The dirty little secret of American Conservatism, as it stumbles about the smoking ruins of the Republican Party these days, is that it has no meaningful way to deal justly with the diversity of worldviews and deeply held convictions within our nation’s public square.
Conservatism has a problem with religion. It’s love-hate baby; whether its LOL fawning over proletarian Sarah-Palin-values or the up-turned noses of high-church Country Club Republican snobbery; religion makes Conservatives and Liberals as nervous as five year olds at a funeral. Why is this?
Grounded in the Enlightenment, the right- and left-wing traditions of Classical Liberalism—, what we call Conservative and Liberal today—both are totalitarian expressions of a secular belief system where the idea of a biblical community of faith is transformed into an American Civil Religion.
And wouldn’t ya know, each side demands 100 percent acceptance of its views be implemented throughout society, if not the world. It turns out that Gods are indeed, jealous. This is why Rush Limbaugh and left-wing power brokers both argue against third-parties; because each side thinks it ought to command complete submission from the other side to its own parcochial moral precepts.
Civil religion is what is at work in left-wing opposition to school prayer, or right wing insistence that America is a Christian Nation and its outrage over gay marriage as both poles of Liberalism remake their own brand of America’s Civil Religion into the ultimate Truth with a capital T. There is no public square. The faint notion of minority rights is merely a flimsy slogan to hide the intolerance of the majority.
Attend a Republican Women Federated luncheon sometime and understand what’s going on when the fine ladies talk about “Americanism” laden with God talk and law n’ order. The Left does much the same thing, as they appeal to the human community as the Church of Man with the freedom of personality as the ideal, unfettered by any revelation or law outside themselves. Recall how people wailed for the salvation of “our” schools as the epitome of the secular faith community as they argued for passage of Measure D.
The problem is, this 233-yr-old internicene war between two competing secular religions sharing the same beating heart has had a tremendous impact on how we as a society treat one another and those in need when it comes to the ultimate questions of life.
Whether it is community child care, K-12 schools, higher education, drug-treatment services, think tanks, political parties, and much more, true religious freedom, the adequate protection of conscience, today, more than ever, requires fundamental structural pluralism.
This means Americans and Californians need to reject a totalitarian and monopolistic system in which the government alone delivers or specifies all “public services.” Instead government ought to foster a system that nurtures multiple non-government and community-based organizations, and possibly also the government when needed, to define and offer those diverse services.
Governmental services have to be secular and uniform, but such cookie-cutter services are inadequate where there are deeply held religious and cultural differences about how best that service ought to be delivered. Some people believe that knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord while others, sadly, many of them bible-toting, flag-waving Christians, believe that public education is essential to the formation of citizens that can be productive cogs in multi-national business and affairs of an Imperialist State as it advances a suicidal ideology of security qua salvation through the endless expansion of science and economic growth.
For instance, the teachers’ unions and the politicians they keep will tell you the sky is green, but it’s plain as day that government is not competent to be the sole provider of education in a free society. Conservatives and others seeking justice in education have to give up on prayer in government run schools, for instance. Instead they should convene a national discussion to broaden the notion of public education to include public day schools of all kinds that are free from government’s discriminatory glare and double taxation for deeply held views other than those deemed acceptable by whichever schism of secular unbelief happens to control the machinery of government every four years.
True confessional pluralism, the kind guaranteed by the First Amendment, can only be respected when there is true structural pluralism where institutions of caring, service, and education can be offered by multiple non-government groups and not just by government. Just like colleges.
SOME BACKGROUND READING
Conservatism and other traditions seeking justice and good order for society have phenomenal resources from which to draw as they face the nasty dead ends of their own intolerance and religious bigotry. As they reflect on how to reform the GOP, Conservatives would do well to reconsider religion and not just throw the baby Buddha out with the bath water. For out of the heart come the issues of life. And if the Republican or any American political party intends to stand for anything, in California or nationally, there will need to be a figurative come to Jesus moment.
Principled Pluralism can be found in the Catholic social tradition of subsidiary and the neo-Calvinist concept of sphere sovereignty. See Jeanne Heffernan Schindler, ed., Christianity and Civil Society: Catholic and Neo-Calvinist Perspectives, (Lexington Books, 2008).
See also Michael Fogarty’s classic account of Christian Democracy, which uses the terms “horizontal” and “vertical” pluralism and shows how and why these concepts were developed as European Christians faced secularizing societies in which governmental power was growing. Fogarty, Christian Democracy in Western Europe, 1820-1953, (first published 1957, Routledge & Kegan Paul).
And for a compact discussion of the concepts, see Jim Skillen’s Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community, (Center for Public Justice and Baker Books, 1994).