George: This is what she said to me, “Can we change the subject?”
Jerry: See, now that I don’t care for.
George: Right. I mean, we’re on a subject. Why does it have to be changed?
Jerry: It should resolve of its own volition.
George: That’s exactly what I said, except I used the word “momentum.”
Jerry: Momentum – same thing.
(Seinfeld S7E02, “The Postponement”)
This comedic blip from Seinfeld might seem miles away from the early modern debates around religious toleration, but Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility demonstrates that early modern thinkers expressed similar concerns about the power of free-flowing conversation. In this reading, Martin Luther, George, and Jerry stand on one side, defending the importance of ongoing debate. On the other side stand early-modern strategies of tolerance that use speech norms to keep peace in the face of religious argument. For both sides of this debate, republican notions of civility can provide important ways of situating a demand to either continue or avoid further discussion. According to Bejan, however, understanding the evangelical core of this problem opens up modern readers to the insights of an often overlooked political thinker who sided with Luther as well: Rhode Island founder, Roger Williams. In contrast to the subject-changers Jerry and George decry, Williams’s vision of toleration did not insist on carefully policing speech to avoid disquiet.
Like Luther, Williams held that aggressive evangelism entailed offensive speech, or what Luther had described as the “scandalizing as of the scandalous.” Extending this argument more generally, Williams concluded that, in principle, strong spiritual matters were of enough significance that most forms of evangelism would necessarily entail offense. As he put it, “when a kingdome or state, or towne or family, lyes and lives in the guild of false God, false Christ, false worship: no wonder if sore eyes be troubled at the appearance of the light [the gospel].” Thus, Williams argued that the tools of civility needed to be limited from abuses by the state to protect against the suppression of evangelism.
To address the proper limits the state should impose on religion, Williams developed a vision of state-church reform unlike his contemporaries, notably John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who receive treatment in the book’s third and fourth chapters. According to Bejan, Hobbes, and Locke turned to civic republican thought to address the problems posed by religious pluralism in an age of religious conflict. After examining this history, Hobbes concluded that religious rituals surrounding civic authority served to unify and legitimate sovereignty but could be easily maintained as long as dissenters observed a civil silence, or acknowledged their minority status by abstaining from public ritual and debate. In contrast, Locke insisted that it was the use of force to compel religious belief for ritual purposes that had led to the religious strife of the Reformation. In turn, Locke advocated for a civil charity: a willingness to disagree publically but to do so politely, with an openness to change.
Williams disagreed with both of these readings. Instead of utilizing the framework of civic republicanism to replace the moral unity of pre-Reformation Europe, Williams embraced the norms of civic life as the necessary condition for religious mission, debate, and conversion. Here, the importance of Luther’s thinking is crucial, and can be gleaned from examining Williams’s response to the uncivil activities of Quaker religious activists. Williams rejected the Quakers not because they offend a plurality of civic norms, but rather because they broke those norms that could propel conversion. According to Bejan,
To ‘cut off’ others in conversation [as was Quaker practice] was not to convert them but rather to destroy the essential flow of civil disagreement that was the life’s blood of a tolerant society…. On Williams view, the Quakers thus made the same mistake as their persecutors by failing to distinguish between the standards of mere civility and true spirituality.
While the stakes were substantially more transcendent for Williams, the point of contention is the same as with Jerry and George—conversation (particularly possibly offensive religious evangelism) needed to unfold for it to be effective. Parties should freely protest one another, but should never end the discussion prematurely.
In linking Luther and Williams, Bejan wants to underline the evangelical orientation that runs through center of Williams’s thought. In this, she argues against scholars who have repeatedly cast Williams as a kind of proto-multiculturalist (notably Martha Nussbaum) and in doing so have overlooked his “obnoxious” demeanor and aggressive religious proselytizing. Here the “mere” in mere civility is a reflection of Williams’s high standards for “true spirituality,” which, like many of his sectarian peers, caused him to embrace a separation of church and state to protect religion from the sways of political fashion. Unlike many of his sectarian peers, however, Williams held strong that the decorum reinforced by civility codes could be a crucial barrier to spiritual and political chaos. The Quaker compulsion for interruption is again a useful contrast:
For Williams . . . the virtue of civility in a tolerant society rested on the way in which the rules of respectful behavior could be observed and maintained no matter what one thought about others, their culture, or their most fundamental and sacred beliefs . . . toleration in no way required respect for others or their folly nor did it require that one keep one’s negative judgments to oneself. It did require, however, that one continue to include and engage others in conversation, in accordance with whatever culturally contingent norms of civil worship obtained.
Civility’s mere-ness, as such, was its greatest strength. Ironically, the limited ability of civic norms to adjudicate questions of ultimate meaning, entailed that it could also productively sustain the boundaries of heated (and often offensive) conversation. In turn, it could support evangelism without collapsing into the disciplinary state embraced by the Puritan missionaries in Massachusetts, or the spiritual anarchy evidenced in Quaker’s confrontational tactics.
In the book’s epilogue, Bejan seeks to situate how Williams’s theory can provide a more accurate way of describing America’s state-church system and emphasizes how Williams’s view of “mere civility” imposed more substantive articulations of the uses and limits of free speech. In this, she situates Williams as the practical founder of a new mode of religious and political compact, a kind of “established disestablishmentarian congregationalism” that protects evangelism (that is free speech joined with the freedom of religion) for reasons that are “more than just prudential.”
Broadly, I agree with Bejan that Williams’s embrace of evangelism and his “mere civility” designed to address the possible conflicts it produced was “an ingenious solution to the problem of uncivil religious disagreement . . . . that has fundamentally shaped the institutional and intellectual context in which we live” but would have liked to see more attention to the transmission and spread of Williams’s notion of mere civility. This is particularly interesting given that Williams eventually fell out of power in Rhode Island, and so tracking events there can provide an interesting set of details about how Williams tried to institutionalize his system, and where he failed. Given these events, I’m curious about how his message was received by fellow congregational dissenters in Rhode Island who (at least, in part) also saw Massachusetts elites’ understanding of congregational reform as too strict and Quakers as too radical. Did they embrace mere civility, while castigating Williams’s increasing radicalism and isolation?
The other conclusion Bejan reaches is that Williams’s struggles with evangelical preaching reminds us that if civility is “to have a meaning distinct from a shared vision of public life predicated on a fundamental consensus, it must accommodate the feelings of disrespect, disaffection, and contempt to such these disagreements inevitably give rise.” Given the recent presidential election in the United States, it would seem that incivility in our public discourse is here to stay. Despite many philosophers’ high hopes for civil discourse, Bejan’s account of “mere civility” provides a more minimal set of arguments to sustain continued political engagement in the face of this unfortunate change in public decorum. Civility, it turns out, is much less than we imagine: At the very least it’s an agreement to continue the discussion. This may sound like an empty promise to some, but Bejan reminds us that so did the notion of a state without religion. If readers balk at the notion of “Civility in the Age of Trump” I advise they turn to Bejan’s defense of a minimal vision of civility. Such trying times will call for patience and a need for recurrent reminders of our shared purposes as fellow citizens. At the very least, Bejan’s account seems to suggest that what matters first is that the conversation continues moving of it’s own volition. Or its own “momentum.” Both seem to work fine.