Is Lieberman’s God Thing a Problem?

By giving Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a religious Jew, a chance to enthuse about his maker on a campaign rally platform, Al Gore took a big step toward legitimizing the public display of religious fervor. Suddenly, God isn’t just for Christians anymore. But what about all the Americans who don’t think anybody’s God has a place on the public square? Do all these frank confessions of faith by candidates, whatever their denomination, threaten to blur the line between church and state?

The piety quotient in politics has been on the rise for quite some time, since long before Lieberman appeared on the scene. “[P]residential candidates in the current campaign have been publicly invoking God and Jesus Christ at a pace not seen since the days of William Jennings Bryan,” wrote Wilfred M. McClay in an essay, “Two Concepts of Secularism,” published early this summer in the Wilson Quarterly (sadly unavailable on the Web). Lieberman just quickens that pace. So, is there cause for alarm? Yes, in a standard we-must-be-ever-vigilant way: There’s always tension between religious passion and its constitutional restraints. But also, provisionally, no. McClay’s essay offers some interesting new grounds for cautious optimism.

In trying to determine whether secularism is, in fact, losing ground to religion in American life, McClay concludes that there are actually two kinds of secularism at work, what he calls positive secularism and negative secularism. (He borrows the terms, and his title, from philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which outlines a theory of positive and negative liberty.) Positive secularism is a vigorous belief in the irrelevance and even wrongheadedness of religion; it is often underpinned by a rationalist worldview and the conviction that science has superseded God. Negative secularism, on the other hand, is defined, of course, negatively, by its opposition to the institutionalization of any one religion (including positive secularism) in the public domain. As you probably guessed, McClay is for negative secularism–which he identifies with the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause–and against positive secularism, which he rejects as coercive, a form of active discrimination against religious behavior, an effort to shut it behind closed doors. Positive secularists, he says, are monist: They insist on there being only one true way. Negative secularists are pluralist, inclusive, all-embracing. Positive secularism is in decline, and, according to McClay, deservedly so. But is negative secularism really rising up to take its place?

That question McClay doesn’t answer. He merely says that the answer should be yes, and leaves it at that. Culturebox thinks so too, but worries that McClay underestimates the dangers posed by the religious majority to religious minorities when faith becomes once again a significant part of public life. After all, evangelical Christianity (to which 25 percent of the American population adheres) is as “positive” in its desire to convert others as positive secularism has ever been. (This may not be a coincidence; Berlin, for one, sees modern rationalism as the intellectual descendant of Protestantism, complete with its history of zealotry.)

But as much as Culturebox is made nervous by Lieberman’s (and Bush’s, and Gore’s) overt religiosity, she is equally cheered by his warm embrace by Christian fundamentalists. This is a happy sign that they accept the need for religious pluralism, however tactically–that is, as a way to make alliances in their larger battle against the secularists. If McClay is right, religion as a public exercise is not about to fade away. If we’re lucky, such displays of inclusiveness by the pious will turn out to be part of a trend–one that began with the Catholic John F. Kennedy, stretches to Lieberman, and will soon reach beyond Judeo-Christianity to scarier, less familiar creeds. A Muslim secretary of state, anyone?