…AND HANDED THEM OVER TO THE SECULAR ARM: The comments section to this post, specifically Elizabeth Crum’s use of the term “natural,” reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now–the fact that there’s no such thing as a fully secular political argument.

Political arguments are about what is just, what is good, what is honorable, what is natural, and what is sacred. (They sometimes pretend to be about what is efficient or what is safe, but in order to rank efficiency and safety highest you must already have made a judgment about the relative ranking of the just and the good.) Those terms might seem like they’re arranged in order from least to most religious, but I think really they’re only arranged in order from least to most obviously religious given current philosophical mores. Even the most-neutral term, justice, is claimed by groups ranging from the American Center for Law and Justice to Jews for Justice to the Institute for Justice–these seem like groups working from obviously divergent traditions of meaning, obviously divergent definitions of the word “justice.” More.

(I am reminded of the Yale man who leapt onto a table in Commons, at the height of the Panther trials, and yelled, “Justice to the Black Panthers! Death to the Black Panthers!” If ever a word was double-edged….)

What gives our words meaning?* This is, at heart, a religious question; a question of aesthetics, of whom or Whom we love.

*Yes, this is that same link I always give you. If I could think of a better way to say it, I would.

If we discard philosophical naivete, then, we can only argue that we should use the arguments most likely to be understood across a broad range of religious/reaction-against-religion-ous (sorry!) traditions. I see three reasons to support this claim, in increasing order of importance: social comity, good manners, and rhetorical effectiveness.

One of the central features of the American project is its need to simultaneously acknowledge, give meaning to, and mitigate the tragedies inherent in our status as an immigrant nation. Casting a broad rhetorical net is part of how we bring people into the American story. It’s part of how we try to assimilate in both directions–immigrants changing America, even as they’re changed by America. So social comity is a big deal here.

Good manners, even more important. It’s uncouth to exclude someone just because you can–just because your clique has the numbers in the Homecoming Queen vote.

But rhetorical effectiveness is the most important reason to seek seemingly-neutral political rhetoric. And therefore, when sectarian rhetoric can be made so sublime that its appeal breaks over the banks of its sect, and washes across people from many other and contrary traditions, do it–this is the basic, boring lesson of the Rev. King’s religious rhetoric.

The upshot: 1) “It’s the right thing to do” is not a neutral statement. All virtue-words are given content by a religious tradition, a philosophical tradition, or (this is almost always the case nowadays) both. And since philosophy at its best takes part in the same eros as religion, suggesting that only the “non-religious” philosophy is valid in the public square will only make our discourse banal.

2) “Civil religion” which changes no minds and touches no hearts = stupid and useless. It’s tapioca. Spit it out therefore, and seek sublime religious rhetoric of the kind which can awaken undiscovered longings even in the breast of a hardcore secularist.

3) To combine both of the above points: Neutral is boring. Neutral is banal. Neutral is also impossible, since even if you and I agree on the most efficient means of securing physical satisfaction (good luck with that!) we disagree on when, how, and whether justice, liberty, mercy, loyalty (which loyalties?), family, or sublimity should trump efficient satisfaction of wants.

In short, “You need to use secular arguments!” is bad philosophy and we should stop saying it. Show me pictures so I understand what your words mean. Don’t pretend we share compatible traditions of justice or freedom or equality or happiness. And I’d rather be accommodated than implicitly excluded… but I’d rather be wooed than accommodated.

About Eve Tushnet

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X