You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

All Good Things

The ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge give us no warrant for supposing that all good things are reconcilable with each other.
--Isaiah Berlin

This quote -- a long-time favorite of mine -- came to mind when I heard that James Dobson had conceded the religious right's defeat in the culture war. Let's assume for a moment that the right has indeed been routed (which I doubt). Dobson and his admirers and allies no doubt view the event as a terrible thing -- as definitive proof that the United States is in irreversible moral and cultural decline. Yet there are powerful reasons why all American citizens, religious and secular, left and right, should greet it with cheer.

Berlin tells us why, by way of an assertion: Because good things -- and I'm taking it for granted that politics and religion are genuine human goods -- don't fit together. The world doesn't add up. Its parts clash. What is good for one sphere of life is not necessarily good for another. Goods can rarely be synthesized without losing something of value in each. Thinking and acting responsibly thus involves making trade-offs and choices among irreconcilable goods while giving up the hope of combining them in some unified, holistic vision that will inevitably do damage to its constituent parts. This was Berlin's profoundly anti-utopian, deeply pluralistic vision of human life.

There are of course Christian analogues to Berlinian pluralism -- most prominently Augustine's dualistic political theology of the city of man and the City of God. (For a powerful statement of Augustinianism by a contemporary liberal, see this recent post by Ed Kilgore at Beliefnet.) And yet the religious right, easily the most utopian movement in recent American political history, has never shown any interest in acknowledging, let alone exploring, the permanent tensions between religion and politics.

Perhaps now, with the movement in disarray, morale at an all-time low, and defeat (just possibly) having arrived, this will begin to change. If it does, members of a dissolving religious right would do well to brush up on their Augustine. If they can stand his incorrigible secularism, Berlin could also teach them a thing or two about the tragic tensions at the heart of human life, as could the writings of Daniel Bell and Michael Oakeshott. But the thinker who may be able to teach the religious right more than any other about this crucially important topic is none other than Aristotle.

In Book 3 of his Politics, Aristotle raised the question of whether and under what circumstances a good citizen can be a good human being in general (meaning someone who actualizes the peak of virtue). His answer was that it depends on (or is relative to) the character of the political community in which one is a citizen. In the worst political communities -- in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, for example -- it may very well be impossible for a good citizen to be a good human being, because citizenship in those cases requires behavior diametrically opposed to virtue.

In more decent political communities, by contrast, much more overlap will be possible: in most cases, good citizens will be capable of being good human beings, and vice versa. Yet the overlap won't be total -- because, for Aristotle, virtue at its peak involves disinterested philosophical contemplation of the eternal truth, while politics at its peak (statesmanship) demands active devotion to the common good of a particular political community. Aristotle indicated that only in an imaginary best political community would political excellence harmonize perfectly with human excellence as such. In the real world of imperfect political communities, the two will always diverge.

One need not accept Aristotle's assumptions about the content of virtue to see that his analysis can be fruitfully applied to the relationship between citizenship and piety in contemporary liberal democracies like the United States. In a liberal political community with a high degree of religious freedom, devout believers will be free within very broad limits to live their faith, and in most cases they will be quite capable of fulfilling the (relatively limited) ordinary duties of citizenship: voting, occasionally serving on juries, paying taxes, serving in the armed forces when called to defend the nation in times of war, etc. Yet even in these seemingly easy cases, there will sometimes be difficulties for the most intensely devout. The Amish in the United States and Haredi Jews in Israel refuse to serve in the military, for example. Likewise, the ritual observances of many faiths may at times make it difficult for their members to fulfill jury duty or vote. And so on.

The tensions increase exponentially as we approach the peak of each sphere: the most intense forms of piety and the most exalted forms of citizenship (which involve serving in high political office). A deeply devout Christian -- someone who places his faith at the center of his life -- will tend to think of himself first and foremost as a member of the One True Church working toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God under Jesus Christ, if not in this life, then in the next. His ultimate loyalty will be to Christ, just as the ultimate loyalty of the most observant Jew will be to God and the Torah, while a Muslim's will be to Allah and the Koran. Citizenship at its peak, by contrast, requires devotion to the laws of the political community above all else. That's why American presidents and other high officials swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and not natural or divine law of any kind.

These divergent loyalties might not come into direct conflict every day, but they nonetheless stand in deep and abiding tension with one another, forever threatening to pit the theological duties of the believer against the political duties of citizen. It is possible for a person of moderate or lukewarm faith to be a great president because his spiritual convictions will give way in the event of a clash between the two spheres. But the same cannot be said of the most intense believers, whose faith may stand in the way of doing what needs to be done to secure the common good of the political community. And the opposite is equally true: The purest man of God might be capable of serving as a moderately good president, but his devotion to the Lord will prevent him from compromising with the wickedness of the world to the extent sometimes required by his office.

That's the core Aristotelian lesson about religion and politics: Our saints will not be statesmen and our statesmen will not be saints. Whether the religious right has been definitively defeated or lives on to fight another day, it can never succeed in its goals -- because those goals deny this ineradicable truth about the permanent tensions between incompatible goods.

(I should note, in closing, that the attempt to find a compromise between incompatible political and religious goods tends to produce theological monstrosities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which I discussed here. From the standpoint of liberal politics, MTD is unobjectionable; from the standpoint of serious religion, it's offensive, which is why it sends devout Christians like Rod Dreher into a tizzy. But the alternative is not the religious right's fantasy of remaking liberal politics along orthodox Christian lines -- or a medieval pipe dream about "our entire civilization" living in the light of a common moral-religious "Absolute Truth" that sets theological "limits on human conduct." The real (and perhaps only) alternative to MTD is the "Benedict Option" of devout Christians withdrawing from liberal political life to preserve their purity.)