Thursday, February 16, 2006

Inside the mind of the secular state: Liberalism looks in vain for public faith

From First Things:

There was a big confab this week on liberalism and religion. Held at Columbia University, it involved luminaries such as Michael Kazin, author of the recent biography of William Jennings Bryan, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago, and Alan Wolfe of Boston College.

Adam Kirsch writes in the New York Sun: “What to do about the hole in the soul was the number one item on the agenda. A group of speakers who unanimously identified themselves as liberals and Democrats addressed the gulf between religion and liberalism not just as an object for study but as a pressing political problem to be solved.” Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee, a regular FIRST THINGS contributor, also spoke, and I’m not sure whether he quite fits Mr. Kirsch’s description.

At the event, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post said that “Two electoral defeats have concentrated the liberal mind on God.” It’s not the most elevated reason but, if that’s what it takes, maybe we shouldn’t complain.

Kirsch summarizes the meeting: “All of America’s great strengths–our diversity, tolerance, pragmatism–finally depend on our ability to keep public reason and private belief strictly separate. That was the most important lesson learned at Columbia on Friday.”

The other half of the electoral climate of America is starting to think about its own religious heritage and how that might play a role in the transformation of their party. The cynic in me wonders if they are jealous of conservatism's ability to capture the moral imagination of a broad segment of middle America. As Mr. Neuhaus says in the article, perhaps there is no bad reason for someone to stop for a moment and look to God.

But it seems the "confab" has come to nothing, at least, nothing which might enable faith to play a role in liberal politics, since the result of the meeting was the refusal to allow it the light of public discourse. I am simply mystified by their "most important lesson" learned. Is it not self-evident to say that faith is hollow and empty if it does not impact our public life? Is it not the Christian confession to say that Jesus Christ is Lord, a profoundly political and social statement as well as one of "private belief?" Ought not such profound convictions lead to a changed way of life?

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