Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Least common denominator

My 2013 Person of the Year is Dr. Ken Grasso, for writing this brilliant article in Intercollegiate Review. In it, Grasso gives background on America’s current civil war between natural law/Christian traditionalists and secular progressives. He calls it the Kulturkampf.

In the first half of the article, Grasso summarizes the conditions that forged American civic unity while allowing religious plurality.

The obvious question, however, is how it was possible for these groups to reach that public consensus. If it did not extend to the full range of religious truths that govern the life and destiny of man, the consensus they forged was nevertheless far from merely pro­cedural in nature. It encompassed a range of substantive anthropological, political, moral, metaphysical, and theological affirmations. America’s historic ability to create and sus­tain such a consensus points to the existence of a common cultural horizon, a common worldview. But how can the existence of such a common horizon be reconciled with the far-reaching religious pluralism charac­teristic of American society?

The answer is to be sought in the limited nature of the religious pluralism that tradi­tionally prevailed in America. One thinks in this context of Alexis de Tocqueville’s obser­vation that while in America the religious scene consisted of “an innumerable multi­tude of sects,” nevertheless all “belong[ed] to the great unity of Christendom.” American pluralism did change over the course of our history, evolving from a pluralism limited to the boundaries of Protestantism during the colonial period to a pluralism including large numbers of Catholics and Jews by the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, until quite recently, as Francis Canavan observed, “lush as the variety of creeds [in America] may have been,” the fact was that “all of the reli­gions that had adherents numerous enough to matter shared a common Judeo-Christian tradition” and “held the Bible in common.” Holding the Ten Commandments in com­mon, “in most respects”—particularly regarding “matters of public concern”—the diverse religions of America “taught substan­tially the same moral code.”

Thus, the type of pluralism that tradition­ally prevailed in America was a pluralism of a multitude of religious branches that sprang from a common stem, a pluralism that existed in the overarching context of a shared adherence to what Hunter terms “biblical theism.” While America’s religious plural­ism was certainly a source of disagreement and cultural conflict, this disagreement and conflict was always more theological than moral, and it unfolded within the horizon of a common biblical culture. Providing both a common ground and a common language, the limited character of this religious plural­ism made possible a broad, overlapping con­sensus on the nature of man, the character of human good, and the structure of social rela­tions that should inform human life. Thus, as Os Guinness argues, America’s traditional articles of peace are rooted, at least in part, in shared “articles of faith.”

Where did it all go wrong? Grasso continues:

There has been a sweeping transformation of our cultural landscape. As James Davison Hunter has shown, a strik­ing change in the character of America’s religious pluralism has occurred. Over the past half century, the number of adherents of non-Western religions like Islam and Hinduism has increased significantly. Even more important in the present context has been the dramatic increase in the numbers of those whom social scientists label “secular­ists,” those professing “no particular religion or religious affiliation.” In the course of the past fifty years, the number of secularists has grown by more than 500 percent, and by the mid-1990s these constituted more than a tenth of the populace, making them the fastest growing segment of the American religious landscape. (Indeed, more recent studies find “nones” to comprise roughly 20 percent of the population.)

At the same time, we have seen the polariza­tion of Catholicism, Judaism, and the various Protestant denominations into “orthodox” and “progressive” camps. What divides these camps, Hunter argues, “are two distinct conceptions of moral authority,” two distinct conceptions of “the basis ... which people [should use to] determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable and unacceptable.” Thus, although they might disagree about the “specific media” through which it is communicated, the orthodox are united by a “commitment ... to an external, definable, and transcendent” source of moral authority. Believing that moral truth is not created by human beings but discovered by them, the orthodox are committed to objec­tive, unchanging, and universally obligatory moral norms emanating from a transcendent authority.

In sharp contrast to the proponents of orthodoxy, progressivists deny the existence of any external and transcendent source of moral authority. On the contrary, they insist that “moral truth is perpetually unfolding; that moral truth is a human construction and, therefore, is both conditional and relative; and that moral truths should reflect ethical principles that have the human good as their highest end.” Culturally, this view of moral truth as something humanly cre­ated rather than discovered is linked with a celebration of individual “autonomy,” or the “right” of each individual to choose his or her own values and way of life. In this view, “the liberated individual ... becomes the final arbiter of moral judgment.”

Whereas in the past the politically conse­quential fault lines on the American religious scene ran between the various competing expressions of biblical theism, today they run between the adherents of orthodoxy and the proponents of progressivism. Indeed, today “progressively oriented Protestants, Catholic, Jews, and secularists” find that they “share more in common ... culturally and politically than they do with the orthodox members of their own faith tradition (and vice versa).”

These developments have fundamentally changed the character of American religious pluralism. Their effect has been to replace a real but limited religious pluralism, all of whose constituent parts were united by a common allegiance to an orthodox under­standing of the nature of moral truth and a substantive vision of man, society, and the human good rooted in one form or other of biblical theism, with a far deeper, far more radical pluralism.


Previous American cultural conflicts unfolded in the context of a common biblical culture—and thus in the context of a shared understand­ing of the nature of moral truth and a broad substantive agreement on matters of right and wrong. These older conflicts concerned which version of biblical theism would inform America’s self-understanding. In con­trast, what is at issue in today’s culture war is nothing less than which of two “fundamentally different understandings of being and purpose,” which of two dramatically “dif­fering worldviews,” which of two different understandings not only of the substantive moral principles that should govern human life but the very nature and foundations of morality itself will inform America’s public culture.

And, if this conflict has an “interminable” character, this is not merely because of the intensity of the partisans on each side or the fact that both command the support of sizable segments of the population. Rather, it is because the radical difference between the moral, intellectual, and spiritual uni­verses inhabited by the combatants deprives them of a common language in which to discuss their differences and a common moral ground upon which to resolve them. Under such conditions, dialogue, much less resolution through compromise, becomes “a virtual impossibility.”

A sad but fair conclusion. Multiculturalism at this level means war. Someone will lose. The Israelites embraced this reality and drove the Canaanites out of the Holy Land.

The origins of the fracture appeared during the Founding, although at the time they were benign.

In early America, the Enlightenment almost always took conservative forms, embracing an orthodox understanding of the nature of moral truth and avoiding the overtly anti-Christian, mili­tantly secularist, and even nihilistic forms the Enlightenment often took on the European continent. As we have seen, in early America the Enlightenment championed a secularized version of traditional Christian morality.

For this reason, in eighteenth-century America, Christianity—more specifically, Protestantism—and the Enlightenment tradition were, as George Marsden observes, “almost always seen not as contradictory but as complementary.” The heirs of the Refor­mation and the devotees of the Enlighten­ment made common cause in the launching of the American republic. As Mark Noll points out, during the revolutionary era and early republic, American Protestants “fully embraced” the particular “form” that the Enlightenment took in American culture, creating a “Protestant-Enlightenment syn­thesis” that endured into the early twentieth century.

Ideas, however, have consequences. As the inner logic of the anthropocentrism and rationalism that lie at its heart gradually unfolded, Enlightenment thought moved in progressively more radical directions—away from an orthodox understanding of moral truth and the Judeo-Christian ethic and toward the progressivist vision of morality and the ethos of emotivism, individualism, and human autonomy in which it issues. Although it may have found its initial expression in such views as Locke’s moral cognitivism and Jefferson’s affirmation of a body of self-evident moral truths congruent with the teachings of Jesus, it is no accident that Enlightenment thought culminates in the very different worldviews of figures like Rousseau, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Rorty. This is the direction in which the inner dynamism of the premises constitutive of the Enlightenment as a distinct intellectual tra­dition has propelled it from the beginning.

Grasso concludes:

The result of the collapse of our traditional articles of peace is the ongoing, bitter, and politically debilitating cultural conflict we now see. The hard truth is that there are today “two Americas” reminiscent of the way that there were once “two Frances”—an America loyal to the older Western heritage, to the legacy of biblical theism and the natural law tradition, and another America committed to the ideological secularism and ethic of human autonomy that issues from the radical Enlightenment.

If today’s culture war is symptomatic of the breakdown of our traditional solution to the problem of religious pluralism, the HHS mandate clearly marks a dramatic escalation of this conflict. It makes painfully clear that progressivists are playing for keeps and that they will not allow scruples about burdening the consciences of religious believers to inter­fere with their efforts to refashion American society along secularist lines. The gloves, as it were, have come off and we are now at a new phase of America’s culture war that I am designating Kulturkampf, in which pro­gressivists attempt to employ state power to reduce plurality to uniformity, to transform our religiously pluralistic public square into a monistic one.

For example, I give you reactionary secular humanist Deborah Orr:

For many, these days, religious belief is seen as one of the greatest bars to the spread of human rights. (Although the worship in some quarters of economic inequality and the power it confers to the few gives religion a run for its money.) It looks simple: if some people are allowed to practice their religious beliefs, then all should be able to. How easy that is to say. How hard it is to implement. Multiculturalism, really, can be seen as an attempt to put that simple, treacherous idea into practice. It can also be seen as an aspect of identity politics that has fared less well than others. With good reason.

For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them. We are all human. We are not all of the same religion, or religious at all. One cannot protect religious rights if they are used as a reason to abuse human rights, human equalities, as so often they are. Britain may not be able to export its new-found anti-discriminatory zeal to the rest of the world with much ease. But Britain is in a good position to start working out a framework whereby people with diverse beliefs can live together without conflict, safe in the knowledge that the religious beliefs of all who respect human rights will be respected in turn. People need to answer on Earth to our fellow humans. We can square things with our God, if we have one, when and if that day arrives.

The bold is mine. Note Orr’s imperative for religious people to ignore their conscience, to ignore God’s commands, to be held to account by “our fellow humans.” This reduces freedom of religion to empty worship. The enlightened ones will force you to forsake the tenets of your faith, but you don’t have to worry about that until you die and answer to God. Isn’t it all hocus pocus, anyway?

By human rights, Orr does not mean the natural rights to life, liberty, and property, as explored by Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke. She means, in her own words, “anti-discriminatory zeal,” the razing of cultural, mostly Christian foundations that put the onus on individuals to lead moral lives and conform to—or at least strive towards—ideals of godliness and holiness. That is, by invoking human rights, secular humanists mean to criminalize moral discernment and cognition.

The “framework whereby people with diverse beliefs can live together without conflict” is the fantasy at the end of this Marxist rainbow, revealing its internal illogic. Men are too numerous and too diverse to all live for themselves without incurring each other’s wrath. That is the lesson of the failure of multiculturalism. “People need to answer on Earth to our fellow humans,” Orr writes. Men will have to impose arbitrary order, an order justified by itself. That order will appeal to the least common denominator, equality—for which, de Tocqueville noted, men yearn most passionately:

The sole condition which is required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community, is to love equality or to get men to believe you love it. Thus, the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced ... to a single principle.

What is being proposed is swapping one tyranny (God’s) for another (men’s). Given men’s track record, wouldn’t you prefer God’s tyranny?

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