Religious Conviction and Democratic Etiquette

Published May 20, 2004

During the American civil rights movement, a piece of African-American wisdom came into broad circulation in the United States: “You’ve got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” Which meant, simply, that public officials must act on their convictions, not just talk about them. It’s a useful reminder that courage in public life is measured by deeds as well as words.

In the real world – the real world of Christian conviction and the real world of democratic politics – the two are not so easily separated, however. “Talking the talk,” often thought the easier of the two, can in fact be more difficult in pluralistic societies where different moral grammars and vocabularies are all in play at once. The question for discussion tonight is, how do we “talk the talk” of religiously-informed moral conviction so that our arguments can be considered and weighed by our fellow-citizens – or at least those among them who understand that moral judgment plays a crucial role in the policy process?

Even as the Anglophone world has become more strikingly secular in its public culture, a variety of Christian voices – some modulated, others shrill – insist, rightly, on a place at the table of democratic deliberation, especially on crucial life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the legal regulation of the new biotechnologies. Put these voices together with the utilitarian moral grammar that is the default position in much of the West, and what the late American Jesuit social ethicist John Courtney Murray used to call the essence of a civil society, “creeds intelligibly in conflict,” can seem more a cacophony than a symphony. So the question, to repeat, is, how do we “talk the talk”? How do we bring a measure of grammatical and syntactical order to the public debate so that the genuine conversation that is the lifeblood of democracy can take place?


So far as we know, the apostle Paul was not overly vexed about the public policy of Athens in the first century of the common era; but Paul’s struggle to “translate” the Christian Gospel into terms that the Athenians could understand and engage suggests that the issue confronting Christians has a venerable history. Paul’s invocation of the “unknown god” to the men gathered on the Areopagus was, of course, an evangelical tactic aimed at the religious conversion of his audience; the book of Acts does not suggest that Paul was very much concerned to reform deficit financing, health care, education, or defense appropriations in Greater Athens. But that evangelical instinct which led the apostle to seek a language-a grammar, if you will-through which the Athenians could grasp (and be grasped by) the claims of the Gospel is something on which we might well reflect, as we ponder such decidedly secondary and tertiary questions as deficit financing, health care reform, education, and defense appropriations in our countries – not to mention such “first order” questions as the life issues, which are at the moral foundations of free and virtuous societies.

Paul was a man at home with at least two moral-intellectual “grammars”: the Judaic, in which he had been rabbinically trained, and the Hellenistic, which dominated elite culture in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. We may be sure that Paul regarded the Judaic grammar as superior to the Hellenistic, but he did not hesitate to employ the latter when he deemed it necessary for the sake of the Gospel.

This grammatical ecumenicity, as we might call it, was memorably captured in Paul’s familiar boast, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b) Again, the questions behind this present discussion are questions of considerably less consequence than the salvation of souls. But if, in such a grand cause, the apostle of the gentiles could appeal to his audiences through language and images with which they were most familiar-if, to get down to cases, Paul could expropriate an Athenian idol as an instrument for breaking open the Gospel of Christ, the Son of the Living God-then perhaps it is incumbent upon us, working in the far less dramatic precincts of public policy, to devise means of translating our religious convictions into language and images that can illuminate for all our fellow-citizens the truths of how we ought to live together, as we have come to understand them through faith and reason.

There is danger in this, of course, and it should be squarely faced: Christians eager to be heard in the public square today may, through an excess of grammatical ecumenicity, so attenuate their message that the sharp edge of truth gets blunted, and thus debased. Flaccidity in the cause of a misconceived public ecumenism has been one dimension of the decline of the academic study of religion in the West, as it has been a dimension of the old Protestant establishments. Some would suggest that a similar disposition to excessive public correctness, as that set of attitudes is defined by the tastemakers of society, has also misshaped certain interpretations of the Roman Catholic ethic of life.

Moreover, it can often seem as if our cultural moment demands uncompromising confrontation rather than polite dialogue. When unborn children in America have less legal standing than an endangered species of bird in a national forest; when any conceivable configuration of consenting adults sharing body parts is considered in enlightened circles to constitute a “marriage”; when illegitimacy rates skyrocket while birth rates plummet: well, one is reminded of Orwell’s observation, two generations ago, that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” There are some hard, home truths to be told on the various Mars Hills of our countries, and one need not doubt that the telling of such truths, even in a publicly accessible grammar, is going to bring down upon one’s head the odium of those committed to the establishment of the Kingdom or Republic of the Imperial Autonomous Self. Under such circumstances, the old rural wheeze which tells us that we may as well get hung for a sheep as for a goat retains its pertinence.

But the good news is that the bad news is not all the news there is. For in certain signs of these times we may also be seeing a new public recognition of the enduring realities of religious conviction and a new willingness to concede a place for religiously based moral argument in the public square. Both our countries are governed by men who are quite publicly unapologetic about their Christian faith. Both our countries have leading religious figures who are not shy about speaking what they understand to be Christian truth to power – even if we might have serious disagreements with their understanding of what Christian truth requires in public life. The “generation of 1968” is greying and waning in influence; and in the United States, at least, welcome signs of a fresh commitment to leading an authentically Christian life in the public square are evident among young adults – which is to say, among the children of the “1968” generation. (As one wit had it, there are many ironies in the fire, indeed.)


Still, the sheer fact that religiously based public moral argument seems “okay” again in certain influential quarters does not suggest the end of our problem.What we may have today, through a confluence of forces, is an opening through which to begin the slow and laborious process of reclothing what Father Richard John Neuhaus has frequently called the “naked public square.” The question is how, and in what livery, the square will be reclothed.

Permit me an example from my national history, because I believe Abraham Lincoln, and specifically his Second Inaugural Address, provides an important historical model for contemporary reflection. The American Civil War, as you know, was an extraordinarily lethal affair. As Lincoln rose on the Capitol steps to take the presidential oath of office for the second time in March 1865, some half a million Americans had killed each other in the preceding four years. How was he to speak to all Americans, on both sides of that struggle?

In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln interpreted the national agony of a violent and sanguinary civil war in explicitly biblical terms, citing Matthew’s Gospel (“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh”) and the Psalmist (“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”) to buttress his general hermeneutic claim that the workings-out of the American democratic experiment were caught up in a divinely ordered plan for human history.

Now, can anyone reasonably argue that, in his deliberate choice of biblical language and in his appeal to the notion of a providential purpose in history, Lincoln was excluding anyone from the public debate over the meaning and purpose of the War Between the States? Can it be reasonably contended that Lincoln’s attempt to prepare the United States for reconciliation by offering a biblically based moral interpretation of the recent national experience constituted an unconstitutional “imposition” of belief and values on others?

Americans recognize Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as perhaps the greatest speech in our history precisely because, with singular eloquence and at a moment of unparalleled national trauma, it spoke to the entire country in an idiom that the entire country could understand. No one was excluded by Lincoln’s use of biblical language and imagery; all, irrespective of confessional conviction (or the lack thereof), were included in the great moral drama whose meaning the President was trying to fix in the national consciousness.

It is arguably true that, even in the midst of civil war, the United States (North and South) was a more culturally coherent nation than our America today; and it is certainly true that no statesman of Lincoln’s eloquence and moral imagination is on the horizon of our public life. Yet there is still an important lesson here. And the lesson is that biblical language and imagery in public discourse ought to be used, not to divide, but rather to unite: not to finish off an opponent with a rhetorical coup de grace, but to call him (and all of us) to a deeper reflection on the promise and perils of democracy.

This principle does not preclude hard truth-telling (as the Second Inaugural amply attests). But Lincoln spoke as one who had understood the frailty of all things human, and especially of all things political; he did not suggest, even amidst a civil war, that all righteousness lay on one side, and all evil on another; he knew, and acknowledged, that the nation was under judgment; and he spoke not as a Republican, and not even as a Northerner, but as an American seeking to reach out to other Americans across chasms of division at least as broad and deep as any we face today.

Such an approach-in which Christian conviction speaks through and to the plurality of our national life, such that that plurality is enabled to become a genuine pluralism-ought to commend itself to us, first and foremost, on Christian theological, indeed doctrinal, grounds.

The treasure of the Gospel has been entrusted to the earthen vessels of our humanity for the salvation of the world, not for the securing of partisan advantage. We debase the Gospel and we debase the Body of Christ (which witnesses in history to God’s saving work in Christ) when we use the Gospel as a partisan trump card. Our first loyalty-our overriding loyalty-is to God in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of that loyalty, Christians are “resident aliens” in any polis in which they find themselves, as the second-century “Letter to Diognetus” puts it. But it is precisely because our ultimate allegiance is to a Kingdom not of this world that we can make a useful contribution to the workings-out of democracies that understand themselves to be experiments in limited government, judged by transcendent moral norms, and open to the participation of all.

The democratic experiment could fail; it requires a virtuous people in order to succeed. All of this was implied in the Second Inaugural, and that helps explain the enduring power of Lincoln’s address. None of us is Lincoln. But everything we say and do in public should make clear that our purposes are to reunite our countries through a new birth of freedom, not simply to throw their rascals out and get our rascals in.

And at a far more vulgar level, there are also practical considerations to be weighed here. Playing the Gospel as a trump card is not only offensive to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists; it is also offensive to other Christians-even (perhaps especially) to those Christians who may be otherwise inclined to make common cause on public policy issues. In brief, playing the Gospel as a trump card makes us less effective witnesses to the truths we hold about the way in which we ought to live together. (Moreover, and to go back to our primary concern, the suggestion that Christian orthodoxy yields a single answer to virtually every contested issue of public policy is an offense, not simply against political common sense, but against . . . Christian orthodoxy.)


Having seen in Lincoln a model for the proper deployment of explicitly biblical language in American public discourse, perhaps a word about natural law is in order.

This is not the place to explore the differences among the various natural law theories, or the points of tangency (and distinction) between Roman Catholic natural law theory and Calvinist concepts of common grace. Rather, the question before us is how Christians contribute to the evolution of a genuine pluralism out of the plurality of vocabularies in American public moral discourse today; the question is how today’s cannonading is transformed (to repeat John Courtney Murray’s pungent phrase) into a situation of “creeds at war, intelligibly.” And the issue is a serious one, for society will descend into a different kind of war, Hobbes’ dread war of “all against all,” unless we can talk to each other in such a way that we make sense to each other-or at least enough sense to conduct the public business.

“Natural law” here means the claim that, even under the conditions of the Fall, there is a moral logic built into the world and into us: a logic that reasonable men and women can grasp by disciplined reflection on the dynamics of human action. The grasping of that logic may be (and Christians would say, most certainly is) aided by the effects of grace at work in human hearts; and it may be the case that the Gospel draws out of the natural law certain behavioral implications that are not so readily discernible with the naked eye (so to speak). But that such a moral logic exists, that it is available to all men through rational reflection, and that it can be intelligibly argued in public, is, I think, a matter of moral common sense.

We saw that logic at work in the public debate over Iraq in the months before the coalition invasion of March 2003. In both our countries, and in venues ranging from radio talk shows to taxicabs to barber shops to pubs to the Palace of Westminster and the halls of Congress, men and women instinctively argued in the natural law categories of the just war tradition in order to debate the issue at hand: Was ours a just cause? What were our intentions? Who could properly authorize the use of force? Did we have a reasonable chance of success? Was military action a last resort? How could innocent civilian lives be protected? Our fellow-citizens and our political leaders did not instinctively reach for these questions because the just war tradition had been effectively catechized in our schools over the past two generations (alas); rather, we reached for those questions because those are the “natural” questions that any morally reflective person will ask when contemplating the use of lethal force for the common good. Moreover, the rather high level of public moral argument over Iraq suggests that this instinctive moral logic has the perhaps unique capacity to bring grammatical order to the deliberations of a diverse society.

To commend the development of the skills necessary for conducting public debate according to the grammar of the natural law is not to deny explicitly Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist) moral discourse a place in the public square. All citizens of a democracy have the right to bring their most deeply held convictions into play in our common life; that is-or rather, ought to be-one of the things we mean by the free exercise of religion. But those convictions will be most readily engaged which are translated into idioms that can be grasped by those whom we are trying to persuade. And one grammar capable of effecting that translation is the natural law tradition. Two examples may help illustrate the point.

The abortion license created by the Supreme Court in 1973 remains the single most bitterly contested issue in American public life; and while the legal situation and the intensity of public debate over abortion in the U.K. are different, the essential structure of the argument remains the same. It is self-evident that Christian orthodoxy regards elective abortion as a grave moral evil: as a profound offense against the entire structure of Christian morals. And there is no doubt that the steady proclamation of that truth, in love, has been a crucial factor in the perdurance of the right-to-life movement over the past generation. The overwhelming majority of those active on behalf of the right to life of the unborn are committed to that cause, and have remained committed in the teeth of fierce opposition from the elite culture, because they understand that the Lord requires this of us.

But how are we to make our case to those who do not share that prior religious commitment, or to those Christians whose churches do not provide clear moral counsel on this issue? And how do we do this in a political-cultural-legal climate in which individual autonomy has been virtually absolutized and a utilitarian moral calculus is the default position in both public and private life?

The answer is, we best make our case by insisting that our defense of the right to life of the unborn is a defense of civil rights and of a generous, hospitable democracy. We best make our case by insisting that abortion-on-demand gravely damages democracy by drastically constricting the community of the commonly protected. We best make our case by arguing that the private use of lethal violence against an innocent is an assault on the moral foundations of any just society. In short, we best make our case for maximum feasible legal protection of the unborn by deploying natural law arguments that translate our Christian moral convictions into a public idiom more powerful than the idiom of autonomy.

A similar strategy commends itself in the face of gay and lesbian activism. Again, the position of orthodox Christian morality is unambiguously clear: homosexual acts violate the structure of the divinely created form of love by which men and women are to exercise their sexuality in unitive and procreative responsibility. Thus “homosexual marriage” is an oxymoron, and other proposals to treat homosexuality as the equivalent of race for purposes of civil rights law are an offense against biblical morality: what many would call, unblushingly, an abomination before the Lord.

But given the vast disarray wrought by the sexual revolution, by the plurality of moral vocabularies in our countries, and by political pressures on both sides of the Atlantic from continental European jurisprudence, I suggest that we make a more powerful case against the public policy claims of gay activists by arguing on natural law grounds: by arguing that it is in the very nature of governments to make discriminations; that the relevant question is whether any proposed discrimination is invidiously unjust; that the legal acknowledgment of marriage as a matter between a man and a woman is no such invidious discrimination; and that the recognition of marriage as a stable union between a man and a woman is good for society because it strengthens the basic unit of society, the family, and because it is good for children. Given the fantastic damage done to the underclass by the breakdown of family life, one might think that this would be an easier argument to make today than it was, say, twenty years ago.

It may be that the cause of marriage rightly understood is doomed in large parts of the West, although I don’t think it’s lost yet in the United States. Win or lose, however, it will make a lot of difference to the future of public discourse in our countries if, during the marriage debate, we demonstrate that we can argue our case on grounds that do not require our opponents to share all our theological convictions – thereby demonstrating that our position, on this question as on abortion and euthanasia, is not a “sectarian: position, but a genuinely public position.

Similar models of argumentation can be developed for other “social issues.” In all such cases, it should be emphasized again, the goal is not to weaken the moral claims or judgments involved, but rather to translate them, through the grammar of natural law, into claims and judgments that can be heard, engaged, and, ultimately, accepted by those who do not share our basic Christian commitment (and, perhaps, even by some of the confused brethren who do).

Finally, a word about democratic etiquette. If patriotism is often the last refuge of scoundrels, then what currently passes for civility can be the last refuge of moral weakness, confusion, or cowardice. Moreover, as the fictional American pundit Mr. Dooley pointed out a while ago, “pollytics ain’t beanbag.” That enduring reality, and the gravity of the questions engaged in the culture war in the West, remind us that genuine civility is not the same as docility or “niceness.”

But there is a truth embedded in the habit of democratic etiquette, and we should frankly acknowledge it. The truth is that persuasion is better than coercion. And that is true because public moral argument is superior-morally and politically-to violence.

All law is, of course, in some measure coercive. But one of the moral superiorities of democracy is that our inevitably coercive laws are defined by a process of persuasion, rather than by princely ukase or politburo decree. And why is this mode of lawmaking morally superior? Because it embodies four truths: that men and women are created with intelligence and free will, and thus as subjects, not merely objects, of power; that genuine authority is the right to command, not merely the power to coerce; that those who are called to obey and to bear burdens have first the right to be heard and to deliberate on whether a proposed burden to be borne is necessary for the common good; and that there is an inherent sense of justice in the people, by which they are empowered to pass judgment on how we ought to live together.

Thus in observing, even as we refine, the rules of democratic etiquette, Christians are helping to give contemporary expression to certain moral understandings that have lain at the heart of the central political tradition of the West since that tradition first formed in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome and gave rise to the civilization of the Middle Ages – the cultural soil in which the deepest taproots of democracy were planted. And, not so inconsequentially, we are thereby taking a stand against the totalitarian temptation that lurks at the heart of every modern state, including every modern democratic state. To be sure, that is not the most important “public” thing we do as Christians. But it is an important thing to do, nonetheless.


Doing all of this requires a certain self-discipline for “public” Christians and for “public” Christianity. This self-discipline is required, first and foremost, for theological reasons. A partisan Gospel is an ideological Gospel; and as many of us insisted against the claims of liberation theology in the 1970s and 1980s, an ideologically driven Gospel is a debasement of the Gospel. “Christian voter scorecards” which suggest that the Gospel provides a “Christian answer” to the tax code or to increasing the national debt ceiling demean the Gospel by identifying it with an ideological agenda.

Another set of concerns arises from democratic theory. One can have no quarrel with describing our current circumstances as a “culture war.” But the suggestion, offered by Patrick J. Buchanan at the 1992 Republican Convention, that a culture war is to be equated, willy-nilly, with a “religious war” must be stoutly resisted. The two are not the same. A culture war can be adjudicated, and a reasonable accommodation reached, through the processes (including electoral and juridical processes) of democratic persuasion; a religious war cannot.

Moreover, the very phrase “religious war” suggests that the answer to the issue at the heart of the culture war – namely, the establishment of officially sanctioned secularism as our countries’ official creed – is an alternative sanctified creed. But under the conditions of plurality that seem to be written into the script of history (by God, some of us would say), such a substitution is not and cannot be the answer. The alternative to the naked public square is the reconstitution of civil society. And what is “civil society”? Civil society is the achievement of a genuine pluralism in which creeds are “intelligibly in conflict.” Genuine pluralism is, as Richard Neuhaus has written on many occasions, not the avoidance of our deepest differences, but the engagement of those differences within the bond of democratic civility.

A third set of reasons for self-discipline in posed by the Islamist threat to the West. As this threat touches more democracies directly, the secularist temptation to regard all publicly assertive religious conviction as inherently coercive, even violent, will be ever more difficult to resist – and thus may give rise to an even more naked public square. Christians in the West can, by “talking the talk” in the terms I’m suggesting here, demonstrate in the hard struggles of public life the truth that Christian conviction advances in its effects on public life by persuasion, not coercion. That is a good in itself; it is also an important model for those Muslims trying to develop an Islamic case for what we know as “civil society.”

In talking the talk, in truth and in charity, with force and with wit, so that others can enter the great conversation over the “oughts” of our common life, religiously motivated citizens can make a signal contribution to the reclothing of the naked public square in our countries. And in doing that, they will be serving the Lord who stands in judgment on all the works of our hands, but most especially on our politics. For orthodox Christians politics is, or ought to be, penultimate. Talking the talk in the terms suggested here helps keep politics in its place: and that, too, is no mean contribution to the revitalization of democracy at the beginning of the 21st century.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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