The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the ’’end times,’’ the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement -- all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.
No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge.
What if it is, so to speak, "no accident" that liberalism is failing, if its precepts and nostrums are unsatisfying, not because human ignorance and credulousness are ultimately insuperable, but because they offer spiritual gruel too thin to satisfy the longings of the human spirit, i.e., because, ultimately, liberal teachings are inadequate to nature and human nature? This is a theoretical possibility that Lilla doesn’t want to confront, so he follows
Stephen Macedo in an effort to procure by coercion and coercive civic education what he can’t win theoretically or--dare I say it?--rationally. It’s not clear to me, in other words, that more or less secular liberals have the better theory, that the intellectual, moral, and spiritual heft is all on the secular liberal side of the debate, Lilla to the contrary notwithstanding.
By raising the spectre of contemporary parallels to the collapse of Weimar Germany into Nazism, Lilla seems also to have joined the confraternity of fever swampers thus far largely populated by members of the secular Left. I can think of many differences between our situation and that of interwar Germany, but the one most salient for our purposes is that revealed religion is a much bigger force now. That is, it seems to me, a strength, so long as religionists adhere to the belief that faith cannot be coerced, which is central to Christian doctrine, if not always to Christian practice. (It goes without saying that it isn’t necessarily central to the doctrines or practices of other faith traditions.) This is something that Locke highlighted in Christian doctrine, and so can serve as part of an "overlapping consensus" between a liberalism respectful of faith and a faith chary of coercing consciences. But it’s not just the "liberal" churches and denominations that hold to this position; the fever swampers are wrong to assume that those committed to evangelization are willing to make use of coercion. As I argued here, conservative evangelicals have by and large embraced the spirits of 1776 and 1787, if not necessarily of 2005.