U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Secularization, Pluralism, and Moral Minimalism: A Response to Williams, Hartman, Haberski, and Hickman (Roundtable Part V)

David Sehat

I am grateful to Daniel K. Williams, Andrew Hartman, Ray Haberski, and Christopher Hickman for their careful readings and their generous evaluations of my book.They have largely captured my argument and, though I have a few points of disagreement, a point-by-point engagement would be both tedious and ungenerous to their efforts.Instead, let me explain how I approached this book, which might capture and clarify to what extent we agree or disagree.

As I see it, my book turns on three somewhat abstract but important concepts: secularization, pluralism, and moral minimalism.Each involves complicated theoretical and normative positions.Since I was aiming at the general reader (that mythical beast), I didn’t want to burden the text with a full elaboration of these concepts.But after reading these responses to the book, it now seems to me that more remains to be said.

1. Secularization

Williams chides me for what he sees as a persistent tendency to seek out “a secular basis for the expansion of rights” by neglecting the role of religious people, particularly religious liberals. And it is true that The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a history of secularization.But I do not mean secularization quite the way that Williams suggests, so let me be clear about my understanding of the term.

Over the last few decades, secularization theory seemed dead at times.After all, at its base secularization seemed to require the decline of religion and, love it or hate it: we all know that religion is alive and well. But more recently, historical and theoretical sociologists have been refining and reformulating the notion of secularization.Though there are many perceptive writers that I might have drawn upon, in this book I relied upon the work of the sociologist Mark Chaves.

Chaves argues that secularization involves two distinct processes.The first is the differentiation of religion from other institutional structures such as government, education, or business.This differentiation of institutional structures is a mark of modernity.In other words, whereas in past ages governmental, religious, and business authorities might have been connected or combined in the king or prince or pope, modernity entails the division and separation of these various structures.Secularization then occurs as religious authority declines in scope, that is, as religious authority becomes increasingly confined into its own institutional sphere with less relevance for other institutional spheres.The key issue in this version of secularization theory is religious authority.Though many, many people may continue to believe or to practice various religious traditions, this fact is not relevant to the process of secularization, according to Chaves.By focusing on the scope and intensity of religious authority, Chaves offers a theory of secularization that focuses our attention not on the prevalence of individual belief but on the social significance of religion.[i]

Those who have read The Myth of American Religious Freedom will know that the issue of religious authority is a major theme of the book.Religious partisans have long argued that their religion provides the morals to be enforced in law.Another way of saying it is that religious partisans made their religious authority determinative in law and government, sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so.The success of religious partisans in imposing their religious authority on law resulted in a moral establishment, a proxy religious establishment that provided religious authority with the coercive powers of law.

My book focuses on the role of dissenters to the moral establishment—those who objected to the reach of religious authority into law and government.Dissenters were central to the decline of the moral establishment and the secularization of American public life, a secularization that, I must add, is tenuous and seems, in the last several decades, to be moving into reverse.And it is this understanding of secularization that apparently did not come across as clearly as I wished. Williams, for example, thinks that I depict religious liberals as people “who quickly realized that their arguments did not depend upon religious faith and who therefore embraced secular language in advancing human rights.”

But this is not quite what I say, or at least what I intended to say.I sought to say something at once more specific and also stronger: Religious liberals, precisely because of their religious beliefs, were agents of secularization, a secularization that involved the expansion of rights because it meant the decline of religious authority outside the sphere of religious institutions.In making this argument, I think I am being true to liberal theology.Religious liberalism, especially in the nineteenth century but also in the twentieth century, involved a belief in the immanence of God in human history.To religious liberals, God was so present in human affairs that history involved the progressive and inexorable working out of his will for the glorious culmination of his millennial rule.

As a result, there was no basis for a transcendent, prophetic religious voice in religious liberalism.The practical obliteration of any distinction between the sacred and the profane, with the profane all but swallowing up any independent religious authority, meant that religious liberalism followed the currents of the age that others put in motion.As the late-nineteenth century religious liberal Theodore Munger put it in his widely regarded manifesto of religious liberalism, The Freedom of Faith, religious liberalism “allies itself with the thought of the present age.”This alliance, according to Munger, provided the basis for liberal theology’s distinctive character relative to other religious traditions: “Hence its ethical emphasis; hence its readiness to ally itself with all movements for bettering the condition of mankind,—holding that human society itself is to be redeemed, and that the world itself, in its corporate capacity, is being reconciled to God; hence also an apparently secular tone, which is, however, but a widening of the field of the divine and spiritual.[ii]

That last sentence precisely shows the absolute loss of any distinctive religious authority in religious liberalism.I’m sure Munger would have preferred to see religious liberalism as so successful that it diffused liberal Protestant ideals into the wider culture.This was how John Dewey saw religious liberalism, which explains why Dewey viewed churches as relics of a once distinctive religious voice that were, by Dewey’s time, holding back the emergence of a truly religious society. But I view the process, instead, as the collapse of a distinctive religious voice, as those from the outside of the tradition pressed claims upon religious liberals that religious liberals accepted for reasons within their own tradition.The effect is the same.The advance of religious liberalism meant the decline of religious authority in other arenas of society, precisely because religious liberalism aligned itself with the thought of the age.So profoundly did religious liberalism blur any distinction between religious and secular, so complete was the loss of any basis for religious authority without relying on another source, that Will Herberg, when considering the American religious establishment at its liberal apex in 1955, would marvel at “this secularism of a religious people, this religiousness in a secularist framework.”[iii]

2. Pluralism

This brings me to my second point.The debate that I try to illuminate is not ultimately one between Christians and secularists.It is, rather, a debate between establishmentarians and pluralists—that is, between those who seek the use of law to advance their sectarian religious vision and those who seek the use of law to create a social and political framework capacious enough that many different types of people would be able to live unmolested under the same law.

That divide explains my treatment of the civil rights movement, which Williams sees as downplaying the movement’s religious component.But of course the civil rights movement had a religious component, and I did not try to suggest otherwise.In fact, I went out of my way in the brief space that I devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. to pick one of his most theological texts: his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he addressed to white, Christian ministers.My point about King was not to try to make him into a secularist.It was to show King as a pluralist.That is exactly why the civil rights movement was successful.Its appeals to justice were capacious enough to include the support of conservative Jews, liberal Catholics and Protestants, and secular activists (including, most prominently, secular Jews).But the pluralism of the civil rights movement—as well as its offshoots in the other social movements of the later 1960s and 1970s—is exactly what made the 1960s into a secularizing period.Pluralism necessarily means the destabilizing of a single religious authority in law, which has the ultimate effect of an absolute decline of religious authority in law since religious authorities conflict.

This divide between pluralists and establishmentarians is the fundamental intellectual divide of the book, so it is not surprising that my other reviewers train their criticisms on it as well.Andrew Hartman and Christopher Hickman complain, in slightly different ways, that I make too much of the divide and so both overstate its relevance and, in the process, overstate the argument’s claims of originality.I think this, too, misreads the book.As I maintained in my introduction, “There are always many who occupy a middle space, or who remain aloof from any divide, having altogether different concerns and different conceptions” (pp. 9-10).My point was not to stretch the history of this divide to cover everything in American history, but to reveal a previously unappreciated tension that has existed for all of American history.And by connecting the debate between pluralists and establishmentarians with other debates over slavery, women’s rights, or labor, I sought to show that these debates featured not merely disagreements over particular issues but disagreements over divergent political philosophies.This focus on political philosophy is what Hartman especially misses. His contention that slaveholders’ invocation God in support of their social arrangements was merely an “opportunistic cover for slave power” seems not only unprovable but also beside the point. When we move beyond the specific debates to the wider political philosophies that they entail, the divide between the pluralists and the establishmentarians asserts itself as part of, if not fundamental to, these wider debates over political philosophy that were taking place around slavery, women’s rights, and the rights of labor in an ordered society.

3. Moral Minimalism

Ultimately, though, pluralism is not in itself a workable political philosophy because it does not explain how these different groups are supposed to be connected in a single polity.So, too, individualism, which could be said to be the most extreme form of pluralism, leads only toward the utopias of anarchism.We need something else.I am, as Hartman points out, in deep sympathy with the early twentieth-century liberal thinkers such as Croly and Lippmann. But their vision of progress was, alas, naive and proved too technocratic, too reliant on a bureaucracy of experts, and too utopian in the aftermath of World War I.

This leads me, at the very end of the book, to Michael Walzer’s idea of moral minimalism.The fact is that we do owe other members of our society something.We are not little islands.Walzer lays down some helpful distinctions as we think through our obligations.In Walzer’s explanation, moral ideas are ordinarily embedded in thickly contextualized moral outlooks that remain tightly connected to a person’s or group’s view of the world.A Christian might believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong. He or she might base this belief on the Bible, which this person was taught in the family or in the religious community. This maximal moral code is connected to an entire set of ideas about divine governance of human affairs, the status of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of the world, Jesus’s authority to lay down moral precepts, the formation of the body of writings through which Jesus’s maxims come to us in a scriptural tradition that is now called the New Testament, and the status of church and family as the primary purveyors and interpreters of this scriptural tradition.

But these maximal moral ideas cannot form an adequate moral framework for complex modern societies.They are too fully elaborated, too maximally particular in their religious, political, and social perspectives.By contrast, minimal moral ideas, or moral ideas that have been separated from their particular context in order to converse with those not of that tradition or worldview or group, are absolutely necessary for any functioning society.Minimal ideas are the basic codes of conduct that we require of one another even when they are not in our group.They are what enable a Catholic Latino migrant laborer, an atheist professor of religion at an Ivy League University, and a Hindu engineer living in the suburbs, though they may have radically different maximal moralities, to live together in a complex society without it degenerating into anarchy.In that sense, the role of minimal moral ideas cannot be overemphasized.“‘Minimalism,’” Walzer claims, “does not describe a morality that is substantively minor or emotionally shallow.The opposite is more likely true: this is morality close to the bone. . . . The minimal demands that we make on one another are, when denied, repeated with passionate insistence.”[iv]

The distinction between minimal morality (which is publicly affirmed, and therefore publicly regulated) and maximal morality (which is privately believed and thereby privately maintained) still leaves plenty of room for disagreement about what ought to be considered minimal and what ought to be considered maximal moral obligations.Those disagreements are the stuff of contemporary debate.I don’t propose to solve that debate in this book.

My aim is only to reframe the debate so that it is a productive one.To do that, we must have an adequate conception of our past.As Tony Judt said in an interview in Historically Speaking, “The historian’s task is not to disrupt [our false memories of the past] for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly.” The belief that we need a truthful understanding of the past in order to live well and to live properly is the book’s animating impulse. We need, as Ray Haberski says, to “confront versions of ourselves that we’d rather just forget,” because to remember this past, to come to terms with it, is a first step in determining the minimal obligations that we have to other another.

[i] Mark Chaves, “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority,” Social Forces 72 (March 1994): 749-74.See also, Christian Smith, ed., The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 1-96; Karel Dobbelaere, “Secularization: A Multi-Dimensional Concept,” Current Sociology 29 (1981): 1-216.

[ii] Theodore Munger, The Freedom of Faith, 6th ed. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1883), 24 (first quotation), 25 (second quotation).Emphasis added.

[iii] Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 15.

[iv] Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 6.