Friday, August 24, 2007

"What you mean "we", kemo sabe?"

I read Mark Lilla's piece in the New York Times Magazine recently, about how liberal secular societies are in danger of being overwhelmed by the inrushing return of Islamic theocracy. A riposte is here, a bit of one-upmanship is here, and a complaint that 'the dog ate my blogpost' is here. I don't have much of anything to add, other than that it's nice to see that even liberal academics can be made to admit that having the West's cultural atmosphere shiver with the schhhwwiinnnnggg!! of scimitars being unsheathed is indeed something that should make intelligent people gulp in apprehension.

But I was puzzled by the way he cast this whole dilemma. He's American, born in Detroit, and spent his entire academic career in U.S. universities, according to the biographical sources I've consulted. Yet, look at how he speaks: "Today, we have progressed..." "We in the West are disturbed and confused." "We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled,..." Yet all the while he's saying "we", he's not talking about we Americans, nor even we rank-and-file Westerners. He's referring to the great figures from the mighty European intellectual tradition, in whose invisible company he's passed his professional life, and from whose stores of wisdom he's furnished his own intellect. The American experience merits barely an aside:

As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.

He says "miracle", but the tone sounds like he means "fluke". He seems quite divorced from America's spiritual taproot. ("...only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks"...well, communist China had those things, too--that's how Mao managed to die in bed.) There's no Luther or Erasmus in American history; rather, America's spiritual life has always been more of a people's affair. This can be seen in negative example, in H. L. Mencken's constant (though entertaining) pummeling of the ubiquitous "booboisie". It can been seen in positive example in having simply grown up in small town, church-going America. No theorists needed.

And what European observers never quite seem to get is that separation of church and state freed the church to follow its own purpose in the national life. The fact that it still has a purpose, that it still illumines and sustains the everyday lives of ordinary people, without being a tool of the state, must seem anomalous indeed to post-Christian theorists. It isn't an easy arrangement, as Richard John Neuhaus of First Things once noted:

The problem, of course, is that neither [church nor state] is prepared to remain within its institutional boundaries. Government, if it is to be sustainable, engages beliefs and loyalties of an ultimate sort that can properly be called religious. As the impulse of the modern state is to define all public space as governmental space, so the consequence is a tendency toward "civil religion." Religion, on the other hand, if it represents a comprehensive belief system, speaks to the human condition in all its aspects, including the right ordering (the government) of public life....Thus each institution is, in the eyes of the other, constantly bursting its bounds. Therein is the foundation of the open-ended argument between church and state. Open-ended, that is, so long as a society professes to be democratic.
-- Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, 1984

But weal prevails nonetheless, most of the time, on these happy shores. Dr. Lilla is surely a more capable analyst of these things than scribblers such as I. He should turn his gaze homeward more often.

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