Article Apr 14, 2014

Christianity Packs Its Office and Leaves the Building

Well, once again, a lawyer has told me to clean out my desk and vacate the premises, this time in The Atlantic. In truth, he was talking about natural law, not me, Christianity. But whenever someone says, “A government that tries to invoke divine law ceases to be of, by, and for the people,” I’m indicted too.

Of course it’s not just the lawyers. There are lots of really, really smart people saying that I have no business in legislative proceedings, court arguments or the public square generally. And they’ve been saying it for a while. The Atlantic article reminded me of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who dismissed the idea that we could invoke divine morality almost one hundred years ago when he said, “The law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky.” You get law from people. Period.

Suppose then that all of my moral principles and I really did pack up our desk, put our files into a box, and let the security guard escort us out of the building? John Lennon said to imagine a world with no religion. Let’s just try imagining a public square with no Christianity.

For starters, I guess I would have to take any concept of innate human equality and dignity with me. You didn’t get that from the Greeks, Romans, or pagan barbarians. You got that from me. I taught you to treat people as ends, not means. It would make me sad to take it back, but you say you don’t want Christian morality, so…

I would have to take back your ideas about inherent rights, too. I’m not saying non-Christian Founders and others haven’t talked about rights for a long time. But lose the concept of a good, personal, and—you won’t like this word—righteous God who endows human creatures with these things called rights; lose the idea of a God whose law makes respecting rights right, and you really have no foundation for them. Rights would come home with me, I’m afraid.

I admit, I’m thinking here about your political philosopher Richard Rorty. He conceded that, from your secular perspective, “There is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’—no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible.” So Rorty, a bit of a prankster, calls himself a “liberal ironist.” “Liberal” because he wants to support things like equality and tolerance and the wrongness of torture, but an “ironist” because he knows that he has no real foundation for these political preferences.

To be honest, that’s the dirty little secret in political philosophy departments these days. Get your professors behind closed doors, and they’ll all admit that the democratic West has no real foundation for its conceptions of justice, equality, rights, and freedom. So the best and brightest devise clever-but-indefensible ways of co-opting Jesus’ whole do-unto-others shtick. Have you heard of John Rawls’s original position? Others invoke the country’s republican (small “r”) traditions, but all this is just nostalgia. Which means, I guess I have to take my “do unto others” morality with me when I go too, don’t I?

You also should realize that when equality, dignity and rights go, your ideas about justice will change drastically. Maybe you can adopt an old Roman definition of justice—justice as giving people their due. I’m okay with this definition so long as it’s fastened to equality and dignity. But without these, there’s nothing to measure what you’re due, no standard for establishing parity on the scales of justice. Justice becomes, “You deserve to be my slave because I proved superior in war.”

And then there’s compassion. You know how everyone from your public school teachers to your favorite movie stars have taught you to feel compassion for slaves, victims of torture, or children caught in the sex-trade? I’ll have to clear that out of the file cabinet. I mean, it’s not just equality and rights that go. The compassion you’ve learned to feel for the oppressed and exploited has to exit. Where, after all, did you think you learned it? Can you name another religion with a story like the Good Samaritan? Even if you want to name a non-Christian philosopher or novelist who has written on compassion, like Rousseau, from whom would you say they learned about compassion? I’m afraid compassion goes in the take-home box with the picture frames and coffee mug.

Mercy, too, right? Mercy is sort of my thing. You know, God mercifully offers to forgive sins through Christ’s death on the cross? So you’ve been talking a lot about forgiving student loans and Third World debt, or a fresh start for the bankrupt. Now you don’t need to bother, because I’ll unburden you of any instinct for mercy.

Then there’s love. People made a big deal over that rap song “Same Love” at the Grammys and its push for same-sex marriage. But if there ever was a Christian idea, it’s that every human should be loved with a same love. It’s interesting then that people, including that song, are scream-in-my-ear clear that they don’t want a several-thousand-year-old-book telling them what love really requires. Fine, but love or “same love” goes with me, too. You can keep your same-sex marriage, but you can’t have my love to justify it. Call these political and legal changes what they really are: a new might making a new right.

Actually, give people a few years and they won’t really want marriage at all. You know where the whole institution of marriage came from. Genesis 2! You don’t want that.

I’m tempted to take the separation of powers with me. Yes, the idea showed up vaguely in Aristotle’s talk of “mixed government.” But really it was the Christian anthropology of men like Locke, Montesquieu, and Madison, a religiously mixed bunch to be sure, who gave it a boost. Think of Madison’s quip in the Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” That’s not what we’re hearing these days, as presidents talk of going it alone “with or without Congress.” Unless you can affirm on your own non-Christian terms that human beings are both really good and really bad, you’re going to eventually tire of separate branches, bicameral legislatures, judicial review, federalism, a bill of rights. Give all the power to the majority. Or to the executive. Or to the courts. But forget about inefficient checks and balances.

Finally, tolerance for people who worship different gods—that would need to come with me. Some Christians have been very intolerant, I admit. But biblically, I can’t impose my worship on you both because God hasn’t authorized me to and it would be futile anyway. So while I’m in the public square debating new legislation, I’ll try to persuade you that a few of my moral principles are most just and best for human flourishing, just like you can try to persuade me of your principles, no matter their source. But I won’t make you go to my church, or burn down your place of worship, or force you to take all your ideas and evacuate the public square.

Yet if I leave the public square, what will keep you from burning down my church? On what basis will you tolerate me and my so-called false god, even if he’s tucked away in the private sphere? You might refrain for pragmatic reasons for a little while. But if you can manipulate the levers of power to get rid of troublesome religious minorities like my own, why wouldn’t you?

So I guess the big question in all of this is, if I and my morality left the public square altogether, what would you be left with?

Power. Unaccountable, unconstrained, unfocused power.

That’s what freedom from that brooding omnipresence in the sky means.

Admittedly, I think the new arrangement would work, at least until the Christian habits and cultural traits that you presently possess dry up. You’re still enjoying them, you know, which is why Western democracies remain such wonderfully livable places. People follow the rule of law. Leaders are held accountable for corruption. Natural disasters arouse national compassion. I could keep going.

Are you sure you want me to leave altogether? I’m not sure you can imagine this world, Lennon’s pretty song notwithstanding.