Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

To be totally upfront: my title is taken from a chapter in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. A passage therein captures my attention. He writes:

The Bill of Rights tells us, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Yet we don’t need to agree on what values underlie our acceptance of the First Amendment’s treatment of religion. Is it religious tolerance as an end in itself? Or is it a Protestant commitment to the sovereignty of the individual conscience? Is it prudence, which recognizes that trying to force religious conformity on people only leads to civil discord? Or is it skepticism that any religion has it right? Is it to protect the government from religion? Or religion from the government? Or is it some combination of these, or other, aims?

Appiah is not discussing how the courts interpret the religion clause. To the contrary, his point is that Americans don’t have to hold to some narrowly defined, agreed-upon value or claim upon the clause for us to honor it. “We can live together without agreeing on what the values are that make it good to live together,” he writes. “We can agree about what to do in most cases, without agreeing about why it is right.”

Here’s an “old thing” which relates, I think, to President Obama and the debate about civil religion—the primacy of practice.

Usually in presidential inaugurations, civil religion is framed largely as a watered-down Judeo-Christian consensus, covering over the rough edges of existing differences in theology and custom. George W. Bush’s Inaugural Addresses stand out for their sectarian evangelical Christian tone, which rightly sparked a chorus of dissident voices. But this past January we saw a president in his Inaugural Address openly and honestly wrestling with the nation’s diversity—a “patchwork,” as he described it, “of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Non-believers? Their inclusion in the same breath with religious communities, especially on civil religion’s holiest of days, unsettled some, inspired others. Clearly, Obama would like to defuse this tension. More than just carefully chosen words, his was a performative act aimed at uniting believers and non-believers in a common citizenship.

The gigantic gulf separating these two is unbridgeable in the deepest ontological or philosophical sense. Historically, as Robert Bellah has so eloquently described, God symbolism has been “a point of articulation between the profoundest commitments of Western religious and philosophical traditions and the common beliefs of ordinary Americans.” But is this God symbolism expandable? And what would its reformulation look like? During the Vietnam years when old national myths were collapsing and disputes over America’s relation to the rest of the world were reaching crisis proportions, Bellah encouraged the incorporation of a “vital international symbolism” into the nation’s civil religious canopy; doing so was essential, he argued, for a “successful negotiation” of our sacred symbolism.

Obama is comfortable speaking of God in personal and public life, yet he is also a pragmatist. His vision of democracy is that of an on-going, highly deliberative enterprise, of responding to challenges and then re-inscribing practices to fit the circumstances. It appears to be a vision much of the nation supports. Fifty-six percent of Americans in a recent Capps Center/Lichtman Poll (The First 100 Days) agree with his “vision for the country,” sixty percent giving him high marks for his “leadership.”

Compared to George W. Bush’s invoking of old myths of divine favor and the nation’s innocence, Obama’s honesty and candor about our very real problems combined with optimism about America’s strength to build a more perfect union is refreshing. This comes through very pointedly when in the Inaugural Address he observes that, when confronted by serious challenges—the civil war and segregation, historically—the nation emerges stronger, more united. Something of this same hope for bridging differences in views having strong religious overtones was apparent when he judiciously addressed abortion and stem-cell issues at the University of Notre Dame. Implied in each instance is the primacy of practice, that is, in forging new, expanded solidarities, democracy reinvents itself. In his own inaugural words, “we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon disappear; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

Might this be a moment when, as Bellah would say, we need once again a serious civil-religious negotiation? What is called for is less a radical re-symbolization, which would hardly serve the nation well, than a broadening of the rhetoric—both God language and secular heritage language—with social practices affirming the latter as much as the former. “Good Americans” can speak in either voice or some mix of the two, which, except for the greater normative freedom renegotiation would allow, isn’t all that different from what many of us actually already do.

By practices I have in mind what Tocqueville, MacIntyre, Bellah and others have long emphasized: deeply embedded cultural “habits” that sustain fundamental values, democracy as a case in point. Dispositions and behavioral norms like voting and civic engagement rest not on agreement for whom to vote or the specifics of how we should become publicly engaged, only that people assume such responsibilities. To this phrasing, Jeffrey Stout rightly emphasizes that such habits should be “capable of giving rise to recognizable forms of human character.”

What more I would underscore is the need at this time for an intentional and creative effort—a “praxis” of sorts—aimed at moving the country toward a more conscious, genuine bonding between believers and non-believers. Charles Taylor is especially helpful here: “…people can also bond not in spite of but because of difference. They can sense, that is, that the difference enriches each party, that their lives are narrower and less full alone than in association with each other. In this sense, difference defines a complimentarity.”

Might it be possible even within this sensitive realm of belief and non-belief that we could come to appreciate the other, maybe even discover that in engaging the other we come to know ourselves better?  That our lives achieve fullness not separately but together? That the veil between belief and non-belief in everyday life is far more porous than the rhetoric of each suggests?  For sure, in exploring this complimentarity we’d learn again what it means to be an American, and possibly a better sense of how to describe and celebrate the transcendence that really holds us together.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame.]