A Few Thoughts on Righteous Minds and Religious Liberty

I believe it was Austin Powers’ father Nigel who once remarked, “There are only two […]

David Zahl / 7.11.14

I believe it was Austin Powers’ father Nigel who once remarked, “There are only two things I can’t stand in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures… and the Dutch.”

That movie came out while I was in college, and the joke struck a chord. Having been educated in proudly ‘progressive’ institutions, I grew up hearing a lot about tolerance. My secondary school, for example, hosted a semi-annual ‘Diversity Day’, where the student body took part in workshops designed to expose us to different cultures and points of view. Of course, there’s nothing more cynical than a bunch of sixteen year-olds weaned on Nirvana. We rolled our eyes (audibly at times) but enjoyed the break from homework. Looking back, ‘Interdisciplinary Day’ would have probably been a better billing, as the diversity of perspective didn’t extend far beyond the school’s pre-existing ideological commitments. Still, I give them credit. They were trying to do something new, and their efforts certainly got my peers and I thinking.

calvin-and-hobbes-relativismWe learned quickly that tolerance is a slippery virtue at any time of life, let alone adolescence. As students, we benefited from its elevation at our school (lax rules, engaged/’cool’ teachers, non-intrusive administrators, etc). But that didn’t prevent us from doing what teenagers have always done with anything that’s pushed on them: we pushed back. We looked for the limits of tolerance, and they weren’t hard to find. “We tolerate everyone except those who don’t value tolerance (enough)”, we’d cry–as if that settled the matter. I believe it was Usher who said, “I don’t wanna be tolerated, I wanna be loved.”

And yet, the older I get, the more testimonies I hear of people who were brought up in what might generously be termed ‘non-inclusive’ environments, the more I value what my school was trying to do. Their tactics may have been a tad heavy-handed, but we were at least given the space to push back, to react and occasionally be reactionary. For the most part, we experienced an atmosphere of genuine liberalism, or what has come to be called ‘inclusivism’ (Can’t hear that word anymore without thinking of Francis Spufford’s inspired comments). By allowing us to sound off like brats, they were including dissenters. Did we really want the alternative? If I’ve learned anything from the years since then, it’s that it’s easier to be a preppy in hippie context than vice versa. At least, it has been.

Religious liberty has been in the news quite a bit recently, and not just in reference to the Hobby Lobby situation. You don’t need to be a political scientist to predict that it will only become a more urgent issue in coming years. We’ve remained mercifully quiet on the subject–Matthew 5:10 notwithstanding, the whole ‘persecution complex’ thing is as unsightly as it is tempting. I suppose it requires a more unqualified embrace of victimhood than the original sinner in me can stomach.

But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the chatter. You ask around, and even the most mild-mannered and non-alarmist members of the faithful are starting to feel the heat of anti-religious sentiment. All of us who identify as ‘religious’ have different parameters for what constitutes infringement–for some of us that line may still be pretty far off–but you have to be a real optimist to deny that the cultural-political tide isn’t moving in a rather censorious direction. Everywhere I go (left, right, center, churches, bars, you name it), I hear people complaining about “not being able to say ______.” It wouldn’t be so concerning if the perceived repression didn’t equate to mounting resentment, or in some cases, rage.

Then one reads Peter Conn’s woefully belligerent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about “The Great Accreditation Farce”, in which he argues that Christian colleges, by virtue of their ‘statements of faith’, make a mockery of the academic accreditation system. By “Christian”, he’s referring to Evangelical schools, not Jesuit ones like the university I attended, which probably hints at the true roots of what’s going on here. Surely there are some fringe schools that do push the boundaries of what can/should be considered legitimate scholarship, but his main beef is with Wheaton College in Illinois, a school whose graduates are almost uniformly impressive and, surprisingly to those in some contexts, free-thinking. I’ve met quite a few myself.

What’s most offensive about the tirade, though, is its complete lack of humility or self-awareness. He makes not even the vaguest concession that the academy *may* ascribe to its own set of presuppositions, or dare I say, dogmas. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a less reasonable–or more transparently hot-tempered–tribute to the primacy of ‘reason’. As Alan Jacobs, a former Wheaton professor, points out the irony in a spirited response:

“The idea that religious faith and reason are incompatible can only be put forth by someone utterly ignorant of the centuries of philosophical debate on this subject, which continues to this day; and if it’s the primacy of reason that Conn is particularly concerned with, perhaps he might take a look at the recent (and not-so-recent) history of his own discipline, which is also mine. Could anyone affirm with a straight face that English studies in America has for the past quarter-century or more been governed by “the primacy of reason”? I seriously doubt that Conn even knows what he means by “reason.” Any stick to beat a dog.

Conn — in keeping with the simplistic dichotomies that he evidently prefers — is perhaps incapable of understanding that academic freedom is a concept relative to the beliefs of the academics involved. I have a sneaking suspicion that he is even naïve enough to believe that the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches, is, unlike Wheaton, a value-neutral institution. But as Stanley Fish pointed out years ago, “What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.”

While galling, I doubt Conn’s piece is the kind of thing that most devotees of liberal education would take seriously. At least, I would hope not. But I’ll leave the particulars of policy to people who know about such things. What interests me is how similar the underlying psychology seems to be to that of the (caricatures of the) colleges whose accreditation he opposes.



I tried to hint at this in the Cat Stevens post a few weeks back, but there’s clearly been something of a flip-flop of prevailing values and moralities over the past 15 or so years in this country. And yet, while attitudes may have shifted, from what I can tell, the nature of ‘power’ (and law) has not. Maybe it’s just ideological whiplash, but it is looking more and more like the bullies and the bullied have simply changed hats; the cycle of exclusion and retribution goes on. (Major kudos go to Andrew Sullivan, who has been tirelessly warning against the revenge mentality that appears to have taken hold in certain corners of the Left.) I’d wager this is because, to use the parlance we’ve been working with on the site recently, while the What of the little-l law has changed, the Why hasn’t. Hurt, and the anger that flows from it, is still the name of the game. As it does in a bad marriage, hurt often morphs into contempt, which then takes the form of the unassailable self-righteousness it despises. The perils of certainty, indeed (see bottom). What else could explain Conn’s willful ignorance of centuries of religiously informed education?

From the standpoint of a ‘low anthropology’, the situation may not be surprising. But that doesn’t make it any less saddening. One shudders to think of the inevitable and eventual reaction, whatever form it may take. Coercion never changed anyone’s mind under the previous ‘regime’, to say nothing of the heart, and it won’t under this one (or the next) either. Lord have mercy.

Anyway, Alan Jacobs said all this a lot better than I ever could earlier this week, in a brilliant article for the New Atlantis, in which he brings Mbird fave Jonathan Haidt’s understanding of “righteous minds” and “moral matrices” into dialogue with C.S. Lewis’ notion of “the inner ring”. It’s very much worth reading in its entirety:

Central to [Haidt’s] argument is this point: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” Our “moral arguments” are therefore “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

Haidt talks a lot about how our moral intuitions accomplish two things: they bind and they blind. “People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” “Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices.” The incoherent anti-religious rant by Peter Conn that I critiqued yesterday is a great example of how the “righteous mind” works — as are conservative denunciations of universities filled with malicious tenured radicals…

lostOnce we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us. And it’s worth noting, as Avery Pennarun has recently noted, that one of the things that makes smart people smart is their skill at such rationalization: “Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.”

In “The Inner Ring” Lewis portrays this group affiliation in the darkest of terms. That’s because he’s warning people about its dangers, which is important. But of course it is by a similar logic that people can be drawn into good communities, genuine fellowship — that they can become “members of a Body,” as he puts it in the great companion piece to “The Inner Ring,” a talk called “Membership.” (Both are included in his collection The Weight of Glory.) This distinction is what his novel That Hideous Strength is primarily about: we see the consequences for Mark Studdock as he is drawn deeper and deeper into an Inner Ring, and the consequences for Mark’s wife Jane as she is drawn deeper and deeper into a genuine community. I can’t think of a better guide to distinguishing between the false and true forms of membership than that novel.

And that novel offers something else: hope. Hope that we need not be bound forever by an inclination we followed years or even decades ago. Hope that we can, with great discipline and committed energy, transcend the group affiliations that lead us to celebrate members of our own group (even when they don’t deserve celebration) and demonize or mock those Outside. We need not be bound by the simplistic and uncharitable binaries of the Righteous Mind. Unless, of course, we want to be.

I wish I shared Jacobs’s hopeful view of ‘good communities’! Alas, maybe some remnant of that cynical 16 year old survives. I certainly believe the Church (universal) has an incredibly urgent contribution to make: tearing down inflated anthropologies on both sides of the political equation, and pointing to the hope that lies beyond them. It has the tools to do so; no more potent means exist than those in its possession: ‘original sin’ and the ‘forgiveness of sins’, the Law and the Gospel. The opportunity is there, but let’s face it–the Holy Spirit has his work cut out.

We spend our time making conciliatory speeches (and writing conciliatory blogposts) where the subtext often has to do with how we’re not ‘those kind’ of Christians. But if Jacobs and Haidt and Lewis are right, then perhaps we’re wasting our time. That is, if the vehemence runs as deep as they claim, then it does not discriminate as much as one might hope. A guy like Conn doesn’t want different, more ostensibly open religious colleges–he wants no religious colleges, period. The situation is not unlike the demonization of “secularism” one encounters on the opposite side of the spectrum. Conn’s feelings may be better articulated, but I suspect they are just as hereditary and rooted in fear/pride as those of his opponents, and as such, are not about to succumb to argument or fresh accreditation standards.

And yet, who knows – maybe we are about to enter a period of unprecedented peace and generosity of spirit. Maybe the vindictiveness will dissipate, and convictions will become secure enough for those ‘in power’ to show those who are ‘on the outs’ the grace they themselves were denied. We might see a little magnanimity, and, yes, tolerance. Stranger things have happened (in medieval Spain).

Thankfully, hope remains either way. Because sometimes ideological bloodlust cannot be abated by anything short of, well, a crucifixion. It’s a scary thought, as some of us have jobs to protect, tax-exempt statuses to maintain, familial loyalites to fortify(!)–but it might not be the end of the world. It might even be the beginning.