The truly dynamic discussion in America today about religion and politics is not between “wall of separation” secularists and Christian political theologians attempting to turn American into a theocracy. Instead, the promising but fledgling discussion is between religious and non-religious democrats who are acutely aware of the two horns of this essential American dilemma. First, one has a right to express one’s convictions in whatever terms one holds them, including religious terms; second, one cannot assume that one’s fellow citizens’ convictions are shaped by the same terms. For Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition, this is the “sense in which the ethical discourse of most modern democracies is secularized.” Stout’s latest work can be read as an attempt to revalue the ideas of secularity and secularization by sharply distinguishing them from secularism, which entails the policing of religious commitments from the public square. Secularization is not secularism. Under secularization, it is reasonable to be religious, and it is in this sense that John Milbank is right in claiming that the “logic of secularism is imploding.” At the same time, secularization demands an extraordinary balance between prizing one’s commitments and being aware that these same prized commitments will, at times, act as a bludgeon against other citizens. These types of democratic citizens, religious or non-religious, want to claim the word “secular” away from the secularists. The secular are not secularists. The secular among us are evermore finding our voices.
There has been no theologian more sensitive to these two horns of secularized America than Nicholas Wolterstorff. In his famous rejoinder to Richard Rorty, and in numerous longer pieces, Wolterstorff has persuasively and passionately reminded us that within American democracy there are no grounds on which to restrict citizens from thinking about public, political, and social matters with their religious convictions out in front. He writes in his article “The Irony of It All,” printed in The Hedgehog Review, “The founding idea behind liberal democracy, certainly in its American version, was not that religion should be kept out of public life and that anti-religious secularism should take place as the orienting ideology for our life together.” In fact, Wolterstorff argues that when it comes to really important matters for our democracy, we need recourse to our own comprehensive perspectives. That’s because for Wolterstorff the right to speak religiously in public carries with it the demand to speak well, clearly, and with recourse to reasons and explanations. Wolterstorff claims in an article in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism that secularism’s anti-religious bias has had an “inhibiting effect on serious reflection by religious communities.”
In these sorts of words we can hear a distinguishing characteristic of Wolterstorff’s voice: a clear-eyed willingness to criticize fellow Christians. Wolterstorff has long tried to convince Christians that they need not hold their noses in order to participate in democratic liberalism. His latest work, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, is, in part, dedicated to correcting the Christian view that human rights talk—because it necessarily relies on a greedy self arrogating right for a person’s own well-being—represents “one of the most pervasive and malignant diseases of modern society.” In Justice, Wolterstorff seeks and finds plausible Christian grounds for supporting human rights.
Wolterstorff speaks as passionately to the second aspect of secularization: the need to realize that one’s fellow citizens hold different religious commitments and assumptions. He heralds a “dialogical pluralism” in which “we the people must be open to both religious and secular voices of various sorts presenting…and explaining…[their] views.” Dialogical pluralism is an art whose virtues involve not simply “listen[ing] attentively and openly to alternative views,” but potentially what Wolterstorff calls “appropriation.” In Justice, he describes appropriation this way: “‘Yes, there are some mistaken assumptions in his way of setting up the issue; but after one has made allowance for those, there remains a very interesting point.'” We trade reasons with those whom we disagree with, not simply because we want to know what they are thinking, but because what they are thinking may actually offer us and what we’re thinking possibilities we had not previously considered. Appropriation marks the transition from listening to learning. Wolterstorff writes: “This subtle practice of appropriation…is fundamental to the dialogue between theists and secularists.” Had he changed “secularist” to “seculars,” this sentence would, by my lights, read even better.
Because I am a secular and not a secularist, I hotly anticipated the publication of Wolterstorff’s Justice. It has thus been with tremendous surprise, and even chagrin, that I’ve read this text. To be fair, the bulk of the book is devoted to showing that human rights talk has its roots not in a secularist Enlightenment but in biblical traditions—just the sort of stuff I’m interested in appropriating. But what’s alarming is that Wolterstorff’s account of human rights leads him to make a series of incendiary claims against secular non-theists like me. They are strong enough to distract from the more substantive work he does on a theistic grounding of human rights.
Wolterstorff claims that there is no adequate secular grounding for human rights and it is unlikely that there ever will be one. He claims that the “only adequate grounding is a theistic grounding which holds that each and every human bears the image of God and is equally loved by God.” He turns downright apocalyptic at the thought of having to live in an American democracy with secular non-theists. “Suppose,” he writes, “that the religious heritage that gave birth to our moral subculture of rights erodes?” The barbarians will soon be at the gates. Here are his series of conclusions: The “recognition of human rights cannot, over the long haul, float free of its theistic origins,” the “future of human rights is more imperiled by the secularist rejection of religious foundations than it is by Islamic critique of the Declaration [of Human Rights],” And, finally, “if this [Judaic and Christian] framework erodes, I think that we must expect that our moral subculture of rights will also eventually erode and that we will slide back into our tribalisms…we must expect that that subculture will have been a brief and shining episode in the odyssey of human beings on earth.” Recall that he begins Justice with a call of “dialogical pluralism,” “appropriation” and a seeming relish for conversation between theists and non-religious seculars. By the final pages of Justice these notions are a distant memory.
Wolterstorff once claimed to be “menaced” by Richard Rorty’s “American Sublime.” Is it now my turn to be menaced, this time by Wolterstorff? To be sure, Wolterstorff does not call for restricting my freedom of expression. And he even acknowledges that he had not expected to find that secular accounts of human rights are without grounding; this surprised him. Nevertheless, his attacks on non-theistic viewpoints feel ad hominem, and one cannot but conclude that, for Wolterstorff, secular readings of human rights and democracy, readings without God, are toxic, and that secular citizens are not trustworthy.
I am not sure what Wolterstorff wants to accomplish with this polemical flourish. I imagine he would maintain that he is simply speaking his mind and conscience. Wolterstorff does not say that he wants to begin excluding non-theistic contributions to human rights discussion and policy. It’s hard to see him being for this, but I’m reminded by how corrosive he thinks the non-theistic is. Perhaps Wolterstorff wants to lead non-believers to a place where they have no logical choice but to become theists; he thinks that if one is inclined to believe in human rights (as many of us seculars are), then his argument for a theistic grounding represents nothing less “than an argument for theism.”
I do not know if Wolterstorff thinks that because he has produced an excellent theistic grounding of human rights, theists will now spring to the fore to enact those rights in just ways. I readily acknowledge that the history of the American pursuit of justice cannot be told without religious folk. Descriptively, William James may very well be right when he says in The Will to Believe that “those who have religious faith…will on the battle-field of history always outwear the easy-going type, and religion will drive irreligion to the wall.” But like James, I see this power of religion not necessarily relying on certain theistic grounding, but on the right to believe in metaphysical uncertainties. Regardless, many a non-religious person has drafted off of these types of religious winds and risked his or her life for causes of justice. More, when it comes to implementing and living up to the demands of human rights, I am not sure that grounding matters. In the face of many of the world’s worst human rights violations, there has been no shortage of people who were absolutely certain that those violations were fundamentally wrong. What seems to plague us humans is an inability to muster up the courage, will, and strategic acumen to act on our most passionately held and grounded convictions. Having grounded convictions has not made for being adequately convicted.
As a salve to Wolterstorff’s rough treatment, I found myself returning to one of the saints of my American sublime, Ralph Ellison and his essay, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” America, Ellison claims, has made the word “democracy” sacred. What makes democracy sacred for Ellison is not that it issues in common agreement on reasonable or certain foundations. Democracy is sacred because democratic practices, in their “insist[ence] on being made flesh,” remind us of our continued failings to live up to democracy’s ideals: “By arousing in the believer a sense of the disrelations between the ideal and the actual, between perfect word and the errant flesh, they partake of mystery.”
This is a religious construction if I’ve ever heard one. There is a touch of both Augustine and Kierkegaard in these words—Augustine in the way that sin is irremediable, and Kierkegaard in Ellison’s use of mystery, that is, in the way he avoids despair by embracing the unknown that lies beyond reason and human limitations. In other words, Ellison’s democratic vision initiates its practitioners into a form of belief as every bit unprovable as the belief in God. Democratic secular life, Ellison teaches, is a faith-based initiative. We persist with our rituals, our prayers, texts and communities, holding them accountable to each other. At the end, what there is is hope, Ellison’s raft out of this mystery that allows us to find better practical ways of honoring ideals such as justice, equality and human dignity. By this, we keep and invite others into the democratic faith.
There is little triumphant about this democratic vision; failure and grievous mistakes lurk all too near. Humility leads me to think that I do not know where the sources of this sort of hope come from. The more seculars—non-religious and religious alike—come to admit that democratic life relies on the evidence of things unseen, the more they might find themselves swapping stories. I’m inclined to consider as democratic allies all who hope for ever better forms of justice, equality, and human dignity, in full recognition of their improbability and fragility. I could care less whether their accounts of justice, equality, and human dignity are based on God, gods, or something more footloose and fancy-free. They are all secular now.