neuhaus aptly called the naked public square (or, in Europe, is called the empty public square)—those who wish to make all religious expression inviolably private and to make the public sphere inviolably secular. If a vision of a sacred public square is represented broadly by the Religious Right, also known as the “reimposers” (those who would like to impose their version of an earlier state of things on everyone else), then the vision of a naked public square is represented by a diverse group of secularists, liberals, and religious believers united by their advocacy of a strict interpretation of the separation between church and state, and also known as the “removers” (those who would remove every trace of religion from public life). Advocates of the naked public square certainly include a significant number of religious believers; there were a particularly high number of Baptists in the early days. But it is shaped by the convergence of three fundamentally secular trends: the philosophy of secularism, the political philosophy of liberalism in its late-twentieth-century form associated with John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, and the constitutional theory of strict separation associated with Leo Pfeffer and Justice Hugo Black. 
This combination is so common that the position has been called “legal secularism” (or, in Europe, “programmatic secularism”), and each strand has been used to advance the others.9 For many liberals, legal secularism is so natural and self-evident that it is their unexamined default position, so much so that any challenge to it comes as a surprise and a shock. I argued that in a society as pluralistic as ours, a vision of a sacred public square is unjust and unworkable. The same is even more true of the naked public square. The great majority of Americans are adherents of one faith or another, so by rigorously excluding all religious expressions from public life, legal secularists severely curtail the free exercise of faith and, whether wittingly or unwittingly, give a preference and privilege to the philosophy of secularism—hence the aptness of the term “legal secularism.”
Second, legal secularists are philosophically inconsistent in that their worldview is only one faith among many. Secular liberals often put forward two arguments in explaining their position: that secularism is not a faith like other faiths, and that liberalism should be privileged as the coming single faith of enlightened humanity. But these two arguments are contradictory, and the assumptions behind them are pure fictions, founded on wishful thinking rather than reason or science. On the one hand, secularists are far from irreligious and “unbelievers.” Secularism is a faith like any other, albeit naturalistic rather than supernatural. And on the other hand, liberalism has no rational grounds for laying claim to being the faith of humanity in the future.
According to nonhumanistic secularists such as the philosopher John Gray, secular humanists repress religion and religious experience in much the same way that Victorians repressed sex. But their liberalism is in fact religious, in both substance and style. Its view of human uniqueness is borrowed from the Jewish and Christian faiths, and often its style shares the same character as the creed of the philosophes, whom Gibbon excoriated because they preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists. Dogmatic Enlightenment bigots? Liberals should face the fact of secularist fundamentalism in their own ranks, and the uncomfortable fact that secularists are often, in the sociologist Rodney Stark’s description, “the worst current offenders of norms of civility.”
Better far the candor of Thomas Paine, who begins his Age of Reason with an unambiguous declaration: “I believe in one God, and no more…my own mind is my own church.”11 Unless liberals acknowledge that their faith is one among many, liberalism will remain “the unthinking creed of thinking people.”
When liberals insist that liberalism is not a faith, they replay the nineteenth-century privileging of Protestantism in the public schools, with liberals in the place of Protestants. Protestants in the nineteenth century were largely blind to their preferred position, which was only too obvious to minorities such as Catholics and Jews. In the same way, today’s secularists who pretend they are not a faith like other faiths are indifferent to their privileged position and brush aside the objections of religious believers as inconsequential.
Bitter though it is for some secular liberals to admit, liberalism is only one way of life among others and deserves to be no more (or less) privileged than others. In the name of candor and fairness, it is time for Americans to say to legal secularists today what had to be said to Protestants earlier: “Separationist, separate thyself.”
Third, legal secularists betray a faulty view of toleration. Toleration is unquestionably an admirable by-product of the broad liberal movement that grew up in reaction to the Wars of Religion, and an infinite improvement on its opposite—intolerance. But toleration has morphed beyond recognition, and today often flip-flops into intolerance again. For a start, toleration originally assumed clear commitment to a belief. Such a belief was held to strongly, along with toleration for other beliefs considered naive or wrong but tolerated because of the fact of human flaws and therefore of the fallibility of one’s own belief. Today, however, toleration has degenerated into intolerance toward any clearly held beliefs, all of which are derided and dismissed as “judgmental” and “intolerant.”
Toleration was always a less effective safeguard for liberty than the positive right of “free exercise.” The reason is that toleration can easily become a form of condescension by the strong to the weak, by the government to the citizen, by the majority to the minority—and by those who consider themselves enlightened to those they consider ignorant (for example, the absurdly self-professed secularist “brights” to the presumed religious “dummies”).
Such poisonous condescension has seeped into mainstream American liberalism, which views tolerance as part of a view of public life based on an enlightened rational consensus to which all reasonable people will subscribe. Dawkins, for example, displays a stunning arrogance when he describes extremists as “people whose religious faith takes them right outside the enlightened consensus of my ‘moral Zeitgeist’.” What this means in practice is that when the secular, liberal way of life is enthroned in public life, all other ways of seeing things are excluded as intolerant and extremist or restricted to the private sphere.
In fact, the Enlightenment notion of a “rational consensus,” or an overarching rational standard of adjudication agreeable to all, is a fiction. There never has been, and there never will be, any rational consensus subscribed to by all reasonable people about what is the best way to live—least of all in modern pluralistic societies—unless this is taken to mean a consensus to which all good liberals subscribe. To be human is to have deep and abiding differences with other humans over worldviews and values. And, to underscore the point again, such differences are not private worldviews but entire ways of life that demand to be lived and heard as freely as the liberal and secularist ways of life. There are issues that cannot be settled by an appeal to reason or tradition, or by any higher standard common to all. As John Gray observes, “Contrary to the liberal idea of toleration, the fact of divergent ways of life is not a result of the frailty of reason. It embodies the truth that humans have reason to live differently.” In short, liberal talk of toleration and rational consensus is often fraudulent—though unwittingly so. It once again ends as a cover for the unofficial establishment of liberalism, and the cause of a curious liberal hypocrisy over diversity. Liberals trumpet the importance of diversity, but their commitment to diversity is no more consistent than nineteenth-century Protestant commitment to religious liberty for those who were not Protestant. In both cases, the principal victims of their selective toleration, also known as intolerance, are people with real differences from them. Liberals end up discounting the seriousness of difference and trashing the very diversity they tout.
Tom Paine, who is so often cited as the patron saint of secularism, was in fact nearer the mark: “Toleration is not the opposite of intoleration, but it is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it.”
Fourth, legal secularism is a denial of the principle of self-determination that lies behind human rights such as freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Fundamental to personhood and to freedom is the conviction of a free and responsible mind, and therefore the ability to think for ourselves, to define ourselves, and to act true to ourselves. Human rights therefore confer the freedom to be and to do what we believe is natural and right for us as humans. Thus unintentionally but no less drastically, liberals demean human personhood when they invite people freely into the public square, but only on the condition that they leave their faith behind—in other words, when liberals ask religious believers to jettison the deepest source that makes them who they are.
In the same way, the present alliance of secularists, strict separationists, and liberal proceduralists restricts religious believers to the segregated margins of private life on behalf of their self-interested liberal myth of a neutral public square. “Public reason” is the respectable alias for secularism, and all religious beliefs are unmasked as “private prejudices.” Only the religiously naked and bare, their religious identities stripped down and disinfected in the constitutional neutrality showers, are allowed to enter the naked public square, where the liberal reigns supreme—and remains fully clothed and in command with his constitutional bullwhip. Where is the justice in this? Between the German death camps and the American naked public square lies a chasm that is morally and physically immeasurable, but the difference is one of degree, not kind.
Fifth, legal secularism undermines cultural legitimacy, including the founders’ view of sustainable freedom. The founders’ view of the relationship of faith and freedom is unique in history and essential to their view of how to sustain freedom. If freedom requires virtue, and virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom, then the “free exercise” of religion is the absolute prerequisite of sustainable freedom. For the republic, this is a matter not simply of freedom but of self-preservation.
The theory of strict separation blithely ignores the founders’ concerns for sustaining freedom and turns the First Amendment on its head. Instead of the No Establishment clause being in support of the Free Exercise clause, and both being in support of greater freedom, No Establishment comes to dominate Free Exercise, and “freedom of religion” sooner or later becomes “freedom from religion.” In the process, the founders’ view of sustainable freedom is rendered impossible and the inevitable decline of the republic is set in motion.
Originally, both religious-liberty clauses were designed as a check on government, and specifically on the Congress; and they should be understood in the same spirit as the guarantee of freedom of speech. As the constitutional scholar Daniel Driesbach points out, “The free press guarantee was not written to protect the civil state from the press, but to protect a free and independent press from control by the national government.” And so it was with religious liberty. Put differently, when it comes to sustaining freedom, secular liberalism has a “hole in the heart” of its view of national legitimacy. By abandoning both the earlier understanding of “free exercise” and “toleration,” and by switching to the principles of strict neutrality and impartiality, the liberal vision has no commitment to virtue of any kind at the center of its free society. The assumption is that liberal society needs only rules and procedures, and has no need for any enduring shared values.
The result is that the strict legal disestablishment of religion is compounded by an equally strict legal disestablishment of morality. The public square is restricted to competing interests that are morally neutral, and morals are confined to the private sphere. Thus the deep wellsprings of American common life are slowly poisoned through a thousand lawsuits, the oxygen supply that is the lifeblood of America’s civil society is choked off, and the wise arts of public life are hollowed out and reduced to skills in manipulating the rules. The result is a sure recipe either for hypocrisy (latter-day puritans are as zealous about medical matters, such as smoking, as earlier puritans were about moral matters) or for the folly that Lincoln warned against as a “free people’s suicide.”
Americans today are free to disagree with their founders’ provisions, but they would be wise to be sure first of what it was their founders were trying to do, and then to make sure that they have a better solution to the same problem.
The rule of law, the primacy of essential rights, and the role of the Constitution as the bulwark of freedom and order are all essential to the American republic, but they in no way contradict the equal right of the American people to debate and decide their public affairs. But the recent resort to law, litigation, judicial activism, and constitutional amendment is shifting the balance so that politics and democracy are the losers. By their very nature, rights and constitutional provisions are universal, final, unconditional, and nonnegotiable; and therefore they are quite unsuitable for deciding the deep differences that make up the divisions in the culture wars—unless accompanied by adequate political debate, negotiation, compromise, and allowance for regional variation.
Premature resort to law alone is itself a legal form of intolerance, because of the way it bypasses politics and short-circuits debate among citizens. Ironically, it leads to a politicization of law, which in turn lessens the detachment that law needs, and works to supplant politics by law. Worse still, by using law to bypass political debate and to decide such morally contentious issues as the right to abortion and the nature of marriage, judicial activism (whether by liberals or conservatives) ends only in making the religiously incommensurable into the politically intractable and the socially irreconcilable. It therefore exacerbates the culture warring already destroying America’s civil peace and sapping her civil strength. Better far to trust the messy business of debate, negotiation, and compromise, which are the bread and butter of democratic politics and prudential realism.
Seventh, legal secularism often produces unintended consequences that are highly illiberal. If strict separation is used as a tool for legal secularism rather than as a promotion of freedom for all, the results often boomerang on their users. Alternatively, if religious liberty is viewed merely as liberty for the religious, only religious believers will worry about “freedom of religion” becoming “freedom from religion.” But the consequences of shortchanging religious liberty do not stop with religious believers or with religious liberty, and all who care for freedom should note some of the ironies of how liberalism becomes illiberal and even antihumanist. One of the loudest lessons of the history of liberty is that yesterday’s oppressed often become today’s oppressors. In the famous indictment of John Milton, today’s “new Presbyter is but old priest writ large.” 
Or in Roger Williams’s tirade against the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the Boston Puritans who supported Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of the Catholics but criticized King James’s persecution of the Puritans: “One weight for themselves when they are under hatches, and another for others when they come to the helm.”21 The reason for such hypocrisies lies in the dynamic nature of freedom, the twisted timber of our humanity, and the selective and self-interested way in which we use and abuse freedom. Take the fact of the general hostility and intolerance that so often mark liberal and secularist discussions of religion. They are the buried consequences, it is said, of the widespread legal secularism often produces unintended consequences that are highly illiberal. If strict separation is used as a tool for legal secularism rather than as a promotion of freedom for all, the results often boomerang on their users. Alternatively, if religious liberty is viewed merely as liberty for the religious, only religious believers will worry about “freedom of religion” becoming “freedom from religion.” But the consequences of shortchanging religious liberty do not stop with religious believers or with religious liberty, and all who care for freedom should note some of the ironies of how liberalism becomes illiberal and even antihumanist.
One of the loudest lessons of the history of liberty is that yesterday’s oppressed often become today’s oppressors. In the famous indictment of John Milton, today’s “new Presbyter is but old priest writ large.”20 Or in Roger Williams’s tirade against the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the Boston Puritans who supported Queen Elizabeth’s persecution of the Catholics but criticized King James’s persecution of the Puritans: “One weight for themselves when they are under hatches, and another for others when they come to the helm.”
...liberal and secularist repression of religion, but they should make true liberals pause to think. Or take the more specific tactic of some gay rights activists who believe that the justice of their cause trumps the principle of religious liberty. (There are certainly gay rights activists who disagree with this view.) For the first time in American history, they have divided civil liberty from religious liberty and elevated the former at the expense of the latter by expanding the elastic notion of “discrimination.” Gays and lesbians have been oppressed, and so, they argue, their rights needed to be recognized and protected as a matter of civil liberty, whatever the consequences for religious liberty. But what these activists did next was a sleight of hand that played the civil liberty card in order to trump religious liberty, and thus made conscience-based differences into matters of discrimination.
Or take the more specific tactic of some gay rights activists who believe that the justice of their cause trumps the principle of religious liberty. (There are certainly gay rights activists who disagree with this view.) For the first time in American history, they have divided civil liberty from religious liberty and elevated the former at the expense of the latter by expanding the elastic notion of “discrimination.” Gays and lesbians have been oppressed, and so, they argue, their rights needed to be recognized and protected as a matter of civil liberty, whatever the consequences for religious liberty. But what these activists did next was a sleight of hand that played the civil liberty card in order to trump religious liberty, and thus made conscience-based differences into matters of discrimination. Arguing that all who differed with them on the basis of religious liberty were “homophobes” and “heterosexists,” and therefore guilty of discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance, these activists went on to charge that who disagreed with them were guilty of “hate speech.” Under such pressure, for example, many eminent universities and colleges, including Tufts, Rutgers, and the University of North Carolina, responded by banning religious groups who differed with homosexual behavior on grounds of conscience and would not allow practicing homosexuals to be elected leaders in their organizations.
Arguing that all who differed with them on the basis of religious liberty were “homophobes” and “heterosexists,” and therefore guilty of discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance, these activists went on to charge that who disagreed with them were guilty of “hate speech.” Under such pressure, for example, many eminent universities and colleges, including Tufts, Rutgers, and the University of North Carolina, responded by banning religious groups who differed with homosexual behavior on grounds of conscience and would not allow practicing homosexuals to be elected leaders in their organizations.
Many of these ill-considered university decisions have been reversed. And not surprisingly so, because their direction was absurd, and would have been seen so at once to a generation better acquainted with the history of religious liberty and more attuned to the challenges of freedom and justice. For a start, “discrimination” is far from simple and unambiguous, as the positive word “discriminating” signifies, so it is bad day for ethics when all disagreements can be labeled as discrimination. Then, too, “hate speech” is a clumsy weapon with which to fight prejudice, because it presumes we have a knowledge of each other’s motives as humans, motives that are actually impenetrable and impossible to assess objectively. But if “hate” is in the eye of the beholder, then “hate speech” (and “hate crimes”) are a weapon in the hands of the power wielder, and a constant danger to the rights of minorities or those whose views are out of favor.
Woe betide anyone caught with the merest deviation from the canons of the orthodoxy and political correctness of the day, for their “discrimination” makes them vulnerable to the charge of a “hate speech.”
Well-intended but misguided, the idea of “hate speech” is a recent liberal tactic that ends in illiberalism. As Pope Benedict XVI warns, “A confused ideology of liberty leads to a dogmatism that is proving ever more hostile to real liberty.”
Liberals truly concerned with freedom would be wiser to understand and employ the positive principles of freedom of conscience and the free exercise of faith. When prejudice and hate have their way, it is wiser and more realistic to protect the liberties they threaten than to use law to try to purge all traces of the evil they represent.
Equally important, civil liberty should never be allowed to trump religious liberty so carelessly. “Free exercise” means that groups as well as individuals are free to decide on the basis of conscience what they believe and what their beliefs mean for their identity, membership, and ways of life. It is therefore only natural and proper for each faith community to accept into membership, and especially into leadership, only those who are in line with their beliefs. Such defining beliefs are conscience-based distinctions about the meaning and ordering of life, distinctions that they believe are “discriminating” rather than “discrimination.”
Do synagogues have to accept Christians into membership or be accused of discrimination? Are mosques required to welcome atheists, Buddhists, and Scientologists? No more so than the Democratic Party must accept Republicans, the ACLU Klansmen, or the American Association of Retired People teenagers—and no more so than Orthodox Jews must accept Roman Catholics or evangelicals must accept into their leadership those with whose beliefs and behavior they disagree. To put the point like that shows the absurdity of the argument. But the same logic that drives the homosexual tactic means that James Madison’s free exercise, so boldly inserted in the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a far better concept than John Locke’s toleration, is stopped dead in its tracks, or shunted off to a sandbox. By such power tactics, those who disagree with religious differences of any sort can twist them and portray them as discrimination, and when they do so, what starts out as protecting a way of life slides across into promoting one way of life at the expense of others. In short, if freedom is to be just, indivisible, and a matter of equality for all, then religious liberty and civil liberty must be considered together and must be viewed as matters of principle, not as power plays, and balanced judiciously against each other. Otherwise, the iron law of unintended consequences unfolds: The liberal pursuit of liberty for some ends in the illiberal denying of liberty and diversity for others.
The liberal desire for negative freedom, freedom from interference, becomes a grand and dangerous form of positive freedom and an illiberal interference into the lives of others. The liberal passion for tolerance all of a sudden becomes intolerant, and the liberal dream of diversity ends in conformism and uniformity through the rise of political correctness: “Anybody who is not like everybody is a nobody, and must be denied a voice.”
When we are offered freedom but required to join the majority in order to be truly free, we are not so much free as seduced into conformity. As always, the pursuit of liberty for selfish and selective ends, as a matter of power rather than principle, ends in illiberalism, even if the perpetrators are liberals. The old priest becomes the new presbyter who in turn becomes a new proselytizer for a new political correctness. The result is the de facto establishment of yet another orthodoxy—secular and more modern, to be sure, but no less intolerant.
Doubtless it takes a special courage for liberals to fight liberal illiberalism, just as it takes a special courage for conservatives to break ranks with the follies and errors of their conservative compatriots. But justice and liberty are not mocked. The first principles of freedom and the times in which we live demand no less—of people on both sides. 
Gouverneur Morris, the U.S. ambassador to France, wrote home in disgust four days before the Bastille was stormed, “They want an American Constitution with the exception of a king instead of a President, without reflecting that they have no Americans to uphold that constitution.”1 Two centuries later, that discussion sounds remarkably fresh as the United States recoils from the fiasco of its democracy-building in Iraq. Is it any more realistic to export democracy than it was to copy a revolution? Can people be forced to be free or even helped to be free when they neither have reached the optimum stage of economic progress nor have the required strength of cultural values? Is it enough to have free, fair elections, with all the paraphernalia of ballot boxes and international observers, while not having essentials such as the notions of the rule of law, freedom of conscience, individual human dignity, and human rights?
Opinions differ sharply over these issues, with conservatives as divided from neoconservatives as both are from liberals. But what is odd in an era clouded by ethnic and sectarian violence is that no part of the American experiment stands out more clearly as a key to solving modern troubles than the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment, yet no part is less appreciated or copied—simply because Americans themselves are not living up to the promise of their founders’ provision.
Restoring the Civil Public Square If neither of the two existing visions—the sacred public square and the naked public square—does justice to the genius of the founders’ vision and the challenges of today’s world, is there a better way, an alternative to waging the culture wars to the bitter end? Is there a way that fosters the interests of liberty, diversity, equality, and harmony at the same time? Is there a “virtuous circle” to offset the “vicious circle” we have just seen? I believe the way forward lies in a vision of a cosmopolitan society and a civil public square. The vision of a civil public square is one in which everyone—people of all faiths, whether religious or naturalistic—are equally free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faiths, as a matter of “free exercise” and as dictated by their own reason and conscience; but always within the double framework, first, of the Constitution, and second, of a freely and mutually agreed covenant, or common vision for the common good, of what each person understands to be just and free for everyone else, and therefore of the duties involved in living with the deep differences of others.
Put differently, the vision of a civil public square rests on two foundational premises, one of which is theoretical and one practical. First, the principle of religious liberty for all rests on and requires an essential mutuality, or reciprocity, of rights, responsibilities, and respect—the “three Rs” of religious liberty. Thus a right for one person is a right for another person and a responsibility for both. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and right for an atheist, and a right for a Muslim, and a right for Buddhist, and a right for a Mormon, and a right for a Scientologist, and a right for the adherent of every possible faith or nonfaith within the wide span of the fifty states, either today or in some future as yet unseen. In principle, there is no right for anyone that is not thereby a right for everyone.
Second, the practice of religious liberty for all requires that if the interests of liberty, diversity, equality, and harmony are to be promoted and preserved together, such reciprocal rights require specific understandings of about how differences are to be debated and decided in practice. The Three Rs must be neither left at the level of abstractions nor made subject only to law. They must be specified in a covenant framework, mutually agreed upon, and then taught from generation to generation, so that they become the habits of the heart and the unspoken but powerful, informal rules that guard civility.
One of the most important practical legacies of the earlier American settlement was the way the First Amendment shifted public discourse about religion from coercion to persuasion. Americans who yawn at the obviousness of that achievement might pause to remember that genuine democratic persuasion was an early casualty of the culture wars. As I said, the two sides often do not engage with each other at all. They do not talk to the other side; they simply talk about the other side to their own side.
Short, stout, simplistic summary statements are staked defiantly into the ground like a pitchfork, with no attempt to see if they are intelligible or appealing and persuasive to anyone else. The language of protest, pronouncement, and proclamation has almost completely replaced the language of persuasion, and those who make such poor arguments are the losers as well as the republic itself.
First, the vision of a civil public square both supports and supplements the Constitution, though it insists that law alone, and certainly not the Constitution alone, will never bring an end to America’s culture warring, let alone settle the deepest issues of religious liberty and diversity in American society.
There are certainly things that only the law can do. I, for one, support Noah Feldman’s brilliantly simple proposal that the way forward for interpreting the Constitution is to “offer greater latitude for public religious discourse and religious symbolism, and at the same time insist on a stricter ban on state funding of religious institutions and activities.” In sum, that the Constitution should be interpreted in the direction of “no coercion and no money.”
But law and litigation alone will never be enough to resolve the culture warring. They are necessary but not sufficient. To rely on them alone will lead to more and more convoluted and unsatisfactory decisions, and eventually it will subvert the authority of the Constitution itself. At best the law is a club rather than a scalpel, and no one who has studied the course of constitutional interpretation of the First Amendment over the last fifty years can fail to see the overall incoherence of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Indeed, if Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is as wavy as his serpentine walls, at least they are both elegantly so. The same cannot be said for court decisions that more often resemble the path of a drunken sailor.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, bluntly warned that the court’s approach to the No Establishment clause was “flawed in its fundamentals and unworkable in practice.”
To be fair, the courts have been asked to do what neither Moses, Solon, nor the angel Gabriel could ever do, and that no court in the world can ever do. There are issues that are better not taken to law, conflicts that are better resolved through custom, civility, common sense, compromise, and political debate rather than by the courts—in a word, by a restoration of Tocqueville’s celebrated “habits of the heart” and by a renewal in our changed conditions of what I have called the American settlement.
Second, the vision of a civil public square is a conscious reforging of the ancient Jewish notion of covenant that already underlies the Constitution, and of the classical notion of a republic. As such, it is not simply a form of pluralism, or even “principled pluralism,” but a genuine form of covenant pluralism or chartered pluralism—that is, a vision of pluralism within the bounds of a freely chosen covenant or charter.
Alexander Hamilton opened the first of the Federalist Papers with his famous assertion that Americans could “decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”4 He was saying what many historians and political scientists have argued: that nations and other political groups come into existence in three ways—through conquest, organic development, or covenant—and that the different origins determine the different outcomes for the nation in many decisive ways.
According to the historian and theorist of covenants Daniel J. Elazar, a political covenant involves a coming together of basically equal humans through a mutually and morally binding pact, supported by reference to a power that transcends all of them, thus establishing among the partners a new framework or setting them on the road to a new task that can be dissolved only by a mutual agreement of all the parties. As Elazar outlines it, the seminal idea of covenant that broke into the world powerfully in the Jewish experience resurfaced in the Protestant Reformation, and then again in the New England Puritans and through them in the U.S. Constitution and the attempt to form “a more perfect union” in 1787.
Jews, has been overshadowed in the last century. From one side, it has been obscured by a concentration on natural law rather than covenant, and from the other on positive, secular law rather than covenant. The result is that law has become all-important, the decisions of the law courts have become all-decisive, and the place of agreement and consent, and therefore of a common vision for the common good, has become all but irrelevant. In the process, companion notions such as “freely chosen consent,” “mutually binding compact,” “under God,” and their own companion notions such as “the cultivation of the habits of the heart” and “the American way” have been hollowed out and reduced to the point of disappearance.
Republicanism to the founders was not a party, or even a particular form of government; it was a government constituted for the res publica, “the public thing” or the common good. Thus a republic or country is healthy, it is said, when it has a vital civil society that serves the interests of the public good—when between the countless individuals who make up the society and the government that rules it are multiple layers of autonomous, intermediary associations, the “little platoons” in which citizens can volunteer, participate, give of their time, talent, and treasure, and generally place their trust.
Too much interference by the state above or too much indifference from the citizens below, and civil society will be cramped from above or cut off from its oxygen supply from below. The outcome in either case will be a deficit of freedom, as well as of human giving, caring, and engagement.
Expressed differently, a healthy civil society may be attacked or eroded from two directions, especially if the two combine to form a pincer movement. Obviously civil society can be oppressed from the top by what Hannah Arendt called the “totalitarian tendency,” or in liberal societies by forms of political correctness that stifle the freedom and diversity of unwelcome opinion and activities—an attitude that has been called “totalitolerance.” But it can equally be undermined from below by forms of thought and action that are better kept at the level of the private and personal. For example, the collapse of the public square, and “the fall of public man,” have led to “identity politics,” “lifestyle politics,” and a rash of politicized scandals, all of which are an explosion into public life of issues once considered the realm of the private. In short, civil society can be eroded from above by forces that are unwelcoming to liberty and diversity, and from below by forces that are unworthy of the public life of free peoples.
It has been said that thriving civility in public life is the equivalent of mature I-Thou relationships in private life. In Elazar’s words, covenantal ties are “the concretization of the relationship of dialogue, which, when addressed to God, makes humans holy, and when addressed to one’s peers, makes people human” (and therefore, we might add, respected fellow citizens).
Rousseau recognized the essential incompatibility of the Christian faith and civil religion when he said that the notion of a “Christian republic” is self-contradictory, because the two terms are mutually exclusive. Yet over the course of time the United States has given rise to its own soft civil religion, and the reason lies in the character and function of civil religion. In the absence of an official religion, what binds a nation together becomes suffused with a sense of the sacred and surrounded with a religious or semireligious aura until it becomes its civil religion. Thus, in essence, civil religion is a nation’s worship of itself.
American national unity and stability have never depended on the common sharing of one faith, but practically speaking, for many Americans they have, and the themes of patriotism have been given a religious glow. As the historian David Fischer points out, male images of America such as Uncle Sam and Yankee Doodle have always been popular, but the most appealing image of all has always been the timeless female goddess of liberty.
Resistance to civil religion comes from two sides. On the one hand, many secularists and some Jews are suspicious of civil religion because they view it as a way to escort religion, and especially the unquestioned place of religion in the past, back into public life with an armed escort and a color guard. This suspicion is justified. Wrap any American issue in the flag, and those who differ with it are unpatriotic and un-American. Christian conservatives therefore need to be patriots with independent consciences and critical minds, and to be vigilant in their guard against any uncritical shift from legitimate patriotism to nationalism, for nationalism is another example of where the fundamentalism of the Religious Right is modern rather than Christian.
On the other hand, many Christians themselves are even more opposed to civil religion than secularists are. For if God alone is to be worshipped, then the worship of anything short of God is idolatry, especially if civil religion means that Christians are essentially worshipping themselves. Political freedom, for example, is a gift, a precious gift and a privilege; but for Christians, political freedom is and will always remain a secular gift. It is not sacred and it is not God, so to sing, as the American hymn does, of “freedom’s holy light,” and to think and act as if such were the case, is to cross the line into civil religion and idolatry. Against all such confusions and misunderstandings, it must be stated unambiguously that a civil public philosophy is secular; it is not a civil religion, and it must never be elevated into being religious. A civil public philosophy is a matter of the common vision for the common good, the shared agreement about the rights, responsibilities, and respect that form the common bonds within which Americans can live freely and debate important differences. This common vision is an achievement and a gift. For some it is a gift from God as well as a legacy from the past, while for others it is simply a legacy from the past; but for neither is it religious or a matter of civil religion.
The Myth of the Common Core Second, some people resist the notion of a civil public philosophy because of its confusion with the search for a common core or the lowest common denominator. Needless to say, the desired goal is admirable: to handle differences with civility rather than resorting to conflict. But here we come to an important fork in the road. There are two different ways to work for civility, and one of them, though attractive because personal, is in the end limited and ineffective. The first approach is to search for common ground, for a common core of unity that is presumed to underlie all our human differences, including religious differences. If only, say the proponents of this approach, we show enough goodwill to each other, and talk long enough to each other, we will arrive at a place of uncomplicated, pure humanity that lies below all our differences. For some, this approach is religiously motivated; for others, it is politically motivated. For some, the goal of the common core is considered feasible; for others the end is unlikely, though the means are still made worthwhile by the TINA principle—“There is no alternative.” But for whatever motive and with whatever prospects, those who search for the common core of unity are intent on doing their part through patient and determined dialogue. Such dialogue is valuable as far as it goes. It is rarely wasted, and it occasionally creates a breakthrough through which undreamed-of forms of reconciliation and peace are possible. But as an overall project on behalf of civility in public life, the quest is forlorn for a simple reason: there is no common core, and there is no all-inclusive identity. To be blunt, there is no universal human language. There is no reason common to all humans. There is no agreed rational consensus of values. There is no scientific and universally valid philosophy. There is no humanity without borders. There is no Parliament of Man or Federation of the World. There is no all-inclusive form of identity that will embrace everyone without exception. There is no final form of universal civilization toward which history will progress. There is no pure humanity beyond complexity, and no unity below all human diversity. All these ideas are utopian longings that die hard. They are no more realizable than the ancient dream of Babel and more modern Enlightenment dreams such as perpetual peace, world democracy, and a single global free market.
We can talk as long as we like, and be as nice to each other as we can be, but we shall never find a common core of truth on which all good humans will agree. Americanization, Westernization, and modernization can no more flatten the world’s diversity today than Alexander the Great and Charlemagne could earlier. In our faiths and languages and cultures, we are diverse to the core. We humans will always have different worldviews and different ways of life, and at some points these differences will always be religiously irreducible, philosophically incommensurable, and politically intractable. Which means that we are all always fated to live between two worlds, our own and those of others. We will all always live between the two poles of the global and the local, the inclusive and the particular. We will all always need to be bilingual: translators, negotiators, and persuaders. In the words of Ulrich Beck, we will all always have to have “both roots and wings.”
How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are the religiously and ideologically grounded differences of entire ways of life? The plain fact is that we shall never, and can never, transcend all our human differences. What divides us will always be as deep as, if not deeper than, what unites us. And beyond that: not only are our religious and ideological differences ultimate and irreducible; they are important and consequential because all such differences make a difference—and not only for individuals but for societies and even civilizations. Differences therefore need to be debated; and as John Courtney Murray points out, disagreements are an achievement, and the way we discuss and debate our differences is crucial to anyone pursuing the notion of a good society and the rich benefits of a diverse society.
To be sure, there are important ways of balancing diversity and negotiating our differences so that we are not reduced to a Hobbesian war of all against all. There are, for example, important commonalities between different members of the same family of faiths, such as the likenesses between Hinduism and Buddhism or between Judaism and the Christian faith. Or again, even in deeply diverse societies such as the United States, there are solid reasons why it is possible to achieve an “overlapping consensus” that provides a point of unity to balance the deep diversity, the unum to offset the pluribus.
But none of these approaches add up to success in the quest for the common core, and a quite different, second approach is more fruitful. The better approach is to pursue civility not through searching for a rational consensus or a mythical common core but through setting up a mutually agreed-upon framework, or covenant, or charter, within which important differences can be negotiated and settled peacefully. What we are looking for is not so much truths that can unite us as terms on which we can negotiate and by which we can live with the differences that divide us.
In John Gray’s words, the way forward is to search for a means of coexistence rather than for a consensus, a modus vivendi rather than a universal agreement, an “agonistic” or competitive liberalism rather than a consensual liberalism.11 In John Courtney Murray’s words, the point of unity we must establish is an “article of peace,” not an “article of faith.” At the level of faiths, our differences will always be deep, irreducible, and incompatible.
Numerous possible errors confront Americans at this stage of the controversies over religious liberty. One is to be overconfident and therefore complacent about America’s capacity to handle diversity. Jefferson was right when he wrote to Jacob De La Motta that “religious freedom is the most effective anodyne against religious dissension” and that when it comes to religion the normal maxims of civil government are reversed: with religion, “divided we stand, united we fall.”
But this capacity needs to be guarded with care. George Orwell argued famously that Jefferson’s “Truth is great and shall prevail” is now more a prayer than an axiom, and the question has been raised today as to whether nations can reach the outer limits of diversity. So two things are critical: first, that all faiths really are experiencing religious liberty; and second, that the bonds of unity are strengthened as the boundaries of diversity are stretched. Another potential error is to duck the problems of particularity in the public square by trying to deal with religion only through ecumenical and interfaith coalitions and organizations—as if that would be safer and less controversial than dealing with the prickly problems of particular faiths. In faith-based funding, for example, the temptation is to reduce faith to social work and look to interreligious coalitions rather than to organizations that have a clear and particular faith. (When a reporter referred to her sisters as social workers, Mother Teresa replied: “We are not social workers. We do this for Jesus.”) Or again, ABC television switched from its pioneering religion correspondent, who was superbly professional in her objectivity but a person of faith, and made much of their announced reliance for their religious news on an organization that was “ecumenical.”
The nervousness about controversy is understandable, but the reluctance to think and act according to first principles is lamentable. Religious liberty is for particular faiths and particular individuals, not for generic religion. Better a controversial but genuine success in drug rehabilitation than a thousand inoffensive failures. Better a smart professionally objective reporter, be he or she Christian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, or Mormon, than a hundred safe and dull news sources.
Properly understood and rightly ordered, diversity and particularity are not a matter of weakness, but strength. Playing safe through what is often a pale and diluted unity becomes self-defeating. Such milquetoast diffidence discourages individual passion, constricts real diversity, and blocks what is often the real secret of an individual’s or an organization’s success—the power of their faith in all its stubborn particularity.
Yet another potential error is for Americans to confuse civility with niceness, as if civility were a higher form of manners fit for a Victorian dinner or a Japanese tea ceremony. With some people, this error flows from a genuine misunderstanding; with others, it is a cover: they are leery of the hard work of respect-forged civility and frankly relish any excuse for a good old-fashioned shoot-out or no-holds-barred slugfest.
Genuine civility is more than decorous public manners, or squeamishness about differences, or a form of freshman sensitivity training. It is substantive before it is formal. It is not a rhetoric of niceness, or a psychology of adjustment, or a form of conflict prevention. It is a republican virtue that is a matter of principle and a habit of the heart. It is a style of public discourse shaped by respect for the humanity and dignity of individuals, as well as for truth and the common good—and also, in this case, by the American constitutional tradition. American republicanism, as George Weigel reminds us, is “a system that is built for tension.” Far from stifling debate, civility helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good. Those who are worried about tough, robust civil debate forget what an achievement disagreement is, and how creative the contribution of tough, robust civil debate can be. An apt picture of this second approach to civility—setting up an agreed-upon framework within which differences can be settled robustly—is the ideal of sportsmanship that was the goal of the Queensberry rules in boxing. When the Ninth Marquess of Queensberry lent his name to the Queensberry rules for boxing, boxing was more a drawn-out form of murder than a sport, with bare-knuckle fights that could last a hundred rounds, and boxers who sometimes fought to the death. The Romans, after all, tolerated gladiatorial games, but they banned boxing in A.D.  as too brutal. So what the Queensberry rules did was to put boxing inside a ring, within rules, and under a referee. 
But while boxers touch gloves at the start of the fight, and are disqualified for such things as punches below the belt during the fight, they still fight, and there are still winners and losers at the end. In sum, boxing was civilized to a degree, and boxers were persuaded that the object was not simply to win, but to win by the rules. So too with political civility: it is forged within a covenanted framework, or charter, of the three Rs of religious liberty—rights, responsibilities, and respect. But civility is not for wimps; it is competitive. It is first and foremost a matter of political debate rather than an attempt at shortcutting through judicial decision. Important political differences have to be “fought out” in the public square, but the term fight is now only a metaphor, and winners have their responsibilities as well as losers their rights. 
In other words, political debates are won and lost, and policies and laws come and go, but all within the bounds of what is mutually agreed to be in the interests of the common good. The unthinkable alternative is the no-holds-barred war of all against all. A tough, robust, principled civility is absolutely vital to America, and to throw it away casually is as irresponsible as it is for Americans to wage war internationally without a sober respect for the consequences of action that is not properly legitimized. In both cases the result is a massive loss of credibility for which America will pay dearly in the long run. In a celebrated argument between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law Roper in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1960), the younger man is as impatient with Sir Thomas’s willingness to give the Devil the benefit of law as many people are today about the place of civility. “What would he do?” More asks Roper. “Would he cut through the laws to get to the Devil?” When Roper answers that he would cut down every law in England to get after the Devil, More simply asks him what he would do when the forest of laws was flattened and there was no windbreak left. How could he stand upright then? Today’s proponents of a careless erosion of civility should ponder More’s point.
The Right to Be Wrong - Third, some people resist the notion of a civil public square because they associate it with a false tolerance. The concern behind this position is genuine, though the thinking is confused. Respect a person’s right to believe what he or she decides to believe, the argument goes, and you have to accept their position and turn a blind eye to things that are untrue and dangerous. Once a feature of fundamentalist suspicions, this fear can now be heard from secularists. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, “As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers. The alternative, one so transparent that it should need no urging, is to abandon the principle of automatic respect for religious faith.”15 Not so. Dawkins is confusing a person’s right to believe something and what it is they believe. And his error lies behind what is an abhorrent feature of the new atheism: its double intolerance and its extremism as a counter to extremism—intolerance of those it considers intolerant as well as intolerance of moderates who tolerate them. 
On the one hand, Dawkins is openly intolerant of those he considers religiously deluded—“faithheads”—and his position comes close to the medieval maxim that “error has no rights.” “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever it is that they like,” he argues, “but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?” Wait a minute. Now who is the one calling for interference and coercion by the state? Religious believers who are that “deluded,” Dawkins recommends, should be rescued by the state from passing on their “delusions” to their children. Thus ends the vaunted liberal freedom that was “freedom from interference,” and thus grows the power of the state as the great licensing authority for society—in this case, on behalf of atheism. Why is Dawkins cheered as a rock star at American liberal-arts colleges when he espouses such ill-considered notions? Authoritarianism by whatever name should be challenged by all who are genuine liberals. 
On the other hand, Dawkins is equally withering in his dismissal of moderates who tolerate those he considers extremists. As one reporter wrote after an interview, “The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.” Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths; he disagrees with tolerating them at all. On the fundamentalist side, there is the added fear that if they join the side of liberals more tolerant than Dawkins, they will discover that liberal tolerance is selective, and they will find liberals tolerant of everyone except them. Beware tolerance, we are warned from opposing angles. Such tangled thinking needs untangling. Toleration was certainly the term of choice in matters of religious liberty before American independence. 
It had been made popular by writings such as John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and copied into the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 by George Mason. Young James Madison objected, however, and when he succeeded in changing the word tolerance to the words free exercise, he advanced the cause of religious liberty by light-years. Tolerance is too condescending and uncertain. It is the gesture of the strong toward the weak, the government toward the citizenry, and the majority toward the minority. Free exercise, by contrast, is inalienable because it is the inalienable right of everyone, the minority no less than the majority, the weak as well as the poor, and the citizens just as much as the government. This sturdy distinction between tolerance and free exercise...
Thus as human beings who are keenly aware of the prime importance of truth seeking as well as our proven capacity for truth twisting, we not only grant others the right to be wrong, but have a duty ourselves to seek truth above everything. Respecting the right to be wrong does not mean casual indifference toward truth. “Having bought truth dear,” Roger Williams wrote, “let us not sell it cheap.”18 What the principle means is that we have a responsibility to be right, but with modesty; for we, too, may be wrong. Arrogance is not the claim to be right, but the refusal to admit even the possibility that we might be wrong. (“We have received from Divine Providence,” the Emperor Constantine declared immodestly, “the supreme favor of being relieved from all error.”)
Second, respect for freedom of conscience means that, while we respect people’s right to believe what their conscience dictates that they believe, even if we think they are dead wrong, we have a right and sometimes a duty to disagree with them, though their right to believe has to be countered by our responsibility to disagree with them civilly and persuasively. Tolerance is infinitely better than its opposite: intolerance. But tolerance that is blasé about error and evil, and tolerance that flip-flops into intolerance, are two sides of the same bad coin. Equally, it is bad to be silenced and not allowed to speak, but it is no better to be seduced by polite words and a politically correct atmosphere. Far better to have a tough-minded view of tolerance that simultaneously knows what it believes and respects the right of others to their beliefs, and knows how to debate forcefully but civilly when there is disagreement. This right to be wrong can be defended from two perspectives. One is the standpoint of reason. Montaigne, for example, said of the “sharp, vigorous exchanges” that he liked: “It is not strong enough nor magnanimous enough if it is not argumentative, if all is politeness and art; if it is afraid of clashes and walks hobbled: ‘Necque enim disputari sine reprehensione potest’ [It is impossible to debate without refuting].”20 But the right to be wrong has also been defended stoutly from the standpoint of faith. In his great attack on censorship in Areopagitica, John Milton drew on a biblical understanding of the intertwining of good and evil, wheat and tares. There is always the danger that in trying to uproot the false and the bad, we also destroy the true and the good. He therefore defended the right to be wrong, and disparaged “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed.” The better way was “a trial by what is contrary,” because “our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise, as well as our limbs and complexion.”21 Similarly, John Wesley urged his followers, religious liberty did not mean that they did not have strong beliefs or that having strong beliefs meant that they imposed them on others, but rather that “they think and let think.”
A Global Public Square - Those who would still dismiss the notion of an American civil public square as empty idealism should consider two further points. First, the search for a civil public square in America is made all the more urgent by the emergence of a global square. Just as sound carries across water, so discussion and debate in a global era now almost instantly become a global conversation. Witness the worldwide Muslim response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, to Jerry Falwell’s remarks about the prophet Muhammad, to the Danish cartoons, or to the pope’s speech: “Rude remarks in Lynchburg, riots in Lahore.” 
Thanks to the wonders of technology, such a global public square is beginning to emerge, and it raises the same issues as the American public square with a vengeance. Living with our deepest differences is all the more difficult because of the increased intensity of global diversity, global conflict, and the lack of any constructive global precedents for civility. But curiously, the same three tendencies that are at work in the United States are starting to show their face in the emerging global square, so it is urgent for farsighted leaders to articulate and demonstrate the vision that is best, and to do so before the mold begins to set and harden. On one side in the global public square are the advocates of various visions of progressive universalism—those who believe that their way is the only way and the one way for everyone, and who are prepared to coerce others into believing their way, too. 
Among those in this category are not only obvious groups such as communists and Islamists, but less obvious groups such as a motley array of liberals, feminists, democrats, capitalists, and globalists, all of whom are eager to carry their message to the world, and (at least in their opponents’ eyes) to promote it with force if necessary. In short, in good Enlightenment fashion, progress in the Western way is made the universal future for all humankind (“the West is best”). William Pitt the Younger’s warning about revolutionary France in 1792 would apply to many global-era movements and also to apprehensions about the universal pretensions of the United States: “Unless she is stopped in her career, all Europe must soon learn their ideas of justice—law of nations—models of government—and principles of liberty from the mouth of French cannon.”23 In a world as diverse and divided as ours, in which there are properly many different ways to be modern, the outcome of this first approach to the global public square is plain: conflict and increased hostility. 
On the other side are advocates of a vision of multicultural relativism—those who believe that nations as much as individuals are free to believe, and to live as they choose to believe, and that it is no business of anyone else’s to interfere in that freedom. Coming as we do from widely different faiths, worldviews, and cultural backgrounds, who are any of us to judge anyone else? It all depends on how each of us sees it, and no one has the right to judge anyone else, or to interfere in anyone else’s life. For example, in 1947 the executive board of the American Anthropological Association refused to sign the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights on the grounds that it was an “ethnocentric document.” After all, as anthropologists know, human rights are Western in origin and far from universal. Failure to see this is “First World conceit” and becomes an easy justification for the “imperialism” of the “new evangelists” of the Western style of progress. Far more humane and tolerant at first sight, this vision is also inadequate. For if the progressive universalist vision leads directly to conflict, the multicultural relativist vision leads directly to complacency—toward evil and human oppression. If everything is a matter of cultural relativism and none of us has the right to judge another, was Bartolomé de Las Casas wrong to stand against the conquistadores, or William Wilberforce to fight for the abolition of slavery?
Beware Two-Tier Tolerance: Many Americans now suspect that the prospects for a rich, mature civility are too challenging even in their own public square, inspite of all their rich American heritage of principles, pitfalls, and lessons. Not surprisingly, civility in the global public square seems even more unlikely, if not utopian. This is why neglect and resignation are likely to cause a slow slide toward an unsatisfactory compromise that is a travesty of equality of freedom of conscience for all: the emergence of a two-tier global public square. The top tier, needless to say, will be occupied by the global elites that see themselves as broadly cosmopolitan, liberal, and secular. The second tier will be peopled by those who make up the bulk of the world, whose religious beliefs will be particular to their local area, and who will be tolerated so long as their faith remains private and inoffensive. At best, the two-tier view would be a return to tolerance as condescension; at worst it would be a cover for “totalitolerance” as coercion and a denial of free exercise. 
The likely shape of the global public square is still out of sight, but the interests of freedom and justice are plain even at this early stage of its formation. Which raises in turn the second imperative to make Americans work toward restoring civility in their own public square now. The most realistic prompter to such needed change is not idealism but crisis. At one level, global problems such as the risks of nuclear terrorism, bird flu, climate change, scarce resources, and genetically modified foods have become the stuff of watercooler conversations. But at another level, problems such as a global public square remain abstract for most people. September 11 should have changed all that, and shown the limitations of nation-states and the futility of the quest for total security; and shown, too, that in a dangerously divided world, force of arms cannot be the normal language for conversation among the peoples of the earth. Down that road lies the terrible prospect that Neitzsche foresaw: of “great politics” and “a war of spirits,” the likes of which “have never yet been on earth.” 
In sum, the global crises are showing us that a cosmopolitan and civil public square, whether in America today or around the world at some future date, is far from utopian; it is an immediate priority. The art of living with our deepest differences is not a luxury topic for philosophers or futurists, but an urgent matter for everyone concerned with civilized life and human survival. Civility is a key not only to civil society but to civilization itself.
“Which national leader do you think has the vision, the character, the courage, the grasp of history, the understanding of America and the world, and of course the access to a camera and a microphone, to speak as a statesman in this time of national crisis?” He thought for a moment, and then said simply, “No one. I can think of someone who would have done it ten years ago, but he’s too close to retirement to risk it now. But today? No one. There is no one who speaks for me like that.”
Reasons for the apparent dearth of leadership have been much discussed: from the dismissal of character in leadership, to the shift to management at the expense of leadership, to the loss of history in education, to the weakening of the aggregating role of the parties and the opening up of political candidacy to the ambitious and the wealthy, to the rise of a celebrity culture, and so on. The outcome is sobering. Two and a third centuries after the audacious work of the brilliant generation that comprised the founding fathers, with all the changes and developments that have occurred since then, a full range of questions is pressing for America’s attention. These questions call for a leader of the stature of the founders—or Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt—to wrestle with them and address them in order to point the way to a new, new birth of freedom.
First, it is plain beyond doubt what must not be done. Continuing the present course of the culture wars spells disaster for the United States and a historic failure to seize the moment and demonstrate to the world the significance of the American experiment. Equally, it would be folly to presume that the country is merely experiencing another swing of the pendulum, or that it will simply muddle through somehow, or that this is just the latest of America’s periodic surprised discoveries by journalists and commentators of “how extraordinarily religious the American people are,” or that “things are really not that bad because the election of 1800 was worse,” or even that despite everything, according to the old adage, “God will always take care of babies, drunks, and the United States.” Against all such characteristically American kinds of drift and complacency, it must be said firmly: The facts are on the table, the stakes are high, and the moment of opportunity is closing. Unless the present generation restores civility in public life, the American republic will decline.
Second, restoring sustainable freedom means starting with ourselves.
We each have spheres of influence in which our voices can be heard and in which our authority counts. We are each the ones whose power to choose determines the quality of our community and public life in a thousand small but vital ways.
challenge the grip of dominant ways of thinking, to model the civility and persuasion we should like to see in public life, to switch off programs or unsubscribe to magazines that further the problem, to stop voting for leaders or donating to political parties and organizations whose short-term tactics undermine the long-term good, to demand a leadership worthy of America and its world responsibility at this hour, and to determine that destructive incivility may flourish, “but not through me.”
The fact is that culture warring will not preserve American freedom any more than lies will foster truth and litigiousness will guarantee rights. But if we would like a society of truth, freedom, justice, and decency, we must be people of truth, freedom, justice, and decency. If we would like our views and our deeply held faiths to be understood and respected by those who differ from with us, we must understand and show respect to them and theirs. If we would like to be treated decently and fairly, we must be decent and fair to others. If we would engage with rational and fair arguments from others, we must argue rationally and fairly ourselves. If we would like others not to be taken in by lies and falsehoods spread about us, we must not fall for lies and falsehoods spread about others.
Most especially, if we are either liberal or conservative, we must be vigilant to see that we ourselves are liberal in our free and generous attitudes toward conservatives, or conservative in maintaining the great traditions of past civility in our attitudes toward liberals. If we wish civility to be a robust and freely chosen virtue, we ourselves must be dedicated to it as a covenant rather than a contract, as a matter of justice as much as power, and as a life-giving habit of the heart rather than a dead and deadening letter of any law.
Above all, we must not only decry the darkness but spread the light. We must not only protest the letter of the First Amendment but live the spirit of its principles—people of conscience in our faiths, who respect the right of freedom of conscience for others; people of truth in our speech, who recognize the right of others to speak freely, too; and people of love in our communities, who recognizing the right of freedom of assembly for all, including those whose same freedom of conscience leads them to speak and assemble in order to disagree with us. In sum, the responsibility for restoring a civil and cosmopolitan public square does not rest solely with the White House, Capitol Hill, the television network president, the newspaper owner, the company boss, the school principal, or the grassroots activist leader. It begins and ends with us.
Too much American leadership today is an other-directed form of pandering, with politicians and others forever sniffing the polling winds and anxiously reading focus-group tea leaves. For this reason alone, it can be said that America has the leadership it deserves. At the same time, courageous leaders who are prepared to stand for what is right and wise rather than popular always need support and affirmation—and votes. “Starting with us” therefore means demanding a quality of leadership that matches the moment we face.
The present hour requires from America a national leader and statesman—not a mere politician, not a manager, not a celebrity, not a demagogue, not a figurehead, but a statesman with a deep grasp of the American experiment, an expansive understanding of American history, a wise experience of the contours of the modern global world, an indomitable courage to stand against powerful political forces, and the ability to speak with such vision and power that new vistas are opened for the American people to see and head toward. Other levels of leadership are needed, too—from other politicians, television anchors, university presidents, religious leaders, journalists, activists, school-board members, and local leaders who are prepared to break with present patterns and conduct the nation’s affairs in a manner worthy of a republic. Such efforts are important in their own right, but on their own they would not amount to what is required unless a truly national leader speaks, acts, and organizes in a way that opens a new path through the battle-scarred terrain of the culture wars.
an American leader needs to set out an American vision for today—as true to the stunning achievements of the American past as to the staggering challenges of the world’s future. This is no moment for the shortsighted or for those uncomfortable with “the vision thing.” Only a vision of a free, civil, cosmopolitan America in a free, civil, cosmopolitan world can stir American hearts and minds and recapture the imagination of an increasingly suspicious and resentful world. Such a vision must be global in its appeal yet modest in its pretensions, all-American rather than partisan, and neither narrowly conservative nor thoughtlessly liberal.
restoring the civil public square requires a realistic application of the vision and its principles to the leading trouble spots in the culture wars. Of the making of the present flashpoints in the culture wars there is no end. But unquestionably, the two main storm centers of controversy today are the public square itself—which now includes the burgeoning, often irrational, and highly manipulative Web logs—and public education, the schoolhouse being the microcosm and the seedbed of the public square, just as the Muslim madrasas are the seedbed of both the strife and the hope for reformation within Islam today. Will election campaigns once again involve serious debate over serious issues, as the times demand? Will news programs expand beyond the sound-bite format, the entertainment style, and the parochial American focus, as world responsibility requires?
Will activist organizations come to write direct-mail letters whose powerful arguments do not need to rely on hate and fear? Will genuine debating surmount the emotional venting on the blogs? Will a restored civility allow public schools once again to cultivate the habits of the heart among six-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, and eighteen-year-olds who can take their place as citizens and leaders in a civil America of tomorrow? 
Restore civility in the public square and the public school, and sustain it from generation to generation, and it would spread throughout the nation, renew the wellsprings of the republic, and change the course of history.
civil public square seems a thankless if not forlorn task. In candid moments, people tell me it would be like spitting against the wind, or casting out a message in a bottle onto the stormy seas of American public life. Will the message survive the storms? Will it be picked up on some far shore and read by some unknown rescuer who will not only pay attention but understand the message; and not only understand but act, and act in time? People often use the picture of a message in a bottle to illustrate the countless obstacles, unknowns, and ironies of communicating in the age of communication. At best, the image of the bottle cast upon the waters rises above the level of a futile, despairing gesture only on the strength of two assumptions: the belief that the message is worth launching, and the belief that the message is worth the finder’s time to pick up and respond to.
Recently, many domestic and international American policies have been, to put the point charitably, less than fully successful and less than worthy of the American promise. One of their legacies is an acrid bitterness in public life that affects all positive proposals, making the constructive seem idealistic, the difficult impossible, and the visionary utopian. Yet we must never forget that the present course of the culture wars also spells decline for America. 
Does history’s “new order of the ages” still have within itself the capacity to declare and demonstrate an answer, and help make a world safe for diversity? Or has America reached the outer limits of what is possible within the framework of the American experiment, so that her resources are stretched too thin to answer the challenge? The world awaits America’s answer. 
Afterword - THE WILLIAMSBURG CHARTER: A Celebration and Reaffirmation of the First Amendment: Introduction - Keenly aware of the high national purpose of commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, we who sign this Charter seek to celebrate the Constitution’s greatness, and to call for a bold reaffirmation and reappraisal of its vision and guiding principles.
justice. Our commemoration of the Constitution’s bicentennial must therefore go beyond celebration to rededication. Unless this is done, an irreplaceable part of national life will be endangered, and a remarkable opportunity for the expansion of liberty will be lost.
The truth is not even that what unites us is deeper than what divides us, for differences over belief are the deepest and least easily negotiated of all. The Charter sets forth a renewed national compact, in the sense of a solemn mutual agreement between parties, on how we view the place of religion in American life and how we should contend with each other’s deepest differences in the public sphere. It is a call to a vision of public life that will allow conflict to lead to consensus, religious commitment to reinforce political civility. In this way, diversity is not a point of weakness but a source of strength.
The Inalienable Right Nothing is more characteristic of humankind than the natural and inescapable drive toward meaning and belonging, toward making sense of life and finding community in the world. As fundamental and precious as life itself, this “will to meaning” finds expression in ultimate beliefs, whether theistic or nontheistic, transcendent or naturalistic, and these beliefs are most our own when a matter of conviction rather than coercion. They are most our own when, in the words of George Mason, the principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, they are “directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
As James Madison expressed it in his Memorial and Remonstrance, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”
While particular beliefs may be true or false, better or worse, the right to reach, hold, exercise them freely, or change them, is basic and nonnegotiable. Religious liberty finally depends on neither the favors of the state and its officials nor the vagaries of tyrants or majorities. Religious liberty in a democracy is a right that may not be submitted to vote and depends on the outcome of no election. A society is only as just and free as it is respectful of this right, especially toward the beliefs of its smallest minorities and least popular communities.
The Ever Present Danger No threat to freedom of conscience and religious liberty has historically been greater than the coercions of both Church and State. These two institutions—the one religious, the other political—have through the centuries succumbed to the temptation of coercion in their claims over minds and souls. When these institutions and their claims have been combined, it has too often resulted in terrible violations of human liberty and dignity. They are so combined when the sword and purse of the State are in the hands of the Church, or when the State usurps the mantle of the Church so as to coerce the conscience and compel belief. These and other such confusions of religion and state authority represent the misordering of religion and government which it is the purpose of the Religious Liberty provisions to prevent.
Authorities and orthodoxies have changed, kingdoms and empires have come and gone, yet as John Milton once warned, “new Presbyter is but old priest writ large.” Similarly, the modern persecutor of religion is but ancient tyrant with more refined instruments of control. Moreover, many of the greatest crimes against conscience of this century have been committed, not by religious authorities, but by ideologues virulently opposed to traditional religion.
Yet whether ancient or modern, issuing from religion or ideology, the result is the same: religious and ideological orthodoxies, when politically established, lead only too naturally toward what Roger Williams called a “spiritual rape” that coerces the conscience and produces “rivers of civil blood” that stain the record of human history.
Less dramatic but also lethal to freedom and the chief menace to religious liberty today is the expanding power of government control over personal behavior and the institutions of society, when the government acts not so much in deliberate hostility to, but in reckless disregard of, communal belief and personal conscience.
Thanks principally to the wisdom of the First Amendment, the American experience is different. But even in America where state-established orthodoxies are unlawful and the state is constitutionally limited, religious liberty can never be taken for granted. It is a rare achievement that requires constant protection.
The Most Nearly Perfect Solution Knowing well that “nothing human can be perfect” (James Madison) and that the Constitution was not “a faultless work” (Gouverneur Morris), the Framers nevertheless saw the First Amendment as a “true remedy” and the most nearly perfect solution yet devised for properly ordering the relationship of religion and the state in a free society.
There have been occasions when the protections of the First Amendment have been overridden or imperfectly applied. Nonetheless, the First Amendment is a momentous decision for religious liberty, the most important political decision for religious liberty and public justice in the history of humankind. Limitation upon religious liberty is allowable only where the State has borne a heavy burden of proof that the limitation is justified—not by any ordinary public interest, but by a supreme public necessity—and that no less restrictive alternative to limitation exists.
The Religious Liberty clauses are a brilliant construct in which both No establishment and Free exercise serve the ends of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. No longer can sword, purse and sacred mantle be equated. Now, the government is barred from using religion’s mantle to become a confessional State, and from allowing religion to use the government’s sword and purse to become a coercing Church. In this new order, the freedom of the government from religious control and the freedom of religion from government control are a double guarantee of the protection of rights. No faith is preferred or prohibited, for where there is no state-definable orthodoxy, there can be no state-punishable heresy.
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions have both a logical and historical priority in the Bill of Rights. They have logical priority because the security of all rights rests upon the recognition that they are neither given by the state, nor can they be taken away by the state. Such rights are inherent in the inviolability of the human person. History demonstrates that unless these rights are protected our society’s slow, painful progress toward freedom would not have been possible.
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions lie close to the heart of the distinctiveness of the American experiment. The uniqueness of the American way of disestablishment and its consequences have often been more obvious to foreign observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord James Bryce, who wrote that “of all the differences between the Old world and the New, this is perhaps the most salient.” In particular, the Religious Liberty clauses are vital to harnessing otherwise centrifugal forces such as personal liberty and social diversity, thus sustaining republican vitality while making possible a necessary measure of national concord.
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions are the democratic world’s most salient alternative to the totalitarian repression of human rights and provide a corrective to unbridled nationalism and religious warfare around the world.
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions provide the United States’ most distinctive answer to one of the world’s most pressing questions in the late-twentieth century. They address the problem: How do we live with each other’s deepest differences? How do religious convictions and political freedom complement rather than threaten each other on a small planet in a pluralistic age? In a world in which bigotry, fanaticism, terrorism and the state control of religion are all too common responses to these questions, sustaining the justice and liberty of the American arrangement is an urgent moral task.
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions give American society a unique position in relation to both the First and Third worlds. Highly modernized like the rest of the First World, yet not so secularized, this society—largely because of religious freedom—remains, like most of the Third World, deeply religious. This fact, which is critical for possibilities of better human understanding, has not been sufficiently appreciated in American self-understanding, or drawn upon in American diplomacy and communication throughout the world. In sum, as much if not more than any other single provision in the entire Constitution, the Religious Liberty provisions hold the key to American distinctiveness and American destiny. Far from being settled by the interpretations of judges and historians, the last word on the First Amendment likely rests in a chapter yet to be written, documenting the unfolding drama of America. If religious liberty is neglected, all civil liberties will suffer. If it is guarded and sustained, the American experiment will be the more secure.
A Time for Reappraisal Much of the current controversy about religion and politics neither reflects the highest wisdom of the First Amendment nor serves the best interests of the disputants or the nation. We therefore call for a critical reappraisal of the course and consequences of such controversy. Four widespread errors have exacerbated the controversy needlessly.
The Issue Is Not Only What We Debate, but How The debate about religion in public life is too often misconstrued as a clash of ideologies alone, pitting “secularists” against the “sectarians” or vice versa. Though competing and even contrary worldviews are involved, the controversy is not solely ideological. It also flows from a breakdown in understanding of how personal and communal beliefs should be related to public life. The American republic depends upon the answers to two questions. By what ultimate truths ought we to live? And how should these be related to public life? The first question is personal, but has a public dimension because of the connection between beliefs and public virtue. The American answer to the first question is that the government is excluded from giving an answer. The second question, however, is thoroughly public in character, and a public answer is appropriate and necessary to the well-being of this society.
This second question was central to the idea of the First Amendment. The Religious Liberty provisions are not “articles of faith” concerned with the substance of particular doctrines or of policy issues. They are “articles of peace” concerned with the constitutional constraints and the shared prior understanding within which the American people can engage their differences in a civil manner and thus provide for both religious liberty and stable public government.
Conflicts over the relationship between deeply held beliefs and public policy will remain a continuing feature of democratic life. They do not discredit the First Amendment, but confirm its wisdom and point to the need to distinguish the Religious Liberty clauses from the particular controversies they address. The clauses can never be divorced from the controversies they address, but should always be held distinct. In the public discussion, an open commitment to the constraints and standards of the clauses should precede and accompany debate over the controversies.
The Issue Is Not Sectarian, but National The role of religion in American public life is too often devalued or dismissed in public debate, as though the American people’s historically vital religious traditions were at best a purely private matter and at worst essentially sectarian and divisive. Such a position betrays a failure of civil respect for the convictions of others. It also underestimates the degree to which the Framers relied on the American people’s religious convictions to be what Tocqueville described as “the first of their political institutions.” In America, this crucial public role has been played by diverse beliefs, not so much despite disestablishment as because of disestablishment. The Founders knew well that the republic they established represented an audacious gamble against long historical odds. This form of government depends upon ultimate beliefs, for otherwise we have no right to the rights by which it thrives, yet rejects any official formulation of them. The republic will therefore always remain an “undecided experiment” that stands or falls by the dynamism of its non-established faiths.
One side’s excesses have become the other side’s arguments; one side’s extremists the other side’s recruiters. The danger is that, as the ideological warfare becomes self-perpetuating, more serious issues and broader national interests will be forgotten and the bitterness deepened. The more important argument is one of principle and is based on the fact that the several sides have pursued their objectives in ways which contradict their own best ideals. Too often, for example, religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to tradition, champions of tolerance have been intolerant, defenders of free speech have been censorious, and citizens of a republic based on democratic accommodation have succumbed to a habit of relentless confrontation.
The First Amendment’s meaning is too often debated in ways that ignore the genuine grievances or justifiable fears of opposing points of view. This happens when the logic of opposing arguments favors either an unwarranted intrusion of religion into public life or an unwarranted exclusion of religion from it. History plainly shows that with religious control over government, political freedom dies; with political control over religion, religious freedom dies.
In earlier times, though lasting well into the twentieth century, there was a de facto semi-establishment of one religion in the United States: a generalized Protestantism given dominant status in national institutions, especially in the public schools. This development was largely approved by Protestants, but widely opposed by non-Protestants, including Catholics and Jews. In more recent times, and partly in reaction, constitutional jurisprudence has tended, in the view of many, to move toward the de facto semi-establishment of a wholly secular understanding of the origin, nature and destiny of humankind and of the American nation. During this period, the exclusion of teaching about the role of religion in society, based partly upon a misunderstanding of First Amendment decisions, has ironically resulted in giving a dominant status to such wholly secular understandings in many national institutions. Many secularists appear as unconcerned over the consequences of this development as were Protestants unconcerned about their de facto establishment earlier.
Such de facto establishments, though seldom extreme, usually benign and often unwitting, are the source of grievances and fears among the several parties in current controversies. Together with the encroachments of the expanding modern state, such de facto establishments, as much as any official establishment, are likely to remain a threat to freedom and justice for all.
Justifiable fears are raised by those who advocate theocracy or the coercive power of law to establish a “Christian America.” While this advocacy is and should be legally protected, such proposals contradict freedom of conscience and the genius of the Religious Liberty provisions. At the same time there are others who raise justifiable fears of an unwarranted exclusion of religion from public life. The assertion of moral judgments as though they were morally neutral, and interpretations of the “wall of separation” that would exclude religious expression and argument from public life, also contradict freedom of conscience and the genius of the provisions.
Words such as public, secular and religious should be free from discriminatory bias. “Secular purpose,” for example, should not mean “non-religious purpose” but “general public purpose.” Otherwise, the impression is gained that “public is equivalent to secular; religion is equivalent to private.”
Such equations are neither accurate nor just. Similarly, it is false to equate “public” and “governmental.” In a society that sets store by the necessary limits on government, there are many spheres of life that are public but non-governmental.
We are keenly aware that, especially over state-supported education, we as a people must continue to wrestle with the complex connections between religion and the transmission of moral values in a pluralistic society.
Second, the need for such a readjustment today can best be addressed by remembering that the two clauses are essentially one provision for preserving religious liberty. Both parts, No establishment and Free exercise, are to be comprehensively understood as being in the service of religious liberty as a positive good. At the heart of the Establishment clause is the prohibition of state sponsorship of religion and at the heart of Free exercise clause is the prohibition of state interference with religious liberty.
No sponsorship means that the state must leave to the free citizenry the public expression of ultimate beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing only that no expression is excluded from, and none governmentally favored, in the continuing democratic discourse. No interference means the assurance of voluntary religious expression free from governmental intervention. This includes placing religious expression on an equal footing with all other forms of expression in genuinely public forums. No sponsorship and no interference together mean fair opportunity. That is to say, all faiths are free to enter vigorously into public life and to exercise such influence as their followers and ideas engender. Such democratic exercise of influence is in the best tradition of American voluntarism and is not an unwarranted “imposition” or “establishment.” A Time for Reconstitution We believe, finally, that the time is ripe for a genuine expansion of democratic liberty, and that this goal may be attained through a new engagement of citizens in a debate that is reordered in accord with constitutional first principles and considerations of the common good. This amounts to no less than the reconstitution of a free republican people in our day. Careful consideration of three precepts would advance this possibility: The Criteria Must Be Multiple.
Religious liberty is the only freedom in the First Amendment to be given two provisions. Together the clauses form a strong bulwark against suppression of religious liberty, yet they emerge from a series of dynamic tensions which cannot ultimately be relaxed. The Religious Liberty provisions grow out of an understanding not only of rights and a due recognition of faiths but of realism and a due recognition of factions. They themselves reflect both faith and skepticism. They raise questions of equality and liberty, majority rule and minority rights, individual convictions and communal tradition. The Religious Liberty provisions must be understood both in terms of the Framers’ intentions and history’s sometimes surprising results. Interpreting and applying them today requires not only historical research but moral and political reflection.
The intention of the Framers is therefore a necessary but insufficient criterion for interpreting and applying the Constitution. But applied by itself, without any consideration of immutable principles of justice, the intention can easily be wielded as a weapon for governmental or sectarian causes, some quoting Jefferson and brandishing No establishment and others citing Madison and brandishing Free exercise. Rather, we must take the purpose and text of the Constitution seriously, sustain the principles behind the words and add an appreciation of the many-sided genius of the First Amendment and its complex development over time.
Notable in this connection is the striking absence today of any national consensus about religious liberty as a positive good. Yet religious liberty is indisputably what the Framers intended and what the First Amendment has preserved. Far from being a matter of exemption, exception or even toleration, religious liberty is an inalienable right. Far from being a subcategory of free speech or a constitutional redundancy, religious liberty is distinct and foundational. Far from being simply an individual right, religious liberty is a positive social good. Far from denigrating religion as a social or political “problem,” the separation of Church and State is both the saving of religion from the temptation of political power and an achievement inspired in large part by religion itself. Far from weakening religion, disestablishment has, as an historical fact, enabled it to flourish.
Thus, the government acts as a safeguard, but not the source, of freedom for faiths, whereas the churches and synagogues act as a source, but not the safeguard, of faiths for freedom.
The Religious Liberty provisions work for each other and for the federal idea as a whole. Neither established nor excluded, neither preferred nor proscribed, each faith (whether transcendent or naturalistic) is brought into a relationship with the government so that each is separated from the state in terms of its institutions, but democratically related to the state in terms of individuals and its ideas. The result is neither a naked public square where all religion is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion established or semi-established. The result, rather, is a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse.
The Compact Must Be Mutual - Reconstitution of a free republican people requires the recognition that religious liberty is a universal right joined to a universal duty to respect that right. In the turns and twists of history, victims of religious discrimination have often later become perpetrators. In the famous image of Roger Williams, those at the helm of the Ship of State forget they were once under the hatches. They have, he said, “One weight for themselves when they are under the hatches, and another for others when they come to the helm.” They show themselves, said James Madison, “as ready to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out.” Thus, benignly or otherwise, Protestants have treated Catholics as they were once treated, and secularists have done likewise with both.
Such inconsistencies are the natural seedbed for the growth of a de facto establishment. Against such inconsistencies we affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for an Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist—and for the followers of any other faith within the wide bounds of the republic. That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both the premise and the promise of democratic pluralism. The First Amendment, in this sense, is the epitome of public justice and serves as the Golden Rule for civic life. Rights are best guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded for themselves. Whereas the wearer of the English crown is officially the Defender of the Faith, all who uphold the American Constitution are defenders of the rights of all faiths.
First, those who claim the right to dissent should assume the responsibility to debate: Commitment to democratic pluralism assumes the coexistence within one political community of groups whose ultimate faith commitments may be incompatible, yet whose common commitment to social unity and diversity does justice to both the requirements of individual conscience and the wider community. A general consent to the obligations of citizenship is therefore inherent in the American experiment, both as a founding principle (“We the people”) and as a matter of daily practice.
As this responsibility is exercised, the characteristic American formula of individual liberty complemented by respect for the opinions of others permits differences to be asserted, yet a broad, active community of understanding to be sustained.
Second, those who claim the right to criticize should assume the responsibility to comprehend: One of the ironies of democratic life is that freedom of conscience is jeopardized by false tolerance as well as by outright intolerance. Genuine tolerance considers contrary views fairly and judges them on merit. Debased tolerance so refrains from making any judgment that it refuses to listen at all. Genuine tolerance honestly weighs honest differences and promotes both impartiality and pluralism. Debased tolerance results in indifference to the differences that vitalize a pluralistic democracy.
The right to argue for any public policy is a fundamental right for every citizen; respecting that right is a fundamental responsibility for all other citizens. When any view is expressed, all must uphold as constitutionally protected its advocate’s right to express it. But others are free to challenge that view as politically pernicious, philosophically false, ethically evil, theologically idolatrous, or simply absurd, as the case may be seen to be. Unless this tension between peace and truth is respected, civility cannot be sustained. In that event, tolerance degenerates into either apathetic relativism or a dogmatism as uncritical of itself as it is uncomprehending of others. The result is a general corruption of principled public debate.
Third, those who claim the right to influence should accept the responsibility not to inflame: Too often in recent disputes over religion and public affairs, some have insisted that any evidence of religious influence on public policy represents an establishment of religion and is therefore precluded as an improper “imposition.” Such exclusion of religion from public life is historically unwarranted, philosophically inconsistent and profoundly undemocratic. The Framers’ intention is indisputably ignored when public policy debates can appeal to the theses of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, or Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud but not to the Western religious tradition in general and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in particular. Many of the most dynamic social movements in American history, including that of civil rights, were legitimately inspired and shaped by religious motivation. Freedom of conscience and the right to influence public policy on the basis of religiously informed ideas are inseverably linked. In short, a key to democratic renewal is the fullest possible participation in the most open possible debate. Religious liberty and democratic civility are also threatened, however, from another quarter. Overreacting to an improper veto on religion in public life, many have used religious language and images not for the legitimate influencing of policies but to inflame politics. Politics is indeed an extension of ethics and therefore engages religious principles; but some err by refusing to recognize that there is a distinction, though not a separation, between religion and politics. As a result, they bring to politics a misplaced absoluteness that idolizes politics, “Satanizes” their enemies and politicizes their own faith.
Even the most morally informed policy positions involve prudential judgments as well as pure principle. Therefore, to make an absolute equation of principles and policies inflates politics and does violence to reason, civil life and faith itself. Politics has recently been inflamed by a number of confusions: the confusion of personal religious affiliation with qualification or disqualification for public office; the confusion of claims to divine guidance with claims to divine endorsement; and the confusion of government neutrality among faiths with government indifference or hostility to religion. Fourth, those who claim the right to participate should accept the responsibility to persuade: Central to the American experience is the power of political persuasion. Growing partly from principle and partly from the pressures of democratic pluralism, commitment to persuasion is the corollary of the belief that conscience is inviolable, coercion of conscience is evil, and the public interest is best served by consent hard won from vigorous debate. Those who believe themselves privy to the will of history brook no argument and need never tarry for consent. But to those who subscribe to the idea of government by the consent of the governed, compelled beliefs are a violation of first principles. The natural logic of the Religious Liberty provisions is to foster a political culture of persuasion which admits the challenge of opinions from all sources. Arguments for public policy should be more than private convictions shouted out loud. For persuasion to be principled, private convictions should be translated into publicly accessible claims. Such public claims should be made publicly accessible for two reasons: first, because they must engage those who do not share the same private convictions, and second, because they should be directed toward the common good.
Our Founders were both idealists and realists. Their confidence in human abilities was tempered by their skepticism about human nature.
“No free government, or the blessings of liberty,” wrote George Mason in 1776, “can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
True to the ideals and realism of that vision, we who sign this Charter, people of many and various beliefs, pledge ourselves to the enduring precepts of the First Amendment as the cornerstone of the American experiment in liberty under law. We address ourselves to our fellow citizens, daring to hope that the strongest desire of the greatest number is for the common good. We are firmly persuaded that the principles asserted here require a fresh consideration, and that the renewal of religious liberty is crucial to sustain a free people that would remain free.
Whereas a law is a command directed to us, a compact is a promise that must proceed freely from us. To achieve it demands a measure of the vision, sacrifice and perseverance shown by our Founders. Their task was to defy the past, seeing and securing religious liberty against the terrible precedents of history. Ours is to challenge the future, sustaining vigilance and broadening protections against every new menace, including that of our own complacency. Knowing the unquenchable desire for freedom, they lit a beacon. It is for us who know its blessings to keep it burning brightly.

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