Reporters who covered the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 United States presidential campaign would have benefited from reading Mere Civility. Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor was briefly famous when ABC News aired a video of him crying “God damn America” from the pulpit of his church. Mere Civility suggests that Wright’s insults not only mimic his Biblical namesake, but also channel Martin Luther, who frequently damned Catholics, and Roger Williams, who offered similar imprecations and felt that doing so should be considered civil. In this impressive new work, Teresa Bejan does the contextual and interpretative analysis necessary to exhume Williams’s theory of civility, and she compares it favorably with those of Williams’s more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She claims Williams’s view brings analytical clarity to contemporary discussions of civility and should be adopted today.
Mere Civility is a path-breaking and yet deeply traditional work. Bejan is doing “historically informed political theory,” an approach arising from the liberal arts tradition that seeks to guide contemporary political reflection based on a reassessment of the past. The gold standard for such work requires accomplishing three goals: The political theorist should 1) offer a compelling reinterpretation of historical political thinkers that 2) leads to an underexplored view, which 3) will improve or solve some problem in contemporary political theorizing.
Bejan skillfully accomplishes the first two goals: Williams’s theory of civility is startling and original, and by comparing it with Hobbes’s and Locke’s and putting each in the context of seventeenth-century debates about the politics of religious disagreement, Bejan offers a compelling analysis of all three. Like many who write in the genre, however, Bejan gives short shrift to the third aspect of the project. As a consequence, her claim that Williams’s conception of civility can guide contemporary discussions is seriously under-argued. The book is thus two-thirds of a virtuoso contribution to the history of political thought.
Bejan argues that contemporary discussions of civility are impoverished because they claim that civility should be an expression of respect—just as Locke did. Locke is thus the “villain” whose mistakes corrupt contemporary political reflection; Bejan appeals to Williams to rectify them. Mere civility, as Williams understood it, was meant to be a set of social and conversational norms that regulated disagreement between people who could not respect each other. Mere civility is what enabled Williams to share Rhode Island with Catholics while simultaneously believing that they were damnable anti-Christs. Locke and Williams shared the crucial view that the terms of membership in political communities must be distinct from those of religious communities. But Locke argued that the sectarianism this distinction allowed should not lead to rancor: Every citizen can simultaneously choose their own religion and view their fellows with sincere respect. Williams was not so sanguine: Sectarianism will lead to mutual insult. For Williams, his religion demanded such: the evangelist must condemn sin. But it does not follow that such condemnations are uncivil, for mere civility just is the set of norms one follows in order to live in peace with the damned.
Williams’s mere civility is more attractive than Locke’s, Bejan argues, because it is more inclusive. Historically, Williams welcomed all comers to Rhode Island: Catholics, Quakers, Jews, and Native American “pagans.” He could do so because mere civility did not require him to love or respect his benighted neighbors, and Williams believed they were all benighted, Christian or otherwise. Their presences allowed him to condemn their sins in hopes of converting them. Locke, on the other hand, infamously limited toleration to Protestant theists—leaving Catholics, Muslims, and atheists excluded. He did so because he felt adherence to such views was inconsistent with sincere civility. Catholic loyalty to the Pope, for Locke, meant that they could not be trusted to keep their word, and Locke did not respect them. This is the core difference that explains Locke’s exclusions. Paradoxically, it is because Locke demanded that citizens respect each other that his understanding of civility is less inclusive than Williams’s. Since many contemporary theories of civility retain Locke’s connection between civility and respect, Bejan believes they are as potentially exclusive as his. This is the error Williams’s view remedies.
Bejan thus argues for a conception of civility in political disagreements based explicitly on Williams’s evangelicalism. She is not calling for citizens to proselytize for Christianity, but rather for them to follow Williams’s example in their speech. Today, we should understand civility such that it is compatible with insults and condemnations (“God damn America”) insofar as opening political debate to such apparently disrespectful language may be just what is necessary to enable ongoing discussion, and even, as Williams hoped, possible conversions.
Mere civility is certainly an underexplored view. Bejan must do more, however, to show that it is normatively attractive and applicable to the disagreements that characterize today’s political discussions.
First, seventeenth-century controversies were ineliminably transcendent. This is not to say that they were not also political; they were. Today, however, political disagreements often lack a transcendent aspect, and so some of the significance and intent of insult is different than in the seventeenth century. Calling someone a fascist or pinko may sometimes be meant to exclude them from the political community, as was also often the upshot of calling someone “Papist” or “Anti-Christ.” But “Anti-Christ” suggests hellfire, and without the transcendent dimension of the insult, Williams’s evangelical hopes may also be foreclosed. A partisan today may not care about converting her enemies to her view; she simply wishes to keep them from political power. She may well see them as politically irredeemable and view any conversions with suspicion. Williams did not view those he condemned this way, because he was a Christian universalist: No sin was irredeemable, no person permanently excluded from grace. Williams’s view thus still depended on a conception of Christian charity: He had to, to quote the cliché, “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Such love is a crucial part of the evangelist’s motivation for condemnation. If mere civility is to guide contemporary disputes, Bejan needs to explain what will motivate today’s citizens to convert their fellows in the absence of Christian charity.
Second, Bejan too quickly equates contemporary arguments for civility based on citizens’ equal claims to respect with Locke’s justification for civility based on Christian charity. Respect—along with equality before the law, rights to political participation, and so on—is generally meant in contemporary liberal views as a status all members of political communities share. There is an ambiguity in the term “respect,” because it is also an attitude one can take toward others’ beliefs or projects. But to claim that my fellow citizens deserve equal respect before the law is not to claim that I must respect their political opinions or religious preferences. I can consistently call my fellow a stupid fascist pig without thereby denying that they deserve the status of citizen and the respect afforded that status. At least among broadly Kantian liberals, it is this status claim view of respect that takes the place of Williams’s and Locke’s Christian charity and motivates equal regard despite deep political or religious difference. Similarly, I might argue that, all other things equal, it is better if citizens can view those with whom they disagree with attitudinal respect without also claiming that those who do not deserve attitudinal respect should be denied citizenship or political inclusion. Much of the distance Bejan claims between Williams’s and contemporary theories of civility depends on her trading on this ambiguity.
Finally, many of today’s least civil political controversies are ultimately racial. Consider, again, Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America.” His rhetoric has impeccable Protestant bona fides, and yet popular discussion of his claim ignored its deep—and white—religious heritage, instead racializing it by attributing his incivility to “black liberation theology.” The campus speech codes and free speech controversies that Bejan criticizes in her concluding reflections are similarly often about race. And racial slurs remain “denominations” that retain their offensiveness, while early modern religious slurs are now quaint. Bejan needs to address this issue head on. Mere civility would be improved by exploring whether and how it can account for the social location of incivility and its plausible roles in perpetuating structures of power and exclusion as well as efforts to resist them. Without such an account, Bejan risks implying that Jeremiah Wright’s incivility should be evaluated in just the same way as David Duke’s.
And so, Mere Civility is two-thirds of a virtuoso contribution to historical political theory: It offers a masterful contextualized interpretation of Williams’s, Hobbes’s, and Locke’s theories of civility, and it identifies a tantalizing, underexplored theoretical possibility in Williams’s conception. Without offering a deeper explanation of the moral grounds of mere civility, further clarifying its similarities and differences with contemporary liberal conceptions, and addressing the racial subtext of so many contemporary uncivil political disputes, however, Bejan cannot make good on her claim that Williams’s view should guide political theorizing about civility today.