I find David’s recent post a really smart exploration of the Rortyean methodology employed by Daniel Rodgers in Age of Fracture. But rather than further examine the merits of Rortyean analysis, or lack thereof, or whether Rodgers actually follows this code, I would like to use David’s concluding call for “reaggregation” as my starting point. Interestingly, in different language, this also seems to be how David concludes his excellent book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (which is nothing short of an ambitious attempt to revise the overarching historical narrative of America). David asks the question, in the final sentence of his book: “What minimal moral standards do we expect of one another, and how do we maintain them with fairness to all?” (291)
To understand this question, a brief summary of David’s argument is necessary. (By now most of our regular readers must be familiar with it, but in case anyone has missed it, here goes.) David argues that, although the institutional establishment of any one religion was interpreted to be unconstitutional early in the history of the republic, a moral establishment became the norm. The Bill of Rights was never applied to the states throughout most of American history, and most states legislated Protestant morality as law. Moral establishmentarians assumed that the only way to maintain order in a democracy was by way of a religious check on public behavior. Since Protestants were in power for much of the nation’s history, this moral establishment was the de facto codification of Protestant values, often of the evangelical strain. The Supreme Court uniformly upheld the Protestant moral establishment until the twentieth century, when an evolution in legal interpretation slowly gave way to a more secular public sphere. In his final chapters, David analyzes the court cases that ratified the end of the moral establishment, including two of the most famous: Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Roe v. Wade (1973). The Christian Right has been fighting for the return of the moral establishment since, in a battle commonly referred to as the culture wars. (This very short summary hardly does justice to David’s densely researched 300-page book—check back in a few weeks, when we’ll be holding a roundtable on the book. Daniel K. Williams, author of God’s Own Party, will lead off our roundtable discussion.)
So to return to David’s concluding question, as related to the problem posed by Rodgers. In a post-moral establishment time, how can we rebuild collective ethical norms (the given rationale for the moral establishment) that are fair to the individual (in ways that moral establishmentarian repression was not)? Or to put a Hollingerian spin on the question: how do we have solidarity without coercion? How do we widen the circle of “we” without alienating and repressing those newly brought into the expanding circle? The confusion surrounding these important questions seem implicit in Age of Fracture, and that Rodgers has no clear answers is made evident in the final passage of his book (which served as part of David’s Tuesday Quote): “The age of fracture had permanently altered the play of argument and ideas. The pieces would have to be reassembled on different frames, the tensions between self and society resolved anew. But how that would be done, amid the anger and the confusion, the liberations and the anxieties, still hung in the balance” (271).
Or, as Robert Bellah asks in Habits of the Heart (a question Rodgers uses as an epigraph for the chapter he titles “The Little Platoons of Society”): “Is it possible that we could become citizens again and together seek the common good in the post-industrial, post-modern age?”
David Hollinger has probably done the most of any U.S. intellectual historian to think about some of these questions in terms of race and religion (he seems to be expanding his work on religion, as indicated by his OAH presidential address—“After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity”—see the video posted here at the History News Network). His best known book, Postethnic: Beyond Multiculturalism, and his most recent book, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity: Studies in Ethnoracial, Religious, and Professional Affiliation in the United States, a collection of essays that build on Postethnic, represent a cosmopolitan exploration of the ways in which our solidarities and identities—racial, religious, national—govern our lives.
In Postethnic, Hollinger focuses on how solidarities and identities should ideally only operate according to the principles of “affiliation by revocable consent” (a concept that I blogged about awhile back). In other words, he sought to move beyond the stultifying debates about multiculturalism, which assumed identities to be rooted in blood, culture, and history, to embrace a more open, individualistic, voluntary conception of identity and solidarity. In Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity, although he does not eschew his cosmopolitan dreams of individual agency in relation to identification, he seems intent on emphasizing the less voluntary structures of solidarity, or what he terms a “political economy of solidarity.” Solidarity, for him, “is a commodity distributed by authority,” especially when tied to the nation state. “Central to the history of nationalism, after all, has been the use of state power to establish certain ‘identities,’ understood as performative, and thus creating social cohesion on certain terms rather than others.” But the political economy of solidarity is also operative in the divisions within the American nation that are central to culture wars: “The ‘identity debates’ of the United States of recent decades,” Hollinger writes, “have been largely driven by this concern to distribute the energies that make solidarities” (C&S, xvi-xvii).
So it might seem Hollinger is skeptical that the American nation is the appropriate place in which to invest our solidarity. He writes that “any solidarity capacious enough to act effectively on problems located in a large arena is poorly suited to satisfy the human need for belonging.” However, conversely, Hollinger also contends that “any solidarity tight enough to serve the need for belonging”—such as race or religion—“cannot be expected to respond effectively to challenges common to a larger and more heterogeneous population” (C&S, xvi). So we seem to be stuck. This is the problem at the heart of the Rodgers and Sehat concluding passages. To repeat David’s question: “What minimal moral standards do we expect of one another, and how do we maintain them with fairness to all?” How do we achieve solidarity without coercion?
This bind does not, by Hollinger’s reckoning, render the American nation incapable of serving the ends of justice. Despite his hesitations and qualifications, mostly related to the persistent racial injustices suffered by the descendents of African-American slaves, Hollinger defends the American nation as the proper place to solve our problems. But he does want to redefine an appropriate relation to the American nation contrary to those national constituencies he views as the most common: (1) the business elite who see little need for the nation in an era of multinational capitalism (except, I might add, to enforce their interests around the world); (2) members of the various diasporas who conceptualize the United States “more as a site for transnational affiliations than as an affiliation of its own”; and (3) “a great variety of Middle Americans, evangelical Christians, advocates of family values, and supporters of Newt Gingrich and of Rush Limbaugh. Many of these Americans are suspicious of the state except as an enforcer of personal morality, but they claim the nation as, in effect, their own ethnic group” (PE, 15-16).
In contrast, Hollinger is an unapologetic nationalist for democratic egalitarian purposes and defies fashionable academic anti-nationalism as seen in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. He writes: “If all solidarities are ultimately constructs, and not primordial, it will not do to pronounce as artificial the cultural continuities that have developed in relation to the American nation-state, and to then take at face value the claims of authenticity made on behalf of other cultures” (PE, 160). Why? “A stronger national solidarity enhances the possibility of social and economic justice within the United States. This is a simple point, but an extremely important one. Any society that cannot see its diverse members as somehow ‘in it together’ is going to have trouble distributing its resources with even a modicum of equity” (PE, 201).
Of course, on what theoretical grounds can we defend the “in it together”-ness of American nationalism? For Hollinger, cosmopolitanism is the proper response to such problems of solidarity. We should seek solidarity at the national level, but only if we also denounce both the divisions normally associated with solidarity, and the arrogance of universalism. Splitting the differences between the particularities of race and religion, and the universalism of Americanism, seems sensible on its face, but can it be defended at the epistemological level? Or are we really just whistling in the winds of disaggregation? We return to the terrain of the great antiepistemologist, Richard Rorty.
Hollinger traces the shifts in Rorty’s thought to build his case for cosmopolitan nationalism. Rorty, he argues, went from defending ethnocentrism in opposition to Kantian universalism, to developing a more inclusive political philosophy. In Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Rorty expanded the notion of “we,” and furthermore argued that it is particular to Americanism to expand the “we.” Hollinger seems to agree, and for this reason makes the point that anyone wishing to understand the problems associated with diversity would be well served studying American history.
Now let’s return to The Myth of Religious Freedom. Hollinger’s thinking in terms of solidarity, identity, and nation seem to underwrite David’s narrative. To put a pithy spin on this, Sehat seems to write from a post-religious standpoint that comports with Hollinger’s post-ethnic thinking. As such, David’s book is a narrative of progress. The twentieth-century victory of secularism over the moral establishment represents a widening of the circle of the American “we.” Yes, David qualifies this victory in light of recent Christian Right attempts, sometimes successful, to chip away at the secular public sphere and return the nation to the coercions of the moral establishment. And yes, David is critical of the ways in which liberal jurists gave life to the myth of American religious freedom, which led to confusion regarding the rationale for overturning the moral establishment, and in turn left the door open to Christian Right obfuscations regarding the historical link between Christianity and religious freedom.
Such qualifications notwithstanding, David’s open contempt for the moral establishment (which I share) can’t but lead to any other conclusion than that he thinks progress has been made. But despite such progress, we remain in our state of fracture. Perhaps the age of fracture, intriguingly, is partly because of progress against the moral establishment. Let me explain.
David demonstrates that the loudest opponents of the moral establishment during the nineteenth century were radical individualists, or even libertarians, from abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to women’s rights activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton to freethinkers like Robert Ingersoll. David writes that “the ultimate goal of the moral establishment was to tame the individual” (97) and, as such, those who resisted the moral establishment on these various fronts did so in the name of individual rights. But, individualism negates solidarity, which became especially problematic towards the end of that century, when corporations came to dominate the political economy. David argues that because the moral establishment sided with the corporate order, it only made sense that those opposed to the moral establishment would find ways to also fight against the corporate order. Thus, labor organizers like Eugene V. Debs threatened both the corporate order and the moral establishment. But the question I have: were these new alignments anything more than marriages of convenience? Did the libertarianism of the anti-moral establishmentarians ever effectively mesh with the new forms of solidarity arising to oppose corporate domination, namely the labor movement?
David ponders these questions as well. He asks: “where did liberty end, and mutual obligation and social solidarity begin? If Ingersoll symbolized the breakdown of social order sustained by the moral establishment, he also defined the limits of religious liberty by putting a fine point on an issue that religious partisans wanted to keep rather vague. Ingersoll demanded that the moral establishment withdraw its restraints so that people could achieve individual empowerment and self-control. Religious conservatives could not see how to do so without risking the dissolution of society into moral anarchy. That disagreement constituted an unbridgeable gap” (175). Does this gulf represent the problematic of solidarity in an age of fracture? How do we bridge this gap?
Some, such as Bellah, think that a civil religion is the best form of solidarity. David is skeptical of that claim, since he seems to view civil religion as merely another word for the moral establishment. For him, the theologians of civil religion “revel in the same fantasy” (284)—a belief in American consensus about the role of religion in public life. Our USIH colleague Ray Haberski is writing a book on the ways in which Americans come together around a civil religion in times of war. I think Ray contends that the American civil religion is a worthwhile project if and when spirits other than war animate it. (Perhaps Ray could say more about this.)
David seems to contend that answers to these vexing questions were found in the liberal moral vision developed in the Progressive Era by thinkers in the orbit of The New Republic, such as Herbert Croly, who “claimed that the radical diversity of American life—created through immigration and the centrifugal forces of market expansion—invalidated ‘the earlier instinctive homogeneity’ that moral establishmentarians had sought to promote.” But to what ends? “The new political philosophy had to be capable of promoting ‘solidarity’ in American life without eliminating the ‘desirable individual and class distinctions that were integral to a society that was liberal and free” (206). In short, it seems Croly was an early cosmopolitan, a premature post-ethnic, post-religious thinker. But I’m unclear how this vision offers us a way out of fracture, especially since Croly recognizes “class distinctions” as “integral to a society that was liberal and free,” which highlights the central contradiction of liberal attempts to form a post-moral establishment solidarity.
My solution to the problem of fracture is not new. It would have been very familiar to Eugene Debs. Simply put, I think we must focus on class solidarity of the type that implies intolerance towards certain forms of individual rights, namely, the right to unlimited wealth. Such class solidarity might imply coercive measures, in the form of taxing the wealthy and regulating and even nationalizing their corporations. I think the cosmopolitanism enunciated by Hollinger, and implied by Sehat and Rodgers, is a good thought, but is easily undermined in a society as unequal as ours. Hollinger seems to realize this when he writes that “a society that will not take steps to help its poor citizens of all ethno-racial groups will have little chance to find out how successful have been its efforts to overcome the racist attitudes empowered by whites.” Poor blacks, he continues, “will find it harder to hope for a middle-class existence and will have more and more reason to interpret as structural or institutional racism those policies that, even if devoid of prejudicial intent, have a disproportionately negative impact on them. Meanwhile, the prejudiced attitudes of some members of more prosperous groups will be reinforced by what they take to be evidence of the criminality of ‘other races.’” He concludes: “In the absence of a more ambitious national program for enabling poor people to find their way out of poverty and attendant suffering, ethno-racial particularism will flourish” (PE, 167-168).
Yet bromides about “a more ambitious national program” seriously understate the politically harsh measures necessary to creating equality, and it ignores the only solidarity that can ensure it: class solidarity. We need to widen the circle of “we” to include all except those who oppose equality. And given that need, the problem that we need to accept is that in today’s America, such solidarity ensures fracture. But, I would argue, this would be a more healthy form of fracture than that described by Rodgers.