Life Watch: The Coup That Wasn’t

I was minding my own, prosaic business; I was on my way back to deal with the repairs on frozen pipes at our house in Amherst, Massachusetts, when a call came in from Robert George at Princeton. He was dialing 911, putting out a call for help with an upcoming conference on religion and public life. Yet another conference—and this one I had not found beckoning when I had been invited. It had all the earmarks of the Liberal Establishment: the American Assembly, attached to Columbia University, with its site at the old Harriman estate in the Catskills. This kind of meeting promised to bring together the exotic species of clerics of the Left, with their accent on gay rights and “multiculturalism.” They would mingle with more conventional ministers and scholars, and even with some professors of a more conservative bent, in a grand show of civic discourse.

But in the style of the American Assembly, they were threatening to do more than talk. They were planning to draft and issue a statement. With the most curious self confidence, they seemed to assume that, when they spoke, the world would pay attention. And the grave risk here was that they were right: The American Assembly was part of the network that connected the corporate world to the Liberal Establishment. The stamp of the assembly would offer the assurance that the people assembled had the credentials to speak—and what they said was likely to be cited in the circles of the respectable. The statement could be used then by the New York Times or the liberal universities to justify their positions and take the “progressive” agenda a notch or two further.

But the odds were that nothing of substance—nothing other than mischief—was likely to come out of this conference. Other professors of my persuasion had apparently made the same calculation, with the result that the conservative contingent seemed to be notably diminished. Robbie George faced the prospect then of being mainly on his own, with only a handful of allies. For Robbie, most of the time, those are still good odds. But one doesn’t want to leave friends isolated and beleaguered—and that is why I found myself, at the end of March, making my way by car up a winding road, climbing for three miles around a mountain, before reaching Arden House at the top.

It was 50 years since the estate had been given to Columbia, when Dwight Eisenhower was president of the university. The site was striking, though the house by now rather resembled an old hotel, once grand, but frayed at the edges. Still, the reflections of genteel wealth were all about, and they recalled George Kaufman’s line to Moss Hart after visiting his new spread in Bucks County, Pennsylvania: “It’s what God would have done, Mossy—if He had the money.”

But there were surprises in store. The assembly had made an effort, after all, to make sure that “our crowd” was invited in ample numbers, and one detected, among the leadership, a fair-mindedness that seemed to be bred in the bone. Daniel Sharp, the president and CEO, is a lapsed lawyer, and all the better for it: worldly, but sensitive to many gradations of sentiment. With no trace of strain, he managed to steer 60 people, by the end, in editing a joint statement. Within the leadership of the conference was Jean Elshtain, of the University of Chicago, whose presence was enough to promise at least that nothing zany would be done. The conservatives did not come out in force, but they made a noticeable difference in their separate panels. With David Novak (from Toronto), Richard Land (from Nashville and the Baptists), and a few other close friends, the conservative argument was sounded well.

So too was the argument for the Declaration of Independence and natural law. The company was civil, people listened, and the result was the biggest surprise of all: There would be no grand declaration for “reproductive rights” or “gay rights” as the new causes, which recruited the most advanced sensibility among the religious. These kinds of issues were grouped as “intractable issues,” which could not command a consensus.

But then there was no attempt to invoke the most portable cliché in our public discourse: that in the absence of a consensus, on matters of moral consequence, we ought not legislate. That is a self-refuting proposition, and yet it has been invoked by feminists in Ireland and by Harry Blackmun, to “explain” why it is no longer legitimate to legislate on abortion. This country was deeply divided over slavery and civil rights, but no one suggests now that the division made it illegitimate to cast moral judgments on these matters, and on the basis of those judgments to legislate. We lodged a caution at once over any attempt to install that premise and make it the predicate for any judgment drawn by this meeting. Whether that move proved telling or not, that facile argument was never made.

Then what did emerge? There were the usual declamations in favor of more education and fuzzy good things, but if any proposition could be drawn, as a lesson to be broadcast to the world, it would probably be the proposition advanced so famously by Fr. Richard Neuhaus: we cannot banish from the “public square” the religious traditions of our people. Our judgments of right and wrong cannot be detached from the understandings that have been shaped in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity—and Islam. And so the conference declared that it cannot be illegitimate for people to argue, in the public square, on the basis of their religious understandings. Neither should people be expected to leave those understandings in the Church.

“[R]eligious convictions of individuals cannot be severed from their daily lives. People of faith in business, medicine, education…should not be required to divorce their faith from their professions.” So declared the conference—and amen. Now if we could only induce the same people to respect the religious convictions of employers, as in the case, say, of those who would register their moral objection to the “gay” life.

When the partisans of “multiculturalism” turn to the teaching of religion, they typically produce a moral relativism that renders the whole project vacuous. They pretend to “respect” all religions by teaching them all as equally plausible or implausible. Two days a week, then, we pray to the God of Israel, and on other days, we pray to other gods. The project is offered in the name of equal respect, but it begins precisely by withdrawing that respect. It begins, that is, by regarding each religion as merely a belief, or another opinion, with no claim to be truer than any other opinion. And yet, thanks largely to Charles Haynes, of The Freedom Forum, and one of the framers of the conference, the report warned teachers that they should not teach in the spirit of relativism. They should be sensitive rather to the fact “that religious faith involves conviction about  ultimate truth, and that for most people religious worldviews are not relative or interchangeable:’

But of course, the teaching in the public schools will be done by people who are already immersed in the ethic of cultural relativism, so immersed that they are hardly even aware of it any longer. The statement offers nothing that will shake them from that relativism or teach them what they, and their colleagues, have forgotten. That recognition brings home to us that the statement is to be savored because it does no further damage—not because it actually teaches the principles, or truths, that underlie our religious freedom.

The conference affirmed “inalienable rights,” but it conspicuously held back from speaking of the Creator who endowed us with those rights. That would have offended those good people who were raised in Native American rituals and Buddhism. But the problem encountered by our friends, offering an alternative to the God of the Bible, was that they could not quite explain why human beings bore an intrinsic worth, as made in the image of something higher. Wanting that, they found themselves persistently unable to explain why human beings should bear rights of an intrinsic worth, which the rest of us were obliged to respect. It was common, at the conference, to hear complaints about the founders, and their want of “inclusiveness,” and yet the complainants did not seem to realize that their moral language, with its full sweep of “rights,” was drawn precisely from the American founders and the regime of civic freedom they had founded.

The experience, altogether, confirmed the reigning fallacies of our age. The conceit of the moderns is that they know far more, say, than the founders, because they have the benefit of more years of experience and reflection. But in fact, they may know less, as indeed they know less about the founding itself. They cannot speak with the same clarity as the founders about the ground and source of our rights, and so even with the most high-flown sentiment, they cannot really advance the cause of religious freedom. For they cannot give any longer the same moral account of that freedom that the founders were able to give. It is their pleasure to suppose that they are improving on the work of the founders. But in discarding the moral and religious premises of the founders, there seems little awareness that they may actually be undermining the regime the founders made “to secure these rights.”


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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