Last year I attended an independent school conference as an exhibitor for my day job. The keynote speaker for the conference was the ex head of the English department at Yale, and I was able to listen to a very compelling presentation. I decided to e-mail him and we got into a little debate on religious faith, and his lack thereof. In a passing sentence he stated categorically that “All the Founding fathers were Deists.” Really? All of them? Not an orthodox Christian believer in the bunch? I thought of this when reading “Faith, Reason, and Secular Hegemony,” by Francis Beckwith.
His chapter in this book about about political philosophy and religious beliefs, “addresses the claims of courts and legal theorists who argue that religiously informed policy proposals have no place in a liberal democracy because the religious worldviews from which they herald are at their core unreasonable, for they are dependent on irrational beliefs.”
There is nothing new about our cultural elites thinking religious beliefs are irrational and unreasonable. Most of them look on religious believers, especially Christians, with pity; those poor folks can’t handle reality, so they take the irrational leap into the absurd. Of course I’m subscribing benign intentions to most of them; others look on religious believers with unconcealed contempt, and as a clear and present threat to society.
In preparing to write his chapter he read a lot of legal theorists and found their ideas “embarrassing.” What surprised him was the literally absolute ignorance of “the vast literature on religion and rationality produced by religious (and some non-religious) thinkers (mostly philosophers) over the past fifty years.” And these were all reputable published scholars and supposed experts on law and religion. He conclusion is insightful if completely obvious:
Although references to these writings [the vast literature referred to above] were nowhere to be found in the legal articles I consulted, their authors nevertheless confidently proclaimed that all religious belief is insulated from evidence and the ordinary standards of rationality.
It should not surprise us, then, that when political conflicts between church and state arise that academic and media elites treat the church’s point of view as if it were an irrational outlier to contemporary culture. As I have come to reluctantly realize, they simply do not know any better, since their education insulated them from views contrary to the unquestioned secular hegemony that was ubiquitous in their intellectual formation.
He is absolutely right. Conservatives and others on the right are exposed daily to the liberal nostrums or our intelligentsia, whether that’s in school, in the media or popular entertainment. One of the reasons Rush Limbaugh exploded in popularity when he came on the scene in the late 1980s was because he was the first culturally relevant voice on the right to break through the media’s liberal hegemony. This deplorable hegemony still exists unfortunately, but right-minded ideas no longer live in the shadows of American culture. But for those on the political and cultural left they often go through their entire lives never being exposed to conservative/libertarian/classical liberal ideas except as caricature.
We are paying the price for decisions decades ago by right/religious folks to abandon culture for either isolation, as I wrote about in my last post, or an obsession with policy and politics. The reason this is such a critical issue for America is obvious: we live in a representative republic. What policies are chosen and what politics dominates the agenda is determined by the people. In a recent reading of some of The Federalist Papers, I found something James Madison wrote in Federalist 49:
If it be true that all governments rest on opinion, it is no less true that the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples which fortify opinion are ancient as well as numerous, they are known to have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.
The ever realistic Madison knew the opinion of the people of America would ultimately determine the direction of its government. For 50 plus years the opinions of the American people have in large part been determined by the enemies of America’s Founding ideals; is it any wonder government’s growth, intrusion into our lives and encroachments on our liberty has continued unabated. For those who appreciate and take seriously America’s constitution as written, cultural engagement is every bit as important as political engagement, if not more so.