Commentary Magazine


Unconventional Partners, by Robert Booth Fowler

Unsecular America

Unconventional Partners: Religion and Liberal Culture in the United States.
by Robert Booth Fowler.
Eerdmans. 185 pp. $12.95 (paper).

Unconventional Partners is, quite simply, one of the freshest interpretations of religion and American culture to have appeared in some years. Quite apart from its argument, the book is a bibliographical treasure trove of intelligent comment on almost everything that has been written about religion and culture in America over the past two decades, and more. The author is professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His thesis is that most intellectuals have profoundly, and often willfully, misunderstood the connections between religion and liberalism in American life. Against those misunderstandings, Fowler posits his idea of an “unconventional partnership.”

Fowler begins with a 1977 observation by Daniel Bell: “From the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, almost every sociological thinker expected religion to disappear by the onset of the 21st century.” Obviously, Fowler notes with studied understatement, that has not happened, and there is no sign that it is going to happen anytime soon, especially not in the United States. A host of secularization theories notwithstanding, America is very much “Unsecular America.” That is not necessarily either bad news or good news. As Fowler amply documents, the confused and confusing role of religion in our culture is simply a fact, and scholars who ignore it are, to that very large extent, writing about a society other than America.

Among writers who have attended to the religion factor, Fowler contends that most have followed two dominant models. The two are “integration” and “challenge.” The integrationist view stresses the ways in which religion shapes, reinforces, and reflects liberal society. The challenge view, which is on the ascendancy in some religious circles, stresses the ways in which religion criticizes and opposes the cultural order and its leaderships. Both views are woefully inadequate, Fowler believes. “I argue that religion in America has been, and continues to be, an alternative to the liberal order, a refuge from our society and its pervasive values. Yet, by providing that space from our liberal order, it unintentionally helps the liberal world.”

Fowler is quite specific about what he means by “liberalism” and the “liberal order.” First, liberalism is a commitment to skeptical reason; second, it is an enthusiasm, in principle and practice, for social tolerance; third, it is an affirmation of the central importance of the individual and individual freedom. The “liberal order,” then, is the constellation of institutions which express and sustain that commitment, enthusiasm, and affirmation. Fowler says that the major institutions of our society are devoted to liberalism and the liberal order—with the important, although not consistent, exception of religion. It is the key to his argument that religion not only is but should be the exception—and precisely for the sake of the liberal order itself.

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From the beginning, writes Fowler, there were indirect but nonetheless crucial connections between religion and the liberal order. Although none of the great European philosophers of liberalism from the 17th through the 19th centuries was an orthodox Christian (with the arguable exception of John Locke), the classical liberal thinkers, including the American Founders, had no doubt that religion was integral to liberalism in that it provided a necessary moral grounding for their preferred social order. At least in the American case, it was not religion-in-general that they had in mind, but a set of ideas and practices clearly derived, in however attentuated a form, from Calvinist Christianity. This claim is, of course, not original with Fowler. (Given the thoroughness of the literature surveyed, one misses any reference to A.D. Lindsay’s The Modern Democratic State.)

But whatever the American Founders may have thought, few liberal thinkers after World War II paid the slightest attention to the role of religion in liberal culture. If they did mention religion, it was usually to assert that it was a vanishing phenomenon, or that it was purely private and therefore irrelevant to public life, or that religion and liberalism were antithetical. Now, however, there is a new band of social theorists, intensely interested in “community,” who are dismayed by liberalism’s inability either to provide such community or to account for it. As Fowler remarks, “For decades liberal thought lost interest in the question of what holds American society together—until it became clear that perhaps it is no longer holding together.”

Those thinkers whose concern for community is now forcing them to take a second look at religion are almost uniformly of the “integrationist” school of thought. In Fowler’s view, this is a big mistake. For religion cannot come to the rescue of liberalism simply by supplying a missing element which the liberal order happens to lack, and thus make it whole. Liberalism is not, as it were, completed by adding the religious dimension. Rather, religion makes bearable the inevitable and irremediable incompleteness and unsatisfactoriness of the liberal order.

Both liberal theory and liberal practice, according to Fowler, necessarily lack the community that human beings just as necessarily seek. Religion is thus not a supplement nor a challenge to the liberal order, but its alternative. It is, however, an experienced alternative, and one that, by making it possible for people to live with the inadequacies of the liberal order, becomes essential to sustaining that order. The argument is not untouched by elegance.

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There are many parts to the case Fowler wants to make, and almost all of them deserve serious attention. In continuing the conversation to which he has made such an important contribution, I would press at least three questions: Does he not underestimate the radicalism of some who embrace the “challenge” model of religion’s societal role? Is there not an important overlap between the model of religion as challenge and that of religion as alternative? Is it accurate to maintain, as Fowler does, that the way in which people live in two worlds, the liberal order and the religious order, is a “compromise”?

On the first question, Fowler subscribes to the view that all political contention in America, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” takes place in fact within the boundaries defined by liberalism. But his definition of liberalism, described above, seems to me too formal and too broad. In Fowler’s view, both Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell advocate positions that are solidly located in the liberal tradition. Perhaps so, but Jackson and Falwell hardly define the spectrum of positions in play.

On the Left, varieties of liberation theology in the churches directly and self-consciously repudiate liberal theory and practice. Fowler is undoubtedly correct in saying that proponents of such views have slight credibility with most clergy and laymen, and that the churches where such views are influential are fast becoming culturally marginal. He overlooks, however, the influence that these views, disseminated in more tempered form, exercise in morally “delegitimating” the liberal order. (In the political sphere, he also underestimates the degree to which the positions of a Jesse Jackson are themselves hostile to the institutions and habits of the liberal order.)

On the Right, Fowler fails to mention the evangelical and fundamentalist theonomists (more accurately called theocrats) who are opposed in principle to liberal democracy. The purpose of these re-constructionists, as they call themselves, is to restore “Christian America” on the basis of “Bible law.” They are small in number and their influence is greatly exaggerated by the hysterical Left, but they do represent a kind of liberation theology of the Right that must be taken into account.

In addition, there are also in American religion those who are currently called paleoconservatives. They too are in principle opposed to liberalism and democracy, dismissed by them along with capitalism, as manifestations of the disease of modernity. Of course the paleoconservatives too are relatively small in number, but they clearly believe that authentic religion offers not, as Fowler says, a refuge from the liberal order but a place from which to wage war against it.

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The elaboration of my first question partially responds to the second. The challenge model and Fowler’s alternative model do not seem to be so discrete as he suggests. Much depends upon whether the alternative provided by religion to the liberal order is one of affirmation, of rejection, or of indifference. And this leads to my third and most urgent question: whether, for the believer, simultaneous existence in the religious and liberal orders is necessarily to be described as a “compromise.”

Fowler writes that “there will be costs if American churches and religions demand that their followers break from their compromise with the liberal order.” Those who make such a demand commonly claim that in doing so they are being “prophetic.” Fowler’s hunch, however, is that most religious people, if faced with a choice between religion and the liberal order, will decide that, all things considered, their interests are better served by the liberal order. In his view, most religious leaders are sensitive enough, and sensible enough, not to demand such a choice. Therefore, despite the influence of secular intellectuals who ignore religion and of “prophetic” activists who politicize it, there is little prospect of the “disentanglement” of religion and liberal culture. “For better or for worse,” Fowler concludes, “the rather remarkable relationship between religion and liberalism that I have described sails serenely on.”

What Fowler neglects to note is that there are, in both Christianity and Judaism, venerable traditions of thought that understand the relationship between the secular and sacred orders in terms quite other than compromise. One thinks, in Judaism, of the distinction between the Noahide covenant and the covenant with the elect people. As Jewish scholars have argued, the relationship between the two covenants is analogous to the relationship in other traditions between natural law and revealed law. Christians speak, variously, of the civil and sacred realms, the twofold rule of God, the order of nature and the order of grace, or the City of God and the City of Man (Augustine).

These traditions make it possible for believers, as believers, to affirm the liberal order as the best way of conducting the temporal realm of the earthly polis. For them, religion is not a refuge or escape but the experience of a larger reality which itself provides warrants for a liberal ordering of the lesser reality that is worldly politics.

Of course this is not true of all believers, as witness the current insurgency of militant Islam. But I suggest it is the case with most believing Jews and Christians in America. Reinhold Niebuhr famously observed, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” He was not saying that believers are compromised by accepting the liberal order. He was saying, precisely as a believer, that our religiously informed understanding of reality makes the liberal order necessary.

For another example, Fowler correctly notes that a hallmark of liberalism is tolerance of differences. Why do believers in this society tolerate others who differ on what is presumably the most important difference of all—our understanding of the will of God? One answer is that people are not very sure that they know the will of God, and are therefore disinclined to wage war on those who have a different understanding. There is no doubt much truth in that. But another, and I think deeper, answer is that most Christians and Jews in this liberal order are convinced that it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God.

Fowler is surely right in saying that, for most believers, religion is “another place.” Religion is the participation in a radically different “construction of reality” (Peter Berger). That difference must be “radically other” if it is to relativize the constructions of reality that rule in the areas we call secular. It is exactly in this relativizing or debunking of the pretensions of the political realm that religion most importantly serves liberalism, humbling it by reference to a greater and more binding order.

In sum, the “unconventional partnership” of Fowler’s title is even more unconventional than he suggests. He is rousing and persuasive about the limits of liberalism and on the ways in which religion inadvertently supports such a necessarily limited liberalism. Perhaps in a future work he will explore the ways in which religion’s support for the liberal order is decidedly advertent.

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