Friday, April 26, 2013

Berger on Civil Religion in Boston

Andrew Koppelman

The great sociologist Peter Berger has posted a provocative reflection on the interfaith services that took place in Boston after the bombings.  Those services, he observes, were carefully tailored by the clergy who spoke there to avoid any specific religious content – even though only by reference to that content could they respond to the most pressing question of the day, “How could God have allowed this to happen?”

Berger observes:

“This is a very distinctive American version of the separation of church and state, a quite strict legal separation, yet with diverse religious groups noisily present in public life. I think that, by and large, this has been a very successful arrangement. It presupposes that a religious group, when it enters public space, must translate its commentaries into terms that can be understood and debated by all citizens, most of whom will not be members of the particular group. Put differently, if one wants to persuade fellow-citizens in public space, one must employ a secular discourse. That discourse does have a moral foundation, the value system of the “American Creed”. Adherents of this or that specific faith may find these values more vague, even superficial, than the ones derived directly from faith, and they themselves may understand their allegiance to the Creed in terms specific to their faith. Thus the secular discourse of the public space coexists with the plurality of specific (if you will, “sectarian”) religious discourses.”

What’s fascinating about this particular variety of secularism is that the religious groups participated precisely because they were religious:  the service avoids matters of theological disagreement, but nonetheless the churches function as official mourners for the nation.  They were invited; the Harvard Philosophy Department was not, and neither were any of the many other institutions of civil society.

Marc DiGirolami worries about Berger’s formulation, “which reminds me a little bit of Rawls's proviso.  It may be more accurate to say that the specific religious discourses not only coexist with the civil religion, but themselves also somehow constitute it.”  DiGirolami doesn’t want to purge those specific discourses from the public sphere.  But what’s peculiar about the American practice is that they are simultaneously in and out of it:  their specific theological differences are integral to their identities, but they are expected not to discuss them in this context. What happened in Boston wasn’t Rawlsian, because the operative category isn’t “comprehensive view,” but “religion.” The clergy avoided discussing theological niceties, but their function was specifically religious.

All of this I take to be further confirmation of my description of American law in action in my new book, Defending American Religious Neutrality.  American law treats religion as a good thing, but insists that the state take no position on any controversial theological question.  What Berger shows is that religious speakers understand and respect that constraint when they are acting in a quasi-official capacity.  We can and doubtless will continue to argue about whether American norms about public religion are appropriate.  Those arguments should be based on an accurate description of those norms – in this case, of the peculiarly religion-friendly character of American secularism.  We keep bumping into evidence of that character, so it is puzzling that it is so little understood.