Monday, February 09, 2009

Taking a Line VI - Tough Civility and Civic Religion

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

On the eve of President Obama’s Inauguration, Os Guinness wrote a piece ‘Faith and Inauguration’ in USA Today. Among other things he pleads for a ‘new civility’ in the US culture wars. According to Guinness, yesterday the battle lines were drawn on the issue of race, now it’s religion. What is needed, he says, is a ‘tough-minded civility’ among those with opposed ambitions for their country. A civility between those who work towards a sacred public square, for whom ‘one religion or another is privileged, though not established’, a view associated in the US with the programmes of the religious right, (whose hold on public opinion, however, at present seems to be waning). On the other side is a vision of a naked public square, ‘in which all religion and religious symbols are excluded from public life’.

Tough-minded civility requires

A framework in which citizens of all faiths – and none – are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of what is agreed to be just and free for people of all other faiths, too. Such a view of civility is not a matter of niceness, political correctness or squeamishness, about giving offence. Nor is it a search for an interfaith dialogue or lowest common denominator unity that glosses over serious and important differences. Rather it is a framework in which differences are taken serious, conflicts are debated robustly and policy are (is?) decided civilly – something which is a republican virtue and a democratic necessity.

What are some of the conditions which allow ‘tough civility’? Civility is, to begin with, a manner of speech and demeanour. It involves the adoption of a certain kind of language, language which does not inflame, which is gentle and courteous, which recognises the right of another to hold different views, and does not seek to inflame by intemperateness or wilful ignorance or misrepresentation. This includes resilience, a temperament that does not easily take offence and reckons on having to live without all the time getting one’s own way. Such civility is the precondition of toleration. But such an attractive disposition can only be a necessary condition of settling deep divisions, not a prescription for settling them, or for living a peace in a situation in which incompatible position are advocated side by side. A man can smile and smile and be a devil.

Civility of the sort that Os Guinness advocates can only flourish if there are shared values about the shape of the public square, together with a recognition that politics does not provide us with ‘final solutions’ but is part of the flux of our lives.

So what is it that makes civility into tough-minded civility? I found Os Guinness’s piece less enlightening on this. To make progress I think we at least need a firmer grip than is usual on the distinction between what the law requires and what it permits, and to stress how essential this distinction is for a workable society. Citizens who wish to exercise tough civility with each other over important issues must come to terms with this. It means recognising that others have views which are sharply at odds with one's own about actions which one could not in conscience perform or agree to, but which they have a right to advocate and may in good conscience themselves perform or agree to. Such recognition is not easy, for it means standing and watching views being advocated and accepted which one may sharply dissent from on the grounds of conscience. But that’s also part of the common ground of a civilised society. For the law to require the permission of abortion is not for the law to require abortion. For the law to require the permission of conscientious objection in a time of war is not for the law to require conscientious objection. For the law to permit the advocacy of public policy based on Cristian doctrine is not to is not for the law to require acceptance of such policy. And so on.

Putting this in older-fashioned words, the law has to allow for the conscience. And that is so even if a change in the law is successfully promoted as a result in some surge of Christian opinion, or of secular opinion. The example set by those who once in power change the rules of the game is not an edifying one. Put in still older-fashioned language, the law must not require a person to sin. But – and this is what it is hard for some to stomach – it may permit a person to sin; or, alternatively, it may permit a person violate the liberal and enlightened conscience. In a toughly civil society each participant is responsible for his or her own views and what they do with them. (A current very serious problem for freedom of speech and pulic debate is that apparently some have a conscience about the very expression by others of their deeply-held beliefs.)

And on the other hand…..the very thing that modern liberal democracies pride themselves on having achieved – pluralism – is not only the symptom but part of the cause of this problem. Originally - in the writings on toleration of John Locke or Pierre Bayle, for example - ‘pluralism’ was to have been the way in which people of different faiths and none occupied a ground in which they could live side by side. But secularism does not see things that way. At least in the hands of its most strident evangelists it envisages first the ‘privatising’ and then the ridiculing and sweeping away of religion , particularly at present the Christian religion, because it is 'simply irrelevant', as part of one kind of ‘enlightenment’ being implementing through legislation. First make it irrelevant and then dismiss it as irrelevant. To such people it is particularly galling that some expressions of religion are not content with being of merely private importance, but seek to express themselves in the ‘public square’, aiming to affect public policy.

So one question is, are the secularists themselves also prepared to be committed to ‘tough civility’? It can only flourish where those who advocate religious or secularly-inspired policies in the public square are willing to accept not only political setbacks but the basic legal restraint guaranteed by the recognition that what the law permits it does not require.

Some may think that at present there is little or no middle ground for tough civility to occupy. Yet the Christian has no reason to take this exaggerated and pessimistic view. For he holds that because this is God’s world, there is the common ground of humanity made in the image of God, though fallen. The existence of conflicting values which their holders attempt to turn into policy does not mean that there is not common ground between the proponents of the competing world views.

As I read Os Guinness’s piece as an accompaniment to an American breakfast it made me think, naturally enough, about the US. Although church and state are formally separate there, its people, whether secular or religious, if they are to be judged by their political language, still see their country in religious terms. As has been remarked, the rhetoric and symbolism which framed the Inauguration were significantly religious – the prayers, the Bible, the oaths of office – ‘So help me God’. And for its people of all kinds, including some secularists and non-Christians, as well as some of those who are deeply and avowedly Christian, the U.S. is still the ‘city set on a hill’ that cannot be hidden, by whose light the American Dream will finally be realised in America as well as by its values being exported to other countries who presently sit in darkness.

It is worth reflecting on the original setting of that language. The words are clearly, explicitly addressed to the disciples of Christ. They are to be the city set on a hill. Words used elsewhere of Christ himself, ‘the light of the world’, are applied to his disciples, his body. The words have to do with the work and witness of Christ’s church. To use them of the nation of the United States, or any other nation, is clearly to misapply them in a serious way. A classic instance of the politicising of Scriptural teaching

I also wondered about the UK, with the vestiges of religious establishment and of colonialism and of a more strident political rhetoric, a society in which today secularism is steadily advancing. The Empire (as well as the Monarchy) was another case of the use of Christian language and symbolism for political purposes, one which has now has largely been dismantled or neutered. In the UK today the missionary and the colonial administrator no longer walk in step, nor does the UK see itself, as it in a hundred or so years ago, as the exporter of 'Christian values'.

For all the current distresses we are regularly told that the US remains ‘a city set on a hill’, whose gospel is the good news of individual freedoms and democratic accountability. But what exactly did the British Empire, and what does the American Dream, have to do with the Christian faith?

Paradoxically, one element of 'robust civility' lies in seeing that civic reilgion is no substitutes for the old, old story and its political implications.

Besides the piece referred to here, Os Guinness has also written The Case for Civility – And Why Our Future Depends On It.