Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, is no longer content to preside over what many still regard as the world’s greatest newspaper. (I don’t, but I read it every day, not because of its pervasive liberal bias, but because it continues to offer the best international coverage of any American newspaper.) Keller is now moved to contribute his own opinions in columns on the op-ed page and elsewhere. On August 28, 2011, he published a piece called “Not just between them and their God” in The New York Times Magazine. It is a brief and closely argued piece, most of it persuasive (at least to me). It is also very well written.
The opening paragraph sets the theme: “If a candidate for president said that he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; a majority of Americans believe that we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?”
Keller mentions the “squeamishness” of Americans about questioning candidates about their religious beliefs. This is hardly surprising in a religiously diverse society, whose constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. Yet, as every politician well knows, religious beliefs will enter into the way people vote. Keller mentions how Michele Bachmann was asked to explain in public just what she meant when she said that she believed the Bible teaches women to be “submissive” to their husbands. (As a conservative Protestant she could somehow explain this embarrassing view. If she were a conservative Muslim, she might have to promise not to take the oath of office wearing a burkah. Keller does not mention the problem with her church’s teaching that the papacy is the Antichrist—see my blog of week before last.) Keller’s mention of Mitt Romney’s need to explain (or explain away?) his Mormonism to suspicious Evangelicals is again worth quoting: “I honestly don’t care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York… Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders.”
I would find it hard to quarrel with Keller here. (Though I would differentiate between religious communities in terms of their capacity to interpret and re-interpret their “bizarre” traditions.) But then he adds something that I find very problematic: “But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country.” This sentence stopped me. Is Keller ready to disqualify a political candidate who places fealty to God above the constitution? If so, this would mean that a sort of doctrinal agnosticism would become the established faith of the nation—a “bizarre” turn indeed in the interpretation of the first amendment.
Is fealty to God to be placed above fealty to the constitution? Every serious Christian, Jew, or for that matter Muslim, would answer with a resounding yes! To answer otherwise would be guilty of a terrible sin in all three Abrahamic religions—the sin of idolatry. The very first of the Ten Commandments reads: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods beside me.”
It seems quite clear that a democracy, which guarantees freedom of religion, will have to accept this answer and its open expression, unless it is used to legitimate actions (not just speech) which violate the law. And even then, democracy (at least in its American version) will be inclined to make concessions to religious beliefs that induce illegal actions. It is useful to recall that Martin Luther King was inspired by his Christian faith to violate what was then the law in Southern states. American democracy has accorded a right of conscientious objection to religiously inspired pacifists, and currently seems on the way to allowing Catholic hospitals an exemption from performing publicly funded abortions or other procedures deemed contrary to Catholic morality. King has become a democratic icon despite (and for many, because of) his advocacy of civil disobedience. It is even useful to recall that German democracy has made an icon of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was motivated by his Christian faith to join the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi tyranny by violent means. Both King and Bonhoeffer died as martyrs to the belief that God is above human law.
Democracy requires that there be a profane realm free of sacred law, the arena of political actions and compromises by people of different or no religious beliefs. Judaism and Islam are similar in having religious law governing every aspect of life. Rabbinical Judaism from early on came to modify the ubiquity of this law, probably because of the simple fact that Jews lost their sovereignty and had to live under non-Jewish rulers. Islam is still struggling with the question of the reach of its religious law in a modern state. Christianity, despite Jesus’ injunction to render onto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, struggled with the question for centuries. Protestantism pioneered in opening up a profane realm for public life (though also not without some protracted struggles). Roman Catholicism, after a long period of fierce resistance, did the same at the Second Vatican Council. Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, especially in Russia, is still struggling. Democracy in any pluralistic society (which means practically everywhere) means that the boundary between sacred and profane realms will be ever shifting, ever in need of re-interpretation and re-negotiation.
The implication for American democracy is very simple: The constitution is not a sacred text. It has proved to be an amazingly durable and supple artifact. But it is a human artifact. Its core values are in part (and only in part) derived from Biblical religion, but these have been embraced by adherents of other religions, as well as by agnostics and atheists. This constitution can be respected, admired, even loved. It should not be worshipped.