The Islamist terrorist attack on an epitome of French secularism and liberal Enlightenment, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo—followed by the killing of Jews in a Paris kosher market—poses fundamental problems for France, and is a warning for all the liberal democracies. The reactions in France, Europe, and America largely have revisited the controversy about global terrorism, a debate that has percolated since the 2001 attacks on America: Should we define it strictly, as violent extremism, thus not granting it any legitimacy as Islamic? Or can we only oppose this threat constructively and intelligently by understanding its roots in extreme Islamism? While rehearsing this familiar script we have mostly overlooked the deeper meaning of the European clash between secularist intellectuals and severe Islamist doctrines; it is, at root, a clash of dogmas. Whatever the French and Europeans might do to redress this problem, Americans should reflect on the relative moderation of our controversies over religion and politics. Indeed, we should worry that our elite culture now takes for granted this general moderation or avoidance of extremes. If we can recognize our tradition of balancing the claims of religion and reason in politics, and can rediscover the principles behind it, we will more accurately define the global struggle between liberal modernity and extremist Islam, because we will better understand ourselves and what is worth defending.This is not the first episode in French history to violently pit dogmatic secularists against a traditional religion. Such clashes date at least to the French Revolution and the radical Enlightenment of Voltaire and other secularists. Of course, religion has been a source of political violence for millennia, and Christian political cultures long employed religious justifications for war or other violence. Yet no serious, widely recognized Christian community believes so today, thanks to extensive theological debate within Christianity. Instead, the Paris attacks arise, on one side, from France’s legacy of secularism, which overthrew established Catholicism and then established a state doctrine of laïcité, requiring a strictly secular public sphere. Religious belief and expression must be private; in this definition, liberty requires not just separation of church and state but segregation of religion from politics. On the other side, the attacks arise from France’s more recent immigration policies, which in part atone for its former colonialist control of Muslim peoples in North Africa. France now has the largest Muslim population of any European state, in real terms and by proportion.There are many reasons why most Muslim immigrants live in segregated communities (the banlieues, suburbs of major French cities), and it is widely noted that many Muslims do not assimilate well with French politics, economics, and modern culture. A major cause for failed integration, albeit one not often discussed, is France’s secularism. Few states have attempted or still enforce such a policing of politics to exclude religion. Modern Turkey’s “Kemalism” is another, but after a century it seems that Kemal Atatürk’s project for a secular state controlling Islam succeeded only on a surface level. In the past decade a form of political Islam has surged in reaction to secularism, and its control is only deepening. Indeed, Turkey’s current leaders have sought to deflect blame for the Paris terrorist attacks from Islam, onto supposed Western Islamophobia. France and a few other European states thus stand nearly alone in demanding secularism. It is not surprising that many European Muslim immigrants have felt excluded, even singularly so, from full citizenship—the more so to the degree they hold Islam as the dominant guide for their lives.Given that the causes of France’s clash of extremes lie deep in philosophy, political history, and religion, it is not clear how France will address its dilemma, or whether civic and political leaders will even identify these causes. Obviously the French and American governments will remain allied in coping with radical Islamism, including through intelligence and tactical cooperation. Yet America’s civic and political leaders could use this moment to reflect on why, even with all our history of conflict over religion and our continued political tensions between more rationalist and more religious voices, we largely have escaped such clashes of extremes. We have a long tradition of ardent secularist voices, but no publication as brutally offensive in mocking religious belief and authority as Charlie Hebdo. We have had difficulties and tensions in assimilating religious minorities, but the long-term trend is of massive immigration that is generally and ultimately successful—thus, we have nothing like the Muslim banlieues as incubators of radical alienation and religious violence. Many Americans have grievances against the dominant culture, however the aggrieved define it, but we do not face such a fundamental danger. Given the persistent reality of global Islamist terrorism, this is no small matter. That said, we are not doing so well in our educational culture or elite political culture in studying or appreciating the causes of our moderation about religion and politics. Indeed, the more elite the university or college, and the more elite the publication or institution, the less likely is the study or appreciation of the sources for America’s tense but relatively peaceful accommodation of religion in public life.America still is largely exceptional among modern liberal democracies for the balance it holds between two principles that, as the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago, are not happily aligned in most polities: liberty and religious tolerance, on the one hand, and respect for religious sources of truth, morality, and political views, on the other. Today it is the rare university graduate or member of our political or cultural elite who knows that Tocqueville defined this balance, or moderation, as America’s “point of departure.” His Democracy in America (1835/1840) considered this the foundation for our political institutions, political culture, and broader social or moral culture. Writing shortly after the French Revolution and its campaign for secularism, he saw the need for a different philosophy. He knew that French secularists of his day would be puzzled to learn that American politics was full of religious ideas and yet its liberal democracy was healthier, and more peaceful, than France’s. A Tocquevillean today would note that the secularists still would be puzzled, and also would notice the neglected, decaying foundations of American moderation.There is a further irony that America’s principle of moderation stems from yet another Frenchman, one who greatly influenced Tocqueville: the 18th-century jurist and philosopher Charles de Montesquieu. This French Charlie was no secularist. His final work, The Spirit of Laws (1748), recommends balances among competing powers and ideas, including between reason and religion, and thus between liberty and the morals it requires. If Montesquieu is remembered at all in American elite culture today, it is as the source of the structural principles that define our politics, a tri-partite separation of powers and federalism. He recommended these precisely as principles of balance among authorities and ideals. Very few Americans now study his arguments for such moderation, nor his arguments for moderating both religion and political liberty, nor his praise for Christianity as the most moderate and humane of religions. Most university professors and graduates know much more about John Rawls’s recent, secularist theory of a political (not natural) foundation for liberalism, or consider John Locke’s secularist, anti-clerical concept of toleration as the foundation for America’s stance on religion and politics. Our relative ignorance of Montesquieu and his great influence first upon the country’s founders, and later upon Tocqueville’s insights into American moderation, is worrying because this Montesquieuan tradition of political and philosophical balance cannot run on autopilot. It is an equipoise full of tension and difficulties, requiring intellectual and political effort. Indeed, even in the 1830s Tocqueville saw troubles ahead for American moderation in an era of increasing rationalism, science, and materialism. Such pressures have only increased across two centuries.What Tocqueville most admired about America’s mutually respectful accommodation between religion and political liberty was that it was more than a modus vivendi or pragmatism. He drew upon Montesquieu’s philosophic principle of reconciling diverse views, as well as the American practice (informed by Montesquieu) of developing harmonies among seemingly opposing views, whether of religion, politics, institutions, or culture. The result is a liberal exceptionalism in religion: There is more public prominence for religion in America than in any other liberal democracy, and there also is more religious liberty than in states with deep religious cultures. A brief refresher on this philosophy is enough to explain why today’s largely secularist, rationalist elite in America has marginalized it. Both Montesquieu and Tocqueville warned of extremes of reason and of overweening ambition for human progress freed from tradition or religion, even while they warned of excesses of religion. What they saw as salutary ideas to moderate the Enlightenment are now seen, by our elite institutions and leaders, as a reactionary extreme to be ignored.Given this intellectual history, France’s clash of extremes has a milder counterpart in America’s recent “polarization” of our politics and culture. This parallel should serve as a warning. We would do well, even as we try to help our French and European allies amid their current danger, to acknowledge that America is neither a Lockean, secularist, rationalist polity nor strictly a Christian one. Instead we long have been accomodationist, striving to reconcile religion and reason, political liberty and traditional ideas of morality. Our greatest leaders, from Washington and Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., embodied this balance in their greatest speeches, writings, and deeds. All three invoked the Declaration of Independence as encapsulating not only rationalist Enlightenment ideas but also “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the “protection of Divine Providence,” and the “sacred honor” of defending another’s rights and not just one’s own. Rediscovery of this tradition of moderation, and its philosophical as well as religious sources, would be indispensably helpful for America as the leading liberal democracy in a world polarized between Enlightenment modernity and traditional religious devotion.At home, renewed self-understanding could moderate the tension between our elites’ secularism and our accomodationist tradition toward religious liberty and public policy. Accommodation argues that government may recognize the importance of religion or metaphysical beliefs for a healthy liberal order, even though it must not act preferentially toward any one religion, nor enforce any doctrine. The success of this model, in comparison to any historical and sustainable alternative, might lead secularist critics to appreciate our middle-ground founding principles. America in its third century is more pluralist and egalitarian, developments that testify to the success of those principles.That said, both the secularist and religious or conservative sides in our polarized conflicts should value the higher middle ground, and pay more attention to the deeper philosophical and religious views that inform such moderation. Abroad, moderation should be a fundamental resource for our policies toward other states, regions, and religious traditions. Here we should note that Montesquieu, the American founders, and Tocqueville did not see moderation as mere centrism or mushy compromise. Alexander Hamilton invoked moderation in the opening and closing of The Federalist, and he hardly lacked principle or backbone. Renewed self-understanding about the moderation informing our liberalism could help us better to define the global threat to liberal democracy from terrorist states and actors, and to appeal to moderate Muslims who might ally with us. On this basis we could better develop strategies and tactics to suppress Islamist terrorism by addressing both the deeper causes of its extremism as well as its terrorist effects.If we ignore our philosophical and religious history we will be blind to the fundamental causes of the conflict between liberal modernity and Islamic extremism, and thus risk not only our security but the great civilizational achievement of political and philosophical moderation. It is not too late to avoid Europe’s path to the banlieues, Charlie Hebdo, and rising hatred of Jews. As with most political struggles, the first task is to properly understand our principles and get our bearings. In 21st-century America, this means in part an openness to overcoming our self-imposed amnesia about our tradition of moderation.
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Published on: January 29, 2015
Balancing ActAmerica’s Neglected Ideal of Moderation
Americans are losing appreciation for the tradition that has spared us from the kind of violent clash between religion and secularism currently bedeviling France.