Archive Civic Polity Philosophy Steven Wedgeworth

Our Faith Informs Us in Everything We Do

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik is a thoughtful and entertaining writer, frequently offering intelligent, searching, and even helpful essays. It is precisely because of this that we were so disappointed by his latest piece on what scares him about religiously-informed politics. In it, Mr. Gopnik gives his view of secularism, American history, and the primacy of science, but all with much confusion. The article does, however, echo sentiments widely held by the political Left, many moderates, and not a few American “conservatives,” and thus its argument warrants some attention. Here we’d like to lay out its basic principles, compare those with our own, and see if we can’t translate a few convoluted issues along the way.

What troubles Mr. Gopnik is the specter of religious radicalism. He sees this in the Romney/Ryan campaign. The one statement that he finds especially troubling or, in his words, “shocking,” is the following from Rep. Paul Ryan:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.

Indeed, channeling Darryl Hart, Mr. Gopnik believes that this answer is functionally equivalent to Islamism, likening it to “a mullah’s answer” and what “Iranian ‘Ayatollahs’” would say. It stands wholly contrary to a liberal and free society; it is something that “our tolerant founders feared.” Scary stuff indeed. Mr. Gopnik does not give a detailed explanation of the “correct” American position on faith and civic action, but he makes his view plain enough. There should be a clear public/private distinction in American society, with “our conscience” being what we “follow” privately (in chapel, as Mr. Gopnik puts it), but leaving the public or “common” space open to the merger of “different kinds of conscience.”

Towards the end of the essay, we find out that science is the ultimate judge of the common space, and when it is inconclusive, each individual “ought to be” left to make their own decisions as they choose. Mr. Gopnik also emphasizes the role of the mind, or of reason. He says, “It is conscious, thinking life that counts,” and the “individual moral conscience … ought to rule” if we are truly to be a society that defends individuals and their rights. So we can see that the individual conscience is the possessor of political rights, and science, understood as mechanical and applied science, is the law which it ought to follow and be publicly judged by.

As we said, Mr. Gopnik’s reaction is not terribly unusual. Many Americans currently feel much the same, and they’ve been assisted in their fears by a sometimes genuinely crazy-sounding, and sometimes genuinely crazy, “religious Right” (which is, often enough, actually irreligious). Still, that the sentiment is common now does not actually make it coherent or even persuasive. In fact, the sentiment is at war with itself and thus rationally absurd. Before we demonstrate this, however, we would like to better explain Mr. Gopnik’s concerns and show in what way they could be justified.

It is true that Rep. Ryan is a Roman Catholic, and it is also true that the Roman Catholic Church has, to say the least, a questionable track record on civic and religious liberty.[1] Indeed, well into the 19th century, the Papacy was still issuing condemnations of the concept of a liberal political order and a free civil society.[2] As Protestants, we reserve the right to continue to point out the theoretical inconsistencies of Roman Catholicism and a free commonwealth, and to challenge that community to put its own house in order. We do see formal parallels between Romanism and Islam, especially the contemporary Iranian manifestation of Shiism, which makes the supreme canonist the temporal head of the commonwealth. But we acknowledge that this is at present much more a problem of theory than it is of immediate political reality. Nearly every informed Roman Catholic in America is a follower of Jacques Maritain and John Courtney-Murray and has long ago fully embraced the concepts of religious liberty and political liberalism. That Congressman Ryan would be a secret proponent of Papal temporal power is, to say the least, highly unlikely.

Rep. Ryan said, “Our faith informs us in everything we do.” This is the explanation for his prior statement that citizens cannot separate their private lives from their public lives. Mr. Gopnik has replied that they can and they must, or else we have religious tyranny. Some explanation is called for here. What exactly do the Congressman’s words mean? And what could the problem be?

First of all, we can see what Rep. Ryan did not say. He did not say that our faith – or our church – commands us in everything we do. Had he done so, which it must be admitted that some more fanatical Christians have done so in the past, then Mr. Gopnik’s fears would be justified. In that situation, every issue is then a question of absolute righteousness and evil, a zero-sum game. We would need some sort of authoritative interpreter and judge, and that person would necessarily be the sovereign, invested with a sort of divine power. This is the road to totalitarianism.

However, this is not what Rep. Ryan said, nor is it reflective of the more typical Christian outlook on the matter, even if many Christians loosely and carelessly approximate such rhetoric at times. According to Rep. Ryan, “our faith informs us” (emphases mine) when we are deciding how to act.[3] This means that faith is interpreted and applied by a person, or a center of consciousness, as Mr. Gopnik would have it. A rational self takes the data of faith into account, along with the light of reason and the particulars of the political situation, and then it makes a prudent decision. In other words, politics is an art, and Christianity seeks to find a rational connection between its ethics – understood as social and public as well as private – and its metaphysics or first principles. Put even more simply, ethics has a transcendent foundation.

Expressed in this way, the only kind of theocracy that we are committed to is the individual mind’s submission to God, to the realities of the cosmos He created, and to the laws of the reason He breathed into us. We have certainly not arrived at a formula for clerocratic rule with some sort of divine positive law code or supernaturally-gifted magistrates. We have not even yet commented on the respective jurisdictions of the sacred and the secular or the private and the public. We’ve only said that each must be coherently related to a larger united philosophy. It is Mr. Gopnik who actually sounds extreme, when the argument is made plain: Rep. Ryan has said that religious belief has a role to play in the formation of individual prudence; Mr. Gopnik has said that it must not be allowed to assist in this formation.

Indeed it would seem that Mr. Gopnik’s substitute for natural law is instead what he calls “real science.” True enough, Mr. Gopnik earlier said that public space is where “different kinds of conscience” come together and interact with one another. But he went further and actually excluded religious principles from this dialogue. “Our faith should not inform us in everything we do,” he says, especially not, we presume, in the area of public morality. Indeed, in those difficult moral situations, Mr. Gopnik would have the various rational minds submit themselves to the hard sciences, and in those places where the hard sciences are unable to give a definitive answer, when they have reached their limits, Mr. Gopnik would have it be “every woman for herself.” Again, the only public law in these matters is science, and thus Mr. Gopnik has presented the basic argument of the technocrat. Where science is silent, there is no law.

And yet incredibly, Mr. Gopnik also makes the following statements: “It is conscious, thinking life that counts”; “the formed consciousness … distinguishes human life from bean life”; “one reason we prize life is that it makes minds”; “it should be her moral conscience that, in a society devoted to the individual, ought to rule.” Notice those terms. Mr. Gopnik does not extol the virtue of brains or neurons, but rather “thinking life,” “the formed consciousness,” “minds,” and even “the moral conscience,” which, it should not be missed, “ought to rule.” But wait – what does “real science” know of these things?

While not an uncritical admirer of C.S. Lewis, Mr. Gopnik should still have been familiar enough with his work to have anticipated Prof. Lewis’ own critique of scientism found in The Abolition of Man. Thinking man, homo sapiens, is also a political animal with a common conviction that there is an objective good. This conviction, in the words of Prof. Lewis, is the belief that “certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[4] This is pre-scientific. No amount of quantitative measurement can explain why one instinct is to be preferred over another. If values really are mechanical, then evil becomes but one more variation of an impersonal world: a cause of pain, to be corrected perhaps, but with no reason to be abhorred.

Indeed there is a certain sort of positivism which attempts to exclude all other sources of wisdom, thus finding itself unable to speak of the true, the good, or the beautiful. It can speak only of what is, never of what ought to be. This scientism even goes so far as to deny any special virtue to Mr. Gopnik’s esteemed “consciousness.” What scientific difference is there between a newly-conscious infant and a fetus? It would seem, as a recent and alarming “scientific paper” has in fact argued, that this is also an area where it should be “every woman for herself.”

Standing contrary to this, the wisdom of the ages has a very different perspective on the matter, as Prof. Lewis pointed out. He writes:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the King governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the “spirited element.” The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment – these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.[5]

This is the “formed consciousness” which Mr. Gopnik earlier identified as “what counts” socially and politically. And so why does he seek to undermine it by denying it a coherent foundation? Metaphysics and even religious faith were formerly identified as wisdom. We could put the challenge to Mr Gopnik like this: If scientism is true, then there can be no special virtue attached to consciousness. But if consciousness is “what counts,” then wisdom is its supreme guide, not the hard sciences. Which will he choose?

Twice Mr. Gopnik makes reference to our “tolerant” and “liberal founders.” They would surely recoil “with terror” at the suggestion that “our faith informs us in everything we do,” he tells us. And again, they certainly opposed clerical domination of the public realm. Papalism, extreme Puritanism, and uniformity-demanding Anglicanism were all recent threats to their newly-freed society. Yet they did not in fact respond to this dilemma with Mr. Gopnik’s science-only public law. In fact, they believed in “self-evident” truths, which by the way, are very difficult to vindicate on the verifiability principle or even by observation and confirmation. Instead, among the “self-evident” truths was that men were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Were we on Jim Rome’s sports radio show, we would be cuing our Carl Lewis audio about now. It seems that our free society is indeed informed by, and even predicated upon, private religious beliefs. The various State constitutions are even more challenging. North Carolina’s preamble credits “Almighty God, the Sovereign Ruler of Nations” for the existence and continuance of “our civil, political, and religious liberties.” Article 1.1 of Delaware’s constitution says that it is “the duty of all men frequently to assemble together for the public worship of Almighty God.” And these are still on the books! Just as he did with consciousness, Mr. Gopnik has actually undercut the rational foundation of his historical appeal. Uh, oh.

While a public faith might lead to a loss of civil and religious liberty, it does not necessarily do so. The development of modern legal thought in this area actually made free use of Biblical imagery and Christian theology.[6] And in fact the historical genealogy of English and American liberalism runs directly through religiously-informed evangelical philosophers.[7] John Locke’s argument for religious liberty, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, depends entirely on a Protestant ecclesiology. What this means is precisely that the religiously-informed conscience freely makes prudent decisions within the bounds of the moral law, and the civil arena seeks to promote that general common good in the most appropriate and efficient ways. “Every woman” is for herself, but she is also “for others,” all the while submitting to wisdom and virtue.

Mr. Gopnik has the right instincts. Along with him, we do want to esteem “formed consciousness,” as well as the civic vision of our founders. It’s just that Mr. Gopnik has, in the pursuit of his instincts, managed to lose his heart. Again, in the expression of C.S. Lewis, Mr. Gopnik has fallen into “the tragi-comedy of our situation … clamour[ing] for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.”[8] He is, unfortunately, a man without a chest.

But let us not leave our friendly commentator in this predicament. We will lend him a hand, and thus show him how to have heart along the way. We should indeed promote a common public space, informed by science to be sure, but even more by the humanities: by wisdom. Let us then pursue a comprehensive university of the sciences, even their Queen. Because Congressman Ryan is right after all. Our faith really does inform us in everything we do.

[1] See J.A. Watts, “Spiritual and Temporal Powers,” in J.H. Burns, The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c. 350–c.1450 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), 367–423.

[2] See the 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos.

[3] We are taking Rep. Ryan’s words in their most plausible meaning, which is a Protestant meaning, since (as we said above) Roman Catholics from America are profoundly Protestantized by now. If it could be shown that by “informs,” Rep Ryan actually means “commands” in the political sense, or that by “faith” he actually meant “clergy,” then Mr Gopnik would have real reason for concern – and so would we. But even were that the case, the measures Mr Gopnik would have us take to handle that problem end up burning the village in order to save it, as we will see.

[4] The Abolition of Man (HarperCollins, 2001), 18.

[5] Ibid, 24.

[6] See Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic (Harvard Univ. Press, 2011).

[7] See Joshua Mitchell, Not by Reason Alone: Religion, History, and Identity in Early Modern Political Thought (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993) and Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002).

[8] Lewis, 26.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.