Commentary Magazine

The First Freedom

In recent discussions of the place of religious liberty in the American polity, a number of people have argued that it is the first liberty, the foundation, the fons et origo, of all the other rights and liberties. I for one agree with this proposition, for the simple but overridingly important reason that the polity which recognizes religious liberty as a fundamental human right thereby recognizes (knowingly or unknowingly) the limits of political power.

It is easy enough to see why this should be so. At the core of the religious quest is the experience of transcendence, the encounter with a reality that is “totally other” than all the realities of ordinary life. And a necessary consequence of this encounter is that all the ordinary realities, including the most imposing and oppressive ones, are relativized.

Now, in the realm of human institutions, none is more imposing and (at least potentially) more oppressive than the polity, especially in its recent incarnation as the modern state with its historically unprecedented agglomeration of power. This agglomeration, of course, is manifested most terrifyingly in the modern totalitarian state, but all contemporary states, even the most democratic ones, possess instruments of power that would have made the most awesome tyrants of antiquity green with envy. (Think of what Genghis Khan could have done with radio communications, or the Emperor Caligula with an internal revenue service.) The state is very serious business indeed, deadly business—for in the end every state, even the most peaceful, rests on the power of the sword—and those who represent the state take themselves very seriously. That is why the state always wraps itself in religious or quasi-religious symbols, why it fosters solemn ceremonies, and why the refusal to be reverent toward it is everywhere a punishable offense (from ;lèse-majesté to contempt of Congress). Given all this, it should not surprise us that there is a built-in tension between all institutions of political power and the religious quest that tends toward relativizing them.

This has always been so. The holders of political power have always tried to contain the potentially subversive force of religion by controlling religious institutions. Most of the time they have been successful, but ever again there appear religious spokesmen—emissaries of transcendence, as it were—who have refused to play the role of legitimators of the political status quo. The power-holders naturally take a very dim view of these troublemakers and frequently enough employ very disagreeable methods to deal with them.

In the biblical tradition, the figure of the prophet most clearly embodies this religious challenge to the self-important seriousness of the rulers of this world—prototypically, in the confrontation between Nathan and King David. And this drama of speaking transcendent truth to worldly power has been reenacted many times in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three great streams flowing out of the biblical experience. It should be stressed, though, that comparable relativizations of the polity have occurred in other traditions, as witness a long line of Hindu sages, Buddhist monks, and Confucian scholars. Indeed, all human religions are windows on the vastness of the transcendent: open any one of these windows, and the glitter of political power suddenly reveals itself to be a rather shabby affair.



In this quality of relativizing, unmasking, debunking the pretensions of human power we can see a deep, if rarely noted, affinity between the religious and the comic, between the prophet and the clown. The prophet proclaims that God laughs at all the kings and emperors of the earth; the clown makes a joke and reveals that the emperor has no clothes. No wonder, then, that tyrants are afraid both of prophecy and of jokes. No wonder that the tyrants of modern totalitarianism have been equally assiduous in controlling the institutions that (heaven forbid) may bring forth prophets and in persecuting anyone who has dared to make jokes about their grim agendas. Which explains why churches have become the last refuge of dissenters in all totalitarian societies, and why the same societies have produced a luxurious growth of underground humor.

Eastern Europe, I suppose, has been the most fertile ground for this kind of relativizing (and, in the deepest sense of the word, redeeming) humor.

Item: It is the year 2088. Two Czechs are standing on St. Wenceslas Square in Prague, in front of the Lumumba Monument. There is a long silence, and then one says to the other: “You know, it was better under the Chinese.”

Item: A man walks into a state department store in Leipzig and asks for undershirts. The sales clerk tells him: “You have to go to the third floor. There they have no undershirts. On this floor we have no shirts.”

Item: Question to a mythical Soviet radio station, Radio Erivan: “Is it not true that the Soviet government governs much better than did the czarist government?” Radio Erivan answers: “Yes, of course.” Question: “Yet it seems that the czarist government was more popular. Why is that?” Answer: “Because it governed less.”

When people laugh at such jokes in Prague or in Leningrad it is as if, for one joyful moment, the prison walls of the totalitarian society are breached, transcended, and a window opens to the fresh air of freedom. And mutatis mutandis, this is just what happens as people gather in barely tolerated churches and synagogues to worship a God Who is more powerful than all the tyrants of this world.

A believing Jew, or a believing Christian like myself, can put this insight into a theological proposition: redemption will finally be experienced as comic relief on a cosmic scale. Even now, in an as-yet-unredeemed world, redemption can be anticipated as a healing joke.



Yet I feel certain that my view about the primacy of religious liberty in a catalogue of liberties would remain the same even in the unlikely event that I were to lose my faith and redefine myself as an agnostic. As an agnostic I would still be very reluctant to see human existence confined to the prison of ordinary reality; and even if I were now unable to make positive affirmations about the nature of that which transcends our ordinary lives, I would not want steel bars to be imposed on every window that might, conceivably, open up on unthought-of possibilities. In other words, there is a secular argument to be made for the primacy of religious liberty, as there are secular reasons for the democratic option against the totalitarian temptations of our age.

This points us toward a paradox which is particularly relevant to current debates over the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Without going into the constitutional and juridical ramifications of this issue, it seems to me that there is a depressing triviality about much that has been said about a “secular purpose” in this or that activity of religious institutions, including some things that have been said about it by the Supreme Court. (We need not dwell here on the remarkable spectacle of these nine characters, swaggering around in priestly robes in a building resembling a Greek temple and engaged in the endless exegesis of a sacred text—and then having the chutzpah to insist that there is no establishment of religion in America.)

To be sure, there is a “secular purpose” served if a church runs a soup kitchen, an orphanage, or even (though this is more doubtful) a university. But the most important “secular purpose” any church can serve is to remind people that there is a meaning to human existence that transcends all worldly agendas, that all human institutions (including the nation-state) are only relatively important, and that all worldly authority—even that of the Supreme Court of the United States—is disclosed as comically irrelevant in the perspective of transcendence.

Here, then, is the paradox: religious institutions serve their most important secular purpose precisely when they are least secular in their activities. Society, under certain circumstances, can easily dispense with church-operated soup kitchens or universities. But society can ill afford to lose the reminders of transcendence that the church provides every time it worships God. The protection of religious liberty serves the purpose of this ultimate anamnesis, which in itself protects the possibility of laughter and the wondrous mystery of the human condition.

But if these considerations apply clearly enough to tyrannies, what relevance do they have to democracies?

The modern state, for reasons rooted in its very structure, contains the impulse to expand into every nook and cranny of society. The totalitarian state is, of course, the apotheosis (I choose the word deliberately) of this impulse. Democracy, whatever its faults, provides the only halfway reliable institutional mechanisms to curb the totalitarian impulse. It does not do this because of its ideology: there have been cases of what J.L. Talmon called “totalitarian democracy,” at least in the sphere of ideas (Jacobin in their original version), sometimes (even) in the sphere of facts. But the core of Western democracy, and certainly of the democratic experiment of the United States, is the institutionalization of limits on the power of government.

Thus, political scientists have defined democracy in different ways, but most come down to two key elements—regular elections and some sort of bill of rights. In other words, democracy seeks to ensure (not sporadically, but through predictable institutions) that the rascals can be thrown out from time to time, and that there are certain things that they cannot do while they are in.

It is because democracy—not as an idea, but as a functioning political reality—is based on such suspicion and such irreverence that it is the best shield against the totalitarian project, which demands faith and veneration. Any democratic constitution must say to the state, repetitively and insistently: “Thus far, and no farther!”

Every protection of political liberties and of human rights, of course, does just that. But the recognition of religious liberty, as a fundamental and irrevocable right, does it in a fundamental way. Religious liberty is not one of many benefits that the state may choose to bestow on its subjects. Rather, religious liberty is rooted in the very nature of man and, when the state recognizes it, the state thereby bows before a sovereignty that radically transcends every worldly manifestation of power. For the religious believer, this is the sovereignty of God; for the agnostic, it will be the sovereignty of that mystery within man that strives to go beyond the given—the mystery of human freedom.



These considerations have very practical implications for many of the controversies currently dividing American society. We have reason to be grateful that this society is democratically governed, that controversy is possible and indeed protected, and that by and large religious liberty is secure. However, it would be foolish to overlook the totalitarian tendencies even within this society, some of them very much present in issues touching on religious liberty. For one of the hallmarks of the totalitarian project is always the urge to drive underground the metaphysical propensity in man, to banish transcendence from the public square (except in the domesticated form of established or civil religion), and to make all of social life subject to the trivial world view of functional rationality. Put simply, the totalitarian project requires a world without windows; the defense of religious liberty is the counterproject of keeping open the windows on the wonder of our condition.

Which brings us to the issue of fundamentalism. Of course, one man’s fundamentalism is another’s self-evident truth. Depending on where one happens to live, the word may evoke Communist party officials trying to preserve Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, ayatollahs putting women behind veils, or born-again seminary trustees firing professors for not teaching that Moses wrote the Pentateuch.

I happen to live two blocks from the Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I hear the word “fundamentalism,” I think of my academic colleagues and neighbors whose unbending convictions and self-righteous intolerance of heretics are fully up to ayatollah standards (though, thank God, they lack ayatollah means of enforcement).

Perhaps we can be satisfied here with an ad-hoc definition of fundamentalism as any system of all-embracing belief held with rigid certitude and coupled with the moral assurance of one’s right to impose it on everyone else. Fundamentalism thus understood, whatever its ideational content, will always be an enemy of religious liberty; always and everywhere, it can only flourish behind tightly shut windows; and wherever it sees an open window, it is under the urgent compulsion to slam it shut.

It is undoubtedly correct to say that, through most of human history, most fanaticism has been religious. This is a source of sorrow for any religious believer. It is a source of sorrow for me as a Christian who believes that not only is it possible to be religious without being fanatical, but that genuine religious faith precludes fanaticism.

In the contemporary world, too, sad to say, there has been a notable upsurge of religious fundamentalisms. The most dramatic cases are Islamic and Protestant fundamentalism, both enormously powerful forces cross-nationally and both (though there are important differences between them) capable of inspiring large numbers of people to make radical changes in their lives. Other religious traditions, however, have shown themselves capable of similar outbursts of unlovely and at times homicidal fanaticism: both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; every sect of Islam and Christianity in Lebanon; Jewish fundamentalists in Israel; both Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka; Sikhs in the Punjab; and an odd assortment of syncretistic cults all across sub-Saharan Africa.



While I cannot agree with those who regard Protestant fundamentalism in this country as constituting a comparable danger to pluralism and to civic peace, I would stipulate that there are situations in America too where religious liberty is threatened by religious fanaticism. (I would certainly think so if I were a seminary professor about to be fired for teaching modern methods of biblical scholarship, though, even in my distress, I would console myself with the knowledge that my persecutors cannot call upon the police to assist them.)

All the same, it seems to me that the most pervasive fundamentalisms facing us here in America are secular ones. Politically, they are both of the Left and the Right. But since we have heard so much in recent years about the latter, perhaps the time has come to focus on the former, which flourishes in the milieu of the new knowledge class in America.

In this milieu there is bemused contempt for the “superstitions” of religious fundamentalists, such as their belief that the Bible is literally inspired or that prayer can cause miracles. As a theologically liberal Lutheran, I must confess that I find the first proposition very improbable and that I am inclined to skepticism about any concrete specification of the second. Yet among the cultured despisers of Jerry Falwell and his cohorts it is widely believed that the Soviet Union has changed radically because it now has a leader with clothes that fit, that the establishment of racial quotas is a means toward a race-blind society, or that a six-month fetus should have a legal status roughly comparable to a wart.

Surely we have here “superstitions” greatly more dangerous than those found in the Protestant hinterland—more dangerous because it is the values and prejudices of the knowledge class, not those of the Reverend Falwell, that today shape important policies, are enacted into law, and define what is culturally acceptable. It is primarily against that class, and not against the subculture of conservative Protestantism, that religious liberty must be protected. For it is precisely the knowledge class which today seeks an “establishment of religion”—that is, the imposition through state power of its particular world view and morality—and which interferes with the “free exercise of religion” of those who disagree with its ideology.



The social psychology of all fundamentalisms, religious or secular, holds no great enigmas. Its core motive is what Erich Fromm called the “escape from freedom”—the flight from the insecurities of being human into an illusory and necessarily intolerant certitude. In all likelihood this motive is age-old, but it takes on a special force under the circumstances of modernity. Indeed, there would seem to be a dialectical relation between the multiplication of choices brought about by modern pluralism and the flight into a once-and-for-all choice posited as an absolute.

The affirmation of religious liberty, by contrast, repudiates such illusory absolutes. It may take a believing or a skeptical form. The skeptical form will be a stoic acceptance of uncertainty; the believing form is based on the recognition that faith does not require false certitudes, that it can even live with doubt. The fanatic cannot laugh—an incapacity he shares with the totalitarian. Faith, on the other hand, opens up the possibility of laughter at the most profound level—the laughter that participates, by anticipation, in the joyful play of the angels.



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