Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Murray continued: The war between pluralisms becomes the war against pluralism

Yesterday we ended by noting that Murray saw two great threats to civil society in America, such society being understood as “men locked together in argument.” The first was the barbarian, whether skeptic or zealot, “the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs.” For barbarism “is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.”

But in the U.S. specifically he goes on to say there is another challenge to the civil argument and thus civil society: diversity of religion: “[W]ithin the great sprawling City that is the United States the achievement of civil society encounters a special difficulty—what is called religious pluralism.”

The challenge of religious pluralism is in part intellectual: “We have no common universe of discourse. In particular, diverse mental equivalents attach to words in which the constitutional consensus must be finally discussed—truth, freedom justice, prudence, order, law….”

But more challenging even than these disagreements and misunderstandings are the divisions and deep emotional wounds of history between Jew, Catholic, Protestant and secularist. “we not only hold different views we have become different kinds of men as we have lived our several histories.”

As a result “the fact is that among us civility—or civic unity or civic amity…is a thing of the surface. It is quite easy to break through it.” Citing Voeglin, “our pluralist society has achieved its structure through wars and the wars are still going on.”

The proof that we are engaged in a war rather than an argument says Murray is that we are not really “men singly engaged in the search for truth.” Rather our various ideas and versions of the truth are to a large extent simply our way of articulating and staking out positions in our long standing war. Our variant ideas “are entrenched as social powers; they occupy ground; they have developed interests; and they possess the means to fight for them. The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige which not seldom become primary…. To each group, of course, its influence seems salvific; to other groups it may seem merely imperialist.”

This sketch of a war of deep beliefs and interests raging beneath a thin cover of civility seems at least as accurate a description of our own times as of Murray’s. That’s certainly true as regards the intensity of the conflict. But what has changed enormously, what indeed creates the new political situation is the alignment of parties.

Murray identified four parties or “conspiracies”. They were the obvious ones: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Secularist. But Murray paid most attention to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants who distrusted each other's motives not only religious but political. This focus made sense in his day. The Protestant establishment still existed and was willing as ever to say no to Catholics on any political issue particularly dear to them and especially Catholic schools. The Protestant anti-establishment—evangelicals, fundamentalists, et al--was overwhelmingly and almost hysterically anti-Catholic. Catholics, for their part, still defined evangelization as saving people from Protestantism.

As for the other two parties, he gave scant attention to the Jews, the smallest and most cautious of the four. On the question of the secularists he was, as I have noted, extremely insightful on their rejection of pluralism. But he did not consider them central to the contest at least under the aspect he was considering. This becomes particularly clear in the last few paragraphs of this introductory chapter in which he asks whether the problem—that our pluralism is little more than an uneasy truce defined by a history of warfare rather than a genuine civil argument—can be solved.

In answer he says, “my own expectations are modest and minimal.” We cannot, he argues, hope to base American society on a “unanimous consensus."But, he argues “we could do at least two things. We could limit the warfare and enlarge the dialogue. We could lay down our arms …and we could take up the argument. … The free society … has inaugurated a new history. Therefore it might be possible to lay the ghosts of the past—to forget the ghettos and the autos-da-fe; the Star Chamber and the Committee on the Public Safety; Topcliffe with his bloody question and Torquemada with his rack; the dragonnades and the Black and Tans…the Know Nothings and the Klu Klux Klan…”

To be sure the, the secularists are formed by this history too. Religious wars and persecutions represent religion to the mind of many secularists, and thus he was asking them to let go of the old history too.

But Murray’s very object, to build up civil public argument among “real pluralisms” confirms that his concern was with the religions, because the secularists were characterized precisely by their rejection of pluralism.

Earlier he had contrasted the secularist view of society with the Catholic tradition that society is properly ruled by two authorities, the spiritual as well as the temporal. This assertion he says must be “doubly anathema” to the secularist because:

“It clashes with the socio-juridical monism that is always basic to the secularist position…. In secularist theory there can be only one society, one law, one power, and one faith, a civic faith that is the ‘unifying’ bond of the community, whereby it withstands the assaults of assorted pluralisms.

“The secularist has always fought his battles under a banner on which is emblazoned his special device, “The Integrity of the Political Order.” In the name of this thundering principle he would banish from the political order (and from education as an affair of the City) all the “divisive forces” of religion.”

Flash forward forty-seven years and two things are remarkable. The first is the extent to which Murray’s modest hopes for a dialogue of real pluralism are now being realized, and in some cases exceeded as between believing American Catholics and Protestants, and even believing Jews.

The Protestant establishment has largely disappeared; most of those who would once have been a part of it have joined the secularist party. Serious American Protestantism now consists mostly in the heirs of the Protestant anti-establishment of Murray’s day. The genuinely Catholic party, like the Protestant party, is much smaller than it was having also lost huge numbers to the secularists.

But as we all know and would be tedious to elaborate, the degree of political cooperation and even religious dialogue between these two remnants has already become an important fact in American society and seems likely to grow more so.

Just as remarkable is the cause of this rapprochement. Vatican II and positive prayerful effort on both sides have done their part. But the overwhelming practical stimulus to cooperation has been the vast increase in numbers and in power of the secularist party and its inclination to show that power in a triumphalism that would do any ultra-montanist proud.

In short those with a real stake in pluralism have been pushed into an alliance by the overweening power of the one party that utterly rejects the pluralist idea.


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