13 January 2009
Conference: “The American Model of Church-State Relations”
The Embassy of the United States of America to the Holy See
January 13, 2009
Is America Turning European?
Reflections on Religion and Society
by Marcello Pera
In memoriam Father Richard John Neuhaus
I am not an expert in constitutional law and the juridical models of church-state relations. I would therefore like to address the topic of this conference from the point of view of the relationship between religion and politics or society. Are Europe and America different in this respect? To introduce this problem and raise the questions I wish to discuss, I will first devise a thought experiment, then draw the conclusions that seem to me to be appropriate, and finally advance my own view about the place of religion in society, especially in a liberal society. If I will sound dogmatic, it is not only because time is short, but also because I am so concerned about these questions that I tend to be a bit dogmatic or to believe that a small amount of dogmatism may bring about a huge quantity of wisdom and hope.
Let us suppose that Tocqueville could make a second journey to America today. Would he draw the same conclusions he reached on the previous occasion? In particular, would he maintain one of his favourite views, that is to say that in the United States the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty are intimately combined, while in Europe on the contrary they proceed in opposite directions? I strongly incline to believe that he wouldn’t.
As I see the situation, in present day America, as well, the friends of liberty are not on friendly terms with religion, to the point that some of them even try to undermine its role. Self-proclaimed Jeffersonians do not seem to follow or believe in Jefferson any longer, and sometimes present his ideas in a way Jefferson himself would not have endorsed. For example, Jefferson claimed that all inalienable human rights stem from God. Many American scholars argue now that God’s hand may be disregarded. Jefferson believed that liberal liberties may not be preserved, unless they are taken as a “gift of God”. Many people declare nowadays that liberalism is self-sufficient. Jefferson thought Christianity the best possible public morality ever. An argument runs in present America that morality shouldn’t have religious foundations. Jefferson introduced the metaphor of the “Wall of separation” between state and church to protect religious freedom from state interference. Many American liberals use the very same metaphor nowadays to deprive religion of any role in the public square or to limit it merely to the private, subjective sphere.
There are reasons to believe that, after meeting many of the brightest minds from both American coasts, after attending numerous philosophy or constitutional law seminars in American universities, after reading the New York Times, watching CNN and listening to the most influential opinion leaders, Tocqueville would today conclude that the European way of conceiving the relationship between religion and politics or religion and civil society has sunk deep into the States as well. America, he might think, is going European: it, too, seems to believe that religion is an obstacle, or at least a problem for the peaceful coexistence of people within a liberal and democratic society, which can only be solved by putting religion in brackets, if not dismissing it altogether. Tocqueville might even produce some historical evidence supporting this new kind of European-oriented American attitude. He might remark that, just like the now dead and buried European Constitution made no word of the Old World’s Christian roots, so does the American Constitution have no mention of God, it being, as has been stressed, a “Godless Constitution”. And he might also observe that, precisely like Europe does no longer recognize the hill of Golgota and Mount Sinai as among its spiritual birthplaces, so has America come to reject the idea of being a “City upon a Hill”.
I will now introduce my two questions.
First, would Tocqueville’s hypothetical conclusion adequately depict present day America’s situation? Are Europe and the States really in the same boat, and has European secularism really penetrated into American culture and politics?
Secondly, is the idea of a secular society tenable? That is to say, is secularism really liberalism’s best ally, the most effective antidote to the risks of fundamentalism, the staunchest bulwark against intolerance?
The first question is descriptive and requires a historical and sociological analysis, which goes beyond my competence as well as my interests here. I believe (perhaps because I wish or I need to believe) America still to be different from Europe, but I am afraid it is becoming less and less so. Resistances are strong because the great majority of Americans declare themselves believers, or at least think that God is important for their moral life. But the European way’ remains very appealing, especially to the elite. For instance, many American intellectuals and scholars are tempted by the idea of proceeding from the concept of separation of church and state to the idea of separating religion from society, or from the concept of state non-interference in religious matters to the secularist idea that religion is a controversial and divisive form of experience which can only be tolerated in the private sphere.
This brings me to my second question, which is exactly the same as Tocqueville’s at the end of his real journey to America or of Jefferson’s in his Notes on the State of Virginia: can liberal liberties be preserved and the liberal culture of human inalienable rights be protected, in Europe, in America or anywhere else, while at the same time separating them from religion? Which is to say: is secularism enough to protect liberalism?
One might object that liberalism is not the only possible political doctrine, that it is suffering of many conceptual drawbacks, and is no longer a coherent philosophy. This is true. But it is also true that liberalism is the cornerstone of the American experiment and, ultimately, the prevailing political doctrine in Europe. Even the critics of liberalism want to save the hard core of liberalism. Even relativists admit there are certain human rights which should not be put into question, let alone violated. Even socialists and democrats maintain there is an inviolable personal sphere that should be safeguarded from the effects of vote and political negotiation. Not only are our constitutions and international charters of rights typically liberal, our policies and political practice as well are intended to be more and more liberal. The very recent explosion of “rights talk” (or of “rights chat”, as at times it seems to be the case) denotes an ever increasing demand for a broader concept of the standard inalienable liberties. Thus, although there is no obligation to be liberal, we de facto truly are or wish to be. The point therefore is: can we maintain liberalism without appealing to religion, and specifically to Christianity?
My personal answer is: no, we cannot. Liberal liberties and Christianity are inextricably bonded. I will briefly advance two arguments for this view.
My first argument is historical. Liberalism is a European tradition, which grew up together with modern science, free market, the fight against the absolute state, and the struggle with tyrannies of all sorts. The liberal flag was the autonomy of the individual his or her personal freedom to find out the truth in any matter, be it natural, political, or moral. And the liberal view was that such truths do really exist and can be disclosed. Typically, liberals tried to protect personal autonomy by erecting a shield a true “wall of separation” between individuals and political authority, including the authority of the Church. By so doing, they proved being influenced by the faith in the power of study and work, inquiry and action, as the best means to attain knowledge of God’s laws and demands. This is simply another homage to the Christian views that Caesar be he an absolute king, or a majority in a democratic parliament cannot interfere with God, and that the truth established by God makes us free. Not even science can dispense with such Christian faith, because the laws of nature science aims to discover are the laws that God has imprinted on nature. And if the Scriptures, or the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures, seem to speak in different terms from those that the free science discovers with its own method of rational inquiry, the latter is to prevail over the former, because God is author both of the book of nature and of the book of Scriptures. In the same way, if the rules of the Church do not respect the rights of men, the former are to be submitted to the latter, because God created man and gave him the means to freely discover his own will.
This is not to say that the founders of liberalism were strict Christian believers, but to say that the liberal Fathers found in Christianity or in a re-interpreted Christianity the ground, the framework, the reasons, the best motivations and most secure warrants for their faith in the attainability of the ultimate nature or essence of nature and society. As many of them were deists, their God was not precisely the same God of the Christian churches. Nonetheless, by the content of the demands attributed to Him and the rights taken as stemming from Him, we can see He was the Christian God.
My second argument for linking liberalism to Christianity is philosophical. Liberalism is a doctrine constantly at risk. Its main problem we may call it the liberal problem is: how can free and equal people endowed with the same liberties and freedom to lead their own way of life coexist in a community? How is it that a liberal society doesn’t collapse and plunge into a hobbesian condition of war of everybody against everybody else? Such principles as my freedom ends where yours begins’, liberties must be compatible’, all liberties are legitimate, provided they can apply to each and every human being’, prove worthy but not sufficient. Free human beings may still irreconcilably differ. How can radical divergencies be settled? In short, how can the liberal problem be solved? If liberal society is not a miracle, but a man-made creation, what should citizens do to preserve it?
The Fathers provided answers to the liberal problem they themselves had raised. Some of them thought that a liberal society keeps the same obligations humans were bound with when they were living in the state of nature. That is to say they continue to be subject to divine law. Others maintained that a liberal society is a rational society, with everybody respecting the same rational as well as moral universal laws. Locke trod the former path, Kant the latter, but both reached the same conclusions as Jefferson and Tocqueville: liberal liberties are consistent on the condition that men consider themselves subject to God, and a liberal society may be founded and maintained provided men consider it a gift of God. Since God provides the absolute warrant that men, each and every one, deserve the same respect and are entitled to the same rights, He is not just a God, but that Christian, or more precisely Judeo-Christian, God who creates men at his own image and joins them together in brotherhood.
Are there other solutions to the liberal problem? Secularists in Europe and the States claim there are: for instance, they argue that political liberalism needs no foundation, in particular no foundation stemming from comprehensive doctrines of the good. But this is an illusion. Political liberalism and liberal societies thrive only if they stand on a bedrock of shared principles and values which are taken for granted. Such as, for example, that human beings are persons, that persons possess intrinsic dignity, that persons cannot be considered as mere means, that the moral quality of the person comes before the political status of the citizen, that certain typical moral virtues are to be pursued, and so forth. I cannot see how acknowledging and taking these principles and values for granted wouldn’t imply cultivating a Christian, or a Judeo-Christian faith. Take away this faith, and you have taken away liberalism.
It is probably true that such a faith doesn’t necessarily require Revelation. But what really matters here is the content of the required faith, not the form revealed or rational by which we attain and profess it. A rational faith, if it is not an oxymoron, is nonetheless a faith. And a faith in Christian principles is nonetheless a Christian faith.
Europe is now losing its faith. Churches empty, worship weakens, vocations wane, bonds loosen. By neglecting and rejecting Christian principles and values, which is its own way of turning secular, Europe believes it will become more liberal, more open, more tolerant. Quite on the contrary, it loses its tradition, therefore its culture, civilization, identity, and soul. It does not pay more respect to others or win more respect from others, nor does it go cosmopolitan, as it aims to do. It just declines and surrenders. Apart from its occasional, rhetorical celebrations in the many graves its fury scattered with its land, Europe seems forgetful and unconcerned with what hell it brought on earth when it became anti-Jewish and anti-Christian.
America has a different history. I strongly hope it is still mindful of it and it wants to continue to reflect on and pay homage to it to the advantage of us all. There was a time when Europeans viewed America as their future. God forbid the case has not been reversed, with Europe becoming the future of America instead.