Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism

Christopher Oleson reviews Thaddeus Kozinski, The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It

To the typical inhabitant of a modern liberal democracy, the title of Thaddeus Kozinski's intriguing new book will probably sound a little puzzling, inasmuch as, within contemporary democractic culture, religious pluralism is not generally understood to be a "political problem." On the contrary, for the democratic soul, religious pluralism seems to be more a positive good, something to be protected and celebrated, rather than "solved" or overcome. One's religious commitments would have to be "extreme" and thus "anti-democratic" to take issue with liberalism's positive affirmation of religious diversity, for it is one of democratic modernity's greatest achievements to have crafted institutional arrangements that allow for the easy co-existence of various religious groups both with one another and with the overarching liberal political order.

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Secular democratic modernity can only claim not to have a religious pluralism problem because it has already implicitly solved this problem by subtly emasculating traditional religious identity

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One of the many insights of Thaddeus Kozinski's valuable contribution to the on-going conversation about the relationship between Faith and politics is to articulate with precision how secular democratic modernity can only claim not to have a religious pluralism problem because it has already implicitly solved this problem by subtly emasculating traditional religious identity and establishing, under the false veil of political neutrality, institutional arrangements charged with theological and metaphysical significance.

Thus, only by becoming enculturated to re-interpret religious belief in such a way that it can have no substantive implications for the social and political order, and correspondingly, by becoming miseducated to not notice the tacit establishment of a quite partisan sense of the good, freedom, and selfhood, do the citizens of secular democracies think that they have a neutral social order that need not view religious pluralism as politically problematic. For those whose religious creed is not merely an emotional accoutrement, this situation is obviously deeply troublesome, for the logic of secular liberalism, as Kozinski makes clear, would force the believer to treat his Faith commitments as merely therapeutic preferences of an autonomous self.

Clarifying this situation and working towards articulating a solution to it which is at once both honest about its principles, coherent in working them out, and politically expressive of the truth and ultimate happiness of man is the task that Kozinski sets himself in his book. He does this by successively engaging the thought of three influential and progressively illuminating political philosophers. John Rawls, Jacques Maritain, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Rawls serves as the quintessential philosophical voice of secular democratic liberalism, Maritain as the exponent of a Catholic hybridization of Thomistic political philosophy and modern democratic ideals, and MacIntyre as the most penetrating philosophical critic of liberal modernity and advocate of a local Thomistic politics of the common good against the bureaucratic nation-state.

Of the three, Kozinski is by far the most sympathetic to MacIntyre. Nevertheless, even his proposal falls short in Kozinski's eyes, for MacIntyre's vision of small communities of virtue does not quite attain to the level of truly political existence, remaining as it does, Kozinski claims, too local in its aspirations. More importantly for Kozinski, MacIntyre's thought problematically remains at the level of mere philosophy. Studiously avoiding the role of theologian, MacIntyre deprives himself of the resources of political theology, and thereby fails to affirm the necessity of a public recognition of divine revelation and Magisterial teaching as the most propitious conditions for a stable and morally healthy political state. As Kozinski's subtitle indicates, philosophy as such can offer little or no light on how to move a community of seriously diverse worldviews to a unified political order of virtue and human happiness. Only the eventual achievement of a confessionally Catholic state, Kozinski concludes, can overcome the limitations of political philosophy in general, and liberal modernity in particular.

Kozinski begins his argument by unpacking the hidden premises of John Rawls' mature work, Political Liberalism. Rawls' primary aim in this book is to articulate how, given the "fact of a reasonable pluralism," citizens with rival "comprehensive views" can equally affirm a unified democratic political order. Paradoxically, Rawls attempts to accomplish this by self-consciously not providing an account of the truth or goodness of his liberal conception of justice. Consequently, he invites each private citizen to affirm and justify it from within their own particular comprehensive view.

One might reasonably ask: what precisely is the "it" that such citizens are being asked to affirm, and where does the recognition of "it" come from? Rawls' answer is the purely political conception of justice implicitly embedded in the public political culture animating contemporary liberal democracies and giving us our sense of what is "free," "equal," and "fair." In other words, there simply is a customary way we democratic liberals politically order our lives that does not, and need not, have any intrinsic theoretical foundation or justification. In this way, Rawls does not defend this conception as "true" and indeed, he does not even think it can be defended as true in some universal, philosophical sense. It is simply the way "we," who inhabit the democracies of the modern west, publicly regard it as good to associate together as a political community. Hence, each citizen can accept and justify "our" liberal sense of justice in whatever way he wants to, so long as he does, in fact, accept it.

This prescinding altogether from the truth of political liberalism is what Kozinski calls Rawls' "postmodern turn." It is a pragmatic attempt to articulate a "politics for the post-enlightened" democratic societies whose political assumptions, Rawls believes, already functionally exist in good working order within the political culture. While these assumptions are not philosophically "true" for Rawls, they are nevertheless "reasonable," at least "for us." Kozinski quotes Richard Rorty's formulation of Rawls' position: "given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us."

In this way Rawls claims to be making room for the comprehensive views of the religiously diverse members of a democracy, and thus not to be imposing anything unreasonable on others. However, this self-image of toleration is thoroughly dispelled by Kozinski, who points out that, for Rawls, the "public political culture" exists as an exclusive and unimpeachable authority beyond which there is no appeal. Accordingly, any comprehensive view that does not correspond to the public political culture, or which regards political cultures as subject to dialectical scrutiny or some higher authority, are ipso facto deemed "unreasonable" and thus unacceptable within a liberal order. Not surprisingly, any traditional Christian "comprehensive view" falls under this category.

Even more objectionable, as Kozinski points out, is the fact that the very idea of the public political culture functioning in this totalizing and exclusivist way is not even a real aspect of our actual political culture, and so, as Kozinski points out, it is "a private belief of Rawls' own comprehensive doctrine, and thus inadmissible, according to Rawls' own criteria, as a public political authority." In other words, Rawls' position, if honestly and consistently viewed, is self-refuting. At the end of the day, Kozinski concludes, Rawls' project involves smuggling controversially foundatinalist and theologically charged principles into the political order under the guise of a purely "reasonable" and "non-theological pragmatism."

It is perhaps worth mentioning here another line of criticism which Kozinski later in the book levels against Maritain, but which perhaps applies even more to Rawls. It involves challenging the very idea that we have a coherent and commonly understood "public political culture" at all. Such an idea entails the existence within our culture of one, conceptually unified and commonly accepted set of political ideas. Yet, one of MacIntyre's most consistent and trenchant criticisms of liberal modernity is that no such thing exists. We may all use the words "freedom," "equality," "rights," "dignity," "law," "responsibility," "justice," but when pushed to be clear about the meaning of such terms, our culture has not common meaning for them.

What contemporary secular democracies actually have is an inconsistent and ultimately incommensurable mélange of fragmentary moral and political concepts derived from diverse and incompatible traditions (e.g., Biblical, Lockean, Puritan, Thomistic, Utilitarian, Marxist, Weberian, Feminist). What we do have in common is what MacIntyre calls a "common moral rhetoric," but this only serves to disguise our deep and interminable disagreements and confusions. If this is, in fact, the case, then Rawls cannot invoke the "public political culture" supposedly operative within modern democracies, as though there were actually such a thing providing us with a common understanding of liberal justice. What we really get from Rawls is not a formulation of our common political culture, but Rawls' own tendentious Ivy League brand of secular democratic socialism.

Far superior in Kozinski's eyes, and yet still inadequate to meet the challenges of authentic political order, is Jacques Maritain's call for a New Christendom that is both democratic and pluralistic. It is superior in that, whereas Rawls sought to craft a political philosophy that supposedly remained agnostic about the human good, Maritain maintained that "exact knowledge of the ends of human life" is essential for a sound understanding of the right order of the state. And since man is ordered to a Good which transcends the political, the political common good must recognize and integrate this truth into its actuality. Thus, for Maritain, political philosophy must become "subalternated" (i.e., dependent for some of its principles) to theology.

Nevertheless, this does not entail a return to the sacral order of Medieval Christendom in Maritain's mind. As Kozinski makes clear, this is because " there is a convergence, for Maritain, of the accepted core of values of today's liberal democracies with the temporal prescriptions of the Gospel." In other words, the democratic notions of human rights, equality, and religious freedom are exactly what the Gospel demands, so there can exist a happy co-existence of a Christian social order with constitutionally pluralistic democratic politics. While a Thomistic political philosophy is thus the de facto justification, and indeed the only coherent grounding, for such a political order, citizens of other religious and philosophical perspectives are free to provide their own understanding of its truth and goodness, no matter how false or incoherent, for Maritain's democratic charter does not prescribe the expression of alternative political self-understandings.

Kozinski argues that this hybridization of Thomistic political philosophy and democratic pluralism is ultimately unsuccessful for a number of reasons, not all of which can be discussed here, but all of which are worth listening to. To begin with, Kozinski claims that Maritain simply misjudged and seriously overestimated the lasting Christian content of modern democratic sensibilities. He mistook the emergent moral sobriety and spiritual openness of devastated, post-war Europe for the settled convictions and habits of Western democracies. In this way he underestimated the past and present countervailing, anti-Christian currents operative in modern culture and politics.

As a result, Maritain was far too sanguine about the desacralization of the modern state and far too unwary about the consequent subjugation of the Church to a purely private (and hence irrelevant) sphere once the secular state came to possess a complete monopoly of temporal power. As a result, Maritain's formulation does not have the resources to recognize the gradual subversion and transposition of operative moral and political priniciples that has taken place within Western democracies during the modern period.

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The consequence of Maritain's vision, Kozinski reasons, is to create a "morally obligatory divorce" between a citizen's religious truth claims and his social and political life

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More problematically, Kozinski asks, "would not active participation in a political order that a priori precludes the political implementation of religiously particularistic political theologies tend to habituate the citizen into privatizing his politically relevant religious truth claims, at least in his political habits, but even in his private thoughts?" The consequence of Maritain's vision, Kozinski reasons, is to create a "morally obligatory divorce" between a citizen's religious truth claims and his social and political life. The consequence will be the unwitting establishment of a liberal political theology, a "democratic faith," Kozinski argues, that is unreconcilable with a fully Catholic understanding of political life. Kozinski sites William Cavanaugh: "Although Maritain wishes to purge rights language of its basis in liberalism and locate its inspiration in the Gospel, it is the Gospel which ends up being supplanted, precisely because it is banished in effect from explicit insertion into public discourse."

While I am sympathetic to Kozinski's concerns and agree that any democratic order that categorically forbids its citizens from advocating and working toward the realization, within political society, of their moral and religious commitments, will harmfully tend to compartmentalize and privatize those beliefs, I wonder whether this criticism of Maritain might not be stating things a bit too categorically. Perhaps it's not, but I wonder if, at least on this specific issue, Kozinski and Maritain are really more divided in cultural and historical judgment rather than in philosophical and theological principle. For the latter to be the case, it would have to be true that Maritain would not want every citizen to embrace the Gospel and then to publicly reason morally and politically from its principles. I am not entirely persuaded that this is true.

The difference, at least as it seems to me, lies in their contrasting assessment of the practical insurmountability of the modern condition of religious pluralism. Maritain thinks that it is not going to be overcome in any foreseeable future, and so he reasons accordingly. Kozinski, on the other hand, envisions and proposes a path to its eventual transcendence. I could be wrong, but were the latter to actually happen within a political community, I doubt that Maritain would have a problem with such a society giving political recognition to its common Catholic Life, especially because such a political recognition would ipso facto recognize the right and duty of every human being to seek the truth about God free from political coercion. If Kozinski himself regards it as imprudent to force a Catholic establishment upon a predominantly non-Catholic society, then perhaps their ositions on this issue are less starkly opposed than might otherwise appear to be the case. This is not to say that there are not other problems with Maritain's position, and it needs to be said that Kozinski's treatment of all this is much fuller and more nuanced than I can here do credit to. I would only caution that Maritain might apply his political principles differently if his cultural and historical assessment were different.

The final thinker Kozinski analyzes is, as we have mentioned, Alasdair MacIntyre. I will not begin to pretend that I can adequately do justice to Kozinski's wide-ranging and provocative treatment of this eminent philosopher. Suffice it to say that Kozinski provides a nice background to the development of MacIntyre's critique of liberal modernity and lays out the principal reasons why MacIntyre regards it as conceptually bankrupt. Kozinski then explains the nature of MacIntyre's understanding of rationality as "tradition constituted." This conception of rational enquiry sees the human intellect as capable of grasping objective truth, but of always doing so only within a particular community characterized by a particular and developing history. There are many profound issues and pertinent questions to be raised about MacIntyre's tradition-constituted rationality, but they cannot be adequately treated here. Suffice it to say that there is much insight in MacIntyre's formulation of the matter, although there are places in his writings where his formulation appears, at least to me, to be in danger of reducing philosophy to dialectic.

As MacIntyre is at pains to show, the fullest and most perfect expression of tradition-constituted rationality is to be found in the tradition of Aristotelian-Thomism, for not only has it been able to continually confront and overcome the questions and problems that have internally arisen within it, but it is also only in light of the principles and explanatory power of this particular tradition that the problems and failures of the philosophical traditions that have subsequently emerged in Western intellectual life are adequately explained and resolved. In other words, in the internal and external dialectical engagements that have characterized the history of the Thomistic tradition, Thomism has shown itself again and again as singularly successful.

Applying this to politics, MacIntyre uses the resources of this tradition to mount a fierce critique of modern liberalism and from it to lay down the outlines of a healthy political philosophy rooted in an authentic understanding of the common good. Such a politics is, for MacIntyre, localist, virtue-based, and rooted in the natural law. Moreover, it can only be truly lived within a community that shares a common tradition of rational enquiry, which is to say, that accepts a common understanding of what is virtuous and what is according to nature. If such communities are to survive under the conditions of the modern nation state, they will always have to maintain an uneasy and merely pragmatic modus vivendi with the large-scale bureaucracies and powerful financial interests that presently exercise a disintegrating monopoly over contemporary nation-states and the market.

While Kozinski is deeply sympathetic to MacIntyre's critique and to the broad contours of his positive proposal, he nevertheless has some very substantive criticisms of his overall project. I will only mention two. First, MacIntyre has "a defective notion of the state" inasmuch as he unreasonably rejects large-scale instantiations of it as legitimate vehicles of political life. His local, tradition-constituted communities are "insufficiently political" because they are, according to Kozinski, simply too small to embody the "law, authority, and citizenship" necessary for real political life in the face of the liberal state. "if MacIntyre's practical model could be adjusted for a larger-scale application, it could acquire a genuinely political character." As it is, "MacIntyre is left with no possible site for overarching political community compatible with the basic condition of modernity -- he offers Aristotelianism without a polis."

This criticism appears to me to be rooted in an ambiguity. Its cogency, it seems to me, depends upon not recognizing a distinction in MacIntyre's writings, which I have always (although perhaps mistakenly) presumed to be operative in them. This distinction is one Aristotle himself makes between the best constitution simply speaking, and the best constitution for a particular people existing within particular circumstances here and now. Thus, there is a difference between what would be the best form of tradition-constituted political community all other things being equal, and what would be the best form of tradition-constituted political community forced to exist under the omnipresent hegemony of secular, emotivist, bureaucratic nation-states. I take "the communities of moral and intellectual virtue" whose formation MacIntyre regards as necessary in this "new Dark Ages" ruled by managerial barbarians to be the latter variety. Given that there is not immediate, realistic prospect of forming truly independent, tradition-constituted and small-scale political communities on the order of the fifth century Athenian polis or the Republic of Venice as it existed from the seventh to the end of the eighteenth century, it is inevitable that MacIntyre's communities will not be able to embody a fully political existence. But of course, one could make the same criticism of Benedictine monasteries during the first Dark Ages. They too were not fully political inasmuch as they existed under intolerable external conditions which prevented the full actualization of political life around them by those of its members striving to keep civilization alive as best they could under such hostile circumstances.

Nevertheless, even if a MacIntyrean tradition-constituted community could come into existence without having to worry about external factors like the surrounding Nanny State or the threat of being swallowed by China, MacIntyre would still affirm that such a community still needs to be small-scale in order to be authentically political. Here MacIntyre is simply being a true Aristotelian, for in Book VII of the Politics Aristotle asks the question of the proper size of a polis' population and geographical boundaries. He writes, "certainly experience shows that it is difficult and perhaps impossible for a polis with too large a population to be well-governed." This is because real political order requires mutual recognition and common deliberation. When a state gets too large it cannot be inhabited by citizens jointly sharing in political life, but only subjects of a distant and relatively anonymous power. I think this, at least in part, is what MacIntyre is getting at in the text quoted by Kozinski: "The second condition for an acceptable political order is its size, 'a relatively small scale society whose relationships are not deformed by compartmentalization'" (166).

It seems to be that the United States had something like this authentically local politics back in the 1830s when Tocqueville visited our shores. Speaking of New England townships, Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, "In that part of the Union, political life was born in the very heart of the townships; one might almost say that in origin each of them was a little independent nation... In all that concerns themselves alone the townships remain independent bodies, and I do not think one could find a single inhabitant of New England who would recognize the right of the government of the state to control matters of purely municipal interest."

These are truly remarkable words for a twenty-first century American ear. What citizen of New Haven, for example, would now think it preposterous for the state of Connecticut or the federal government to try to regulate his city's internal affairs in significant matters relating to education, public health, standards of public decency, or economic policy? What citizen of Hartford, Concord, or Providence still thinks of their political life and identity as primarily bound up in their township? And who would now regard their town or city as a kind of independent political community whose right to govern its internatl affairs in these matters is both substantive and protected? The answer, of course, is "no one today," and yet Tocqueville could write that, in America, where the instinct for independence was especially pronounced, "every village is a sort of republic accustomed to rule itself."

Further highlighting the political distance separating our modern, centralized nation-state from earlier American political existence is the way in which Tocqueville describes the nature and role of the individual states. Summing up their political status, Tocqueville says succinctly: "In a word, there are twenty0four little sovereign nations who together form the United States." Tocqueville could make this astounding statement because, for our earlier American brothers and sisters, "interest, custom, and feelings are united in concentrating real political life in the state, and not in the Union," for the latter "is in the peculiar position that it only forms one people in relation to certain aims; for all other purposes it is no such thing."It is this kind of political life which I think MacIntyre is calling us to attempt to recover. The fact that we cannot fully do so in any way "compatible with the basic condition of modernity" is not a flaw in MacIntyre's proposal, but a lamentable reality of the unpolitical condition which is modernity. If MacIntyre is offering us "Aristotelianism without a polis," it is not by choice.

The second criticism that I will mention touches on the central thesis of Kozinski's book. It pertains to the inability of philosophy by itself to solve the problem of political order. Kozinski writes, "MacIntyre the philosopher is unable to argue effectively against any anti-Thomistic or anti-Catholic prescription for an ideal political order because such a prescription would inevitably involve theological judgments and commitments... The methodological avoidance of theological judgments and commitments is the primary weakness in MacIntyre's project, for it attenuates the effectiveness of both the vindication of his own theologically based and informed Thomistic tradition, and its dialectical challenge to rival traditions. Any intellectual tradition articulating an ideal political order must necessarily include a judgment as to whether God has communicated His will to man regarding the political order." Accordingly, as MacIntyre himself recognizes, "a purely secular, purely philosophical understanding of the moral life of man is inevitably insufficient." There can be no political wisdom that is not ultimately theological in its scope and political in its aspirations.

Rooted as it is in perennial Catholic teaching on the nature of the political community and its right relation to God, there is a great deal of truth in Kosinzski's conclusion. Surely the most stable, healthy, and politically wise society is one where its people are both publicly and personally united in the true Faith, illumined by Divine Revelation, and able to be sanctified by Sacramental Grace. My only concern here is a potentially misleading sense of philosophy that one might take away from Kozinski's book. As a final reflection, I would only urge a greater caution, or at least more explicit qualification, in how Kozinski formulates the limitations of philosophy. Limitations there certainly are, but a "purely philosophical" understanding of the moral life of man is not a "purely secular" understanding.

It is Saint Thomas' correct understanding that the natural light of the intellect is able to see that the perfection of human nature, and the only thing that can ultimately fulfill human nature's desire for happiness, is to see the essence of God. Accordingly, it is, for Saint Thomas, a prudential dictate of moral philosophy and a precept of the natural law that one should seek to contemplate God as best one can if one is to be as happy as possible and move toward one's end. Indeed, prayer, devotion, and sacrifice are all, for Saint Thomas, dictates of the natural law, for unaided human reason can come to see philosophically that God exists, is the creator and governor of the universe, the giver of all good things, and the ultimate source from whom we derive our being, to whom we owe our obedience, and in whom we find our joy. Because of this, Saint Thomas annexes the virtue of religion under the cardinal virtue of justice. In other words, it is a natural virtue, before it is, like the other virtues, taken up and perfected by grace.

What all of this means is that philosophy, understood properly, is not a secular activity, if "secular" means having no theoretical or practical reference to God as the beginning and end of all things. As Saint Thomas sees it, the deliverances of both the theoretical and practical activity of natural reason, which is to say, the conclusions of metaphysics and moral philosophy, are ultimately theological and religious in nature. Indeed, the very name Aristotle gives to first philosophy is "theology," for the end of the speculative intellect is the contemplation of God. Similarly, the virtue of "religion" is the perfection of reason's moral activity. Saint Thomas argues that religion is the greatest of the moral virtues because it directs all of the other virtues to be done for the sake of adoring, obeying, and giving thanks to God. That these natural activities of the intellect are hindered by our sinful condition and made dramatically easier by the infusion of grace and the light of revelation does not change their being properly philosophical conclusions of the natural intellect. If Saint Thomas is right about all this, and I believe that he is, then I think philosophy might have more to say about the right ordering of a political community than Kozinski's argument seems to allow.

I do not mean to claim that Kozinski is denying philosophy's legitimate role in the dialectical conversation between rival traditions. Indeed, he explicitly criticizes the "Radical Orthodox" theologian, John Milbank, for his fideistic assertion that philosophy can play no role in the adjudication between competing narratives. Kozinski clearly does not think, as Milbank does, that the Christian story can only "out-narrate" the liberal-nihilistic story, as thought it were only a more attractive mythos. Nevertheless, it is sometimes hard to avoid the impression that, for Kozinski, natural reason can accomplish noticeably less than what Saint Thomas, for instance, thought it could. Whether, and in what way, this might be the case remains to be further developed in Kozinski's future contributions to this conversation.

Even with this caveat in mind, Thaddeus Kozinski's book remains a gold mine of rich reflection on the dilemma of articulating a just political order in the condition of secular, pluralistic modernity. As such, it has been a difficult struggle to limit my reactions to this book, for there is so much in it to provoke and challenge one to think more deeply and fruitfully about the issues it treats. There are few thinkers out there astute enough to call into question the regnant assumptions of liberal modernity and open enough to avail themselves of the Church's perennial teaching on these matters. For anyone seeking insight into the deeper philosophical issues of our present political conundrum, The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It is a worthy book that deserves a careful reading. +

Christopher Oleson is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their six children in Santa Paula, CA. The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism is published by Lexington Books, 2010. Dr. Oleson's review, originally published in Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 2011), is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.