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.