Arrogant Virtue

Andrew Sullivan recently shared the following quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s postwar book, The Irony of History.

“We … as all ‘God-fearing’ men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. …There is…the necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities…

.. if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Among other things, the excerpt reminded me of Learned Hand’s famous observation that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit that’s not too certain it’s right.”

In God and Country, I noted that America remains deeply divided between contemporary descendants of the early Puritans, on the one hand, and those I call Modernists, whose worldviews are rooted in the Enlightenment, on the other. Puritans define liberty as freedom to do the “right” thing, the thing that God wants. And what God wants (as Niebuhr noted) is–coincidentally–exactly what those self-same “God-fearing men” want.

Puritans believe that government has an obligation to enforce “God’s commands,” which they alone understand.

The American legal structure, however, is not a product of the Puritans who came to these shores for the “liberty” to worship the “right” God and the “liberty” to punish or expel those who differed. Established some 150 years after the Puritans first landed, our government began with a very different definition of liberty: freedom to live your own life as you see fit, free of government interference, so long as you don’t thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. Consistent with these caveats, the Bill of Rights ultimately boils down to “live and let live.”

These very different worldviews divide us still.

In the kneejerk reactions to LGBT progress—especially the rush to legislate “religious liberty” exemptions from civil rights laws—we see the Puritans, furiously fighting back against modern life.

In Michigan, a bill recently passed by their House of Representatives would “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” by allowing or disallowing “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

In other words, if you are a pharmacist who doesn’t want to fill prescriptions for birth control or antiretrovirals, if you own a bakery and don’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, or if you are an EMT reluctant to treat gay patients, you can cite your “sincerely held religious belief” (no matter how idiosyncratic) to justify noncompliance with legal and/or professional obligations.

I think these laws are what Nieburh meant by “blindness induced by hatred and vainglory.”

The zealots who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center were undoubtedly motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs. The homegrown terrorists who gun down abortion doctors are motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs.

In a society where my (arrogantly held) sincere belief is different from your (equally arrogant) equally “sincere” belief, government cannot and should not privilege either of us.


  1. “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”― Anne Lamott

  2. Perhaps there was a time, or perhaps I imagined it, where religion was seen as the complement, not the replacement, for enlightened government. One God’s rules, the other man’s rules. They fit together into a complete set.

    So when Christianity’s God demanded proselytizing, it fit within man’s rules for how. Religious freedom encompassed religious ferver. And vice versa.

    Were people more intelligent then or did I imagine that too?

    Imagine a society of Faith and fealty to freedom. Not Puritanical but open to the full glory of life. All of it.

    Will we be the generation that fully realized then ended that?

    Or was it a dream?

  3. Pete; if it was a dream, your dream has become this country’s nightmare. Too many of our laws are now based on the religious blathering of elected officials who are bought and paid for by the 1%. Does the 1% consider their purchases of government officials as tithing?

  4. Unfortunately, my earworm is now the Billy Jack theme song chorus. The Michigan House of Representatives who passed this bill are bigots representing bigots. Bigotry is bigotry. It doesn’t matter if it’s faith based bigotry, or tradition based bigotry, or ignorance based bigotry, or hate based bigotry. Bigotry is bigotry. They’ve simply choosen to practice a religion that practices bigotry.

  5. Sheila’s blog is inspirational and spot-on. So are the comments today. I think we can feel twinges of a return to the Bush era due to unfolding events of late. Or is that just my shingles kicking up again? The feelings are similar: severe pain and a red rash. Bigots are already clapping their hands with glee. Their mouths are watering at the mere thought of yet another Bush. That oughta scare the pants off’n ya!

    “God. . .the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire” is so appropriate for the radical right. “God, guns, and gays” could likely be the 2016 mantra. Here we go again. It’s Niebuhr’s The Irony of History cranking up again. Have we learned nothing? (Don’t answer that!)

  6. The rise in religious extremism parallels the fall in critical thinking by an apparently large segment of the US population. Many seem completely willing to accept any statement at face value without questioning it. I believe that religion preys (no pun intended) on these people and uses them to spread the message to others. There is a tribal aspect to it; you have to believe what we believe to be in the tribe. I have railed against religion in this blog a few times before. The true believers just don’t stand up to any intelligent scrutiny; it’s impossible to argue with anyone who believes that god is on his side. Loop and repeat.

  7. Reading the comments from this particular post brought me to rotating to the left in my desk chair and reaching to my book shelf for one of my favorite reference books when considering the occasionally strange cultural influences that continue to impact our lives from the British Isles, “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America” by Brandeis University History Professor David Hackett Fischer. It matters not if you have British ancestry, it’s a keeper for gaining an insight to our culture from the past and to the present. My German and Danish ancestors arrived long after these four British groups had settled; hence, by default I am influenced by the geographical regions where my ancestors decided to stake their futures. I suspect we all are.

  8. There is a sad corollary here that the certainty expressed by the extreme Right is contrasted to the measured, nuanced statements on the Left. Certainty sells much better.

    For the record, the extreme Left has similar characteristics, although if you have ever listened in on “old Lefties” arguing the comparative virtues of different forms of socialism you might wonder. The main point is that the extreme Left hasn’t captured one of our political parties in my lifetime; the extreme Right has.

  9. According to Gerald Horne, the Revolutionary war was a reactionary war to preserve slavery. It’s a great theory, and has a lot of points–why the southern states supported it for one thing. Other than that slavery thing, the southern states had more to lose than gain if a parting of the ways came about. See An EXCELLENT reinterpretation of that whole ‘rights of man’ idea…..and not a very flattering one. And it also explains the bitterness of the Miami ex pat Cuban’s fury at Obama’s normalizing relations with Castro. Apparently, Castro, a communist dictator is SO much worse than the American ally Batista. Slavery is hardly unique to the US–it is admired everywhere by the propertied classes.

  10. I wonder if all these lawmakers who are pushing “religious liberty” bills would support me if I, as a Quaker, refused to serve a member of the military?

    Although having said that, recently I had to give testimony in a legal setting. I was sweating it because Quakers don’t swear, I was thinking they were going to ask me to swear to tell the whole truth and so on. What to do? Embarrass myself by making a scene? Or ignore what I what I believe?

    But I didn’t have to decide, because the clerk rattled off, “Do you swear or affirm…”

    And I thought, “wow, at some point we were really considerate of a tiny minority’s beliefs.”

    I wonder when that changed?

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