‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas. —Hardy
In “Conservative Rationalism Has Failed,” a two-part essay published over the past few weeks at The American Mind, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony shows why he is a valuable critic of liberal rationalism. (I use the word liberal because I don’t think Hazony’s “conservative” targets—the neoconservatives and the Straussians, respectively—are properly speaking conservative.) For “it was not ‘doing your own thinking’ that had produced the basis” for Western liberal democracies, Hazony points out, but rather “the common law tradition” and the “Protestant religious and political tradition.” “[I]nherited norms,” says Hazony, “provided the framework within which reason was able to operate, yet without overthrowing every inherited institution as today’s adulation of perfectly free reason does.” Finally, in a brilliant analogy to progress in the sciences, Hazony likens conservative empiricism to Newtonian “generalization from experience,” finding that conservative empiricism is far more prudent than Cartesian rationalism, whose universal pretensions are akin to the revolutionary liberal imperialism to which Hazony is rightly averse.
Something so complex, so important, and so precious as a political regime is hardly the product of rationalist calculation and unfettered liberty. It is rather the product of an organic tradition, and for it to be possible in the first place, and for it to endure, the individual will must subordinate itself to external principles, laws, and authorities. This has always been a difficult process, shot through with pain and error, and indeed arrived at in no small part thanks to these.
Knowing that the West owes a lot to “inherited norms” and to religion, Hazony is vexed at the decline of their role in public life. He is particularly critical of our Supreme Court’s ruling in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). For both Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion and Justice Wiley Rutledge’s dissent defined the First Amendment religious clause in terms of a “wall of separation between church and state.” In his opinion Black wrote:
A large proportion of the early settlers of this country came here from Europe to escape the bondage of laws which compelled them to support and attend government favored churches. The centuries immediately before and contemporaneous with the colonization of America had been filled with turmoil, civil strife, and persecutions, generated in large part by established sects determined to maintain their absolute political and religious supremacy. With the power of government supporting them, at various times and places, Catholics had persecuted Protestants, Protestants had persecuted Catholics, Protestant sects had persecuted other Protestant sects, Catholics of one shade of belief had persecuted Catholics of another shade of belief, and all of these had from time to time persecuted Jews. In efforts to force loyalty to whatever religious group happened to be on top and in league with the government of a particular time and place, men and women had been fined, cast in jail, cruelly tortured, and killed.
On this passage Hazony comments in a polemical vein:
In Black’s retelling, religion is no longer the source of American democracy and independence, as it had been in FDR’s State of the Union address eight years earlier. Religion is now portrayed as a danger and a threat to democratic freedoms, the very form of the American Constitution having been the result of the excesses of religion that drove the first Europeans to settle in America.“Expecting people to tolerate what they regard as a threat to their deepest values is a fool’s errand, especially in matters of religion.”
It is here that we find the transition from a God-fearing democracy to a liberal democracy: One in which religion is perceived as being so great a threat that the federal government must act to ensure that no child in the country is taught religion in any publicly supported school. Within less than two decades, the Supreme Court had banned not only religious instruction but prayer and devotional reading from the Bible in schools, placing the great majority of the nation’s children in the care of a safe space scrubbed clean of any reference to the place of Christianity and Judaism in laying the foundations of the American republic. Instead of arising out of longstanding Christian tradition, America was reimagined as a product of Enlightenment rationalism: In the high school I attended in New Jersey, we heard not a word about the Bible or the common law, but we were taught about Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
Everson v. Board of Education is controversial among legal scholars, and I have no interest in taking a side in the legal debate, on which I am no expert, after all. I want to observe, rather, that “the very form of the American Constitution having been the result of the excesses of religion that drove the first Europeans to settle in America,” is not incompatible with recognition that “religion is…[nevertheless also] the source of American democracy and independence.” For if the words in the first clause I’ve quoted are true, they don’t entail the proposition that “religion is…[not] the source of American democracy and independence.” The matter need not be so simple or so binary as Hazony implies.
Being a believer, Hazony unsurprisingly fails to address the bad aspects of religion. Indeed, it is revealing that while he takes issue with what he thinks is Black’s Enlightenment spin on American history and the Constitution, Hazony doesn’t question the accuracy of Black’s claim that “Catholics had persecuted Protestants, Protestants had persecuted Catholics, Protestant sects had persecuted other Protestant sects, Catholics of one shade of belief had persecuted Catholics of another shade of belief, and all of these had from time to time persecuted Jews.”
Well, no wonder. Religious conflict abounded in Europe from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 until the English Revolution of 1688, and continued in much of the Continent until the age of Napoleon. And this is to say nothing of religion before the modern era. Like Patrick Deneen and other religious conservatives, Hazony has a habit of making a whipping boy out of John Locke and other liberal Enlightenment thinkers. But though liberalism has produced many problems, it is important to understand that liberalism itself arose in reaction to conflict, corruption, and tyranny, grim affairs in which religion played not a little role. What is more, the value Locke and other liberal Enlightenment figures assigned to reason, to liberty, and to tolerance was (in part) a way of dealing with religion’s formidable problems.
And so we come to the present. Like Hazony, I deplore the loss of religious instruction in our schools, because students need to learn about religion just as they need to learn about science and mathematics and the liberal arts. But instruction is not the same thing as advocacy, nor is mere instruction Hazony’s goal. “[T]he task of the conservative, whether scholar or statesman,” he tells us, is
to focus his energies on the recovery of the particular traditions that formed his country; and on rebuilding the personal and professional habits of honor that alone can preserve these traditions and the nation itself. In America and Britain, this means a devotion to restoring the biblical and common-law heart of the Anglo-American tradition, which recent generations have recklessly abandoned.
Certainly the loss of “inherited norms,” including “habits of honor,” is a social and political disaster. Still, history has no reset button, and if there’s one thing we should learn from modernity, it is that religion is not an unmixed good. Is not Hazony evading this unhappy truth?
As a historically minded empiricist, he must allow that the religious restoration he calls for is unlikely to be without fierce contention and strife, not only between believers and unbelievers, but between the religious themselves. Yet this he does not do. Whatever one may think about its founding, contemporary America, unlike Hazony’s Israel, is not an ethnic state. It is rather a pluralist one. Hence, although I would have no problem with public schools instructing students in religion, it is plain that, in a culture rife with conflicting values, having a lot of religion in the public sphere is sure to be a controversial and rancorous business.
After all, which religion, or sect, shall have cultural authority? And who gets to decide? Today, as ever, Protestants are offended by Catholics, Jews are offended by Christians, and Muslims are offended by Jews. Meanwhile, all of these “particular traditions” have internal quarrels. Are we to believe that, if religion serves a greater role in the public sphere, these “particular traditions” would arrive at some moral consensus? Why would this happen now in history but not, say, 400 years ago? Isn’t the country already beset by endless controversies concerning race, sex,“gender identity,” immigration, and yes, religion, too?
Although revolutionary transformation is generally associated with liberalism, this dangerous endeavor has sometimes been motivated by religion, a truth that is now overlooked. But it was not always so. The Hume scholar Donald Livingston, in his foreword to Laurence Bongie’s 1965 book David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution, wrote:
[D]uring the events leading up to the French Revolution and for a considerable time thereafter, Hume’s account of the English Civil War was used by the French to make sense of the terrible events through which they were living. Hume had interpreted the revolution in England that led to the execution of Charles I and a Puritan republic under the military government of Cromwell as an intellectual and spiritual pathology mingled with ambition. What the Puritans eventually sought was not reform but a total transformation of the social and political order in accord with a religious ideology. Hume’s narrative seemed isomorphic to what was happening in France. The goal of the French Revolution was not reform but a root and branch transformation of society. The Jacobins stood for the Puritans, and the Jacobins’ self-evident truths of the rights of man stood for the self-certifying enthusiasms and revelations of the Puritans; Louis XVI was Charles I, and Napoleon was Cromwell [my emphasis].
Expecting people to tolerate what they regard as a threat to their deepest values is a fool’s errand, especially in matters of religion. Much better, surely, not to bring about the situation at all. Indeed, there is a simple libertarian model for believers who wish to instruct the young in religious precepts, and who wish to pursue their values in a culture that is increasingly hostile to them: Create your own private institutions. Or educate your children at home. Live apart, like the celebrated Rod Dreher and those sublime crunchy cons. “But I haven’t the funds,” you might say. To which the proper response would be: “Nobody owes you them, either; best of luck obtaining them.”
Hazony thinks we dishonor religion by banning it from the schools. But this position begs the question against the unbeliever who does not think your religion, whatever it may be, merits his honor. What then? Has Hazony a justificatory framework outside of his own and that of his atheist interlocutor by which to settle the dispute independently and objectively? No. Can he show that his own premises are true beyond dispute, that we unbelievers should live in “a God-fearing democracy”? No.
Besides, is talk about dishonor really necessary? If I don’t invite my neighbor over to the family dinner, have I dishonored him? Why haven’t I simply been indifferent to him? Or, what if I perceive that he is a difficult fellow, best dealt with in a different setting?
Anyway, it is only too easy for we conservatives to criticize liberalism without taking seriously the circumstances and events that produced it. What endures in human life is struggle, and every regime is mixed, its defects and vulnerabilities eventually causing its undoing. So it must be. “Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis,” said William Empson.