Is it just me, or have others noticed how difficult it is to have a decent conversation? I mean a real conversation, about something that matters, where there is enough of a difference of opinion that there is something worth talking about, but where there’s enough in common that we’re actually able to find ways to get through to each other—that we’re able both to hear and be heard. I don’t find myself in those sorts of conversations often enough; either I’m surrounded by people who basically agree with me on most things that are important, or I’m with people who not only disagree with me on the issues at hand, but even disagree how we should engage in conversation about them.
Now perhaps this is a reflection of the particular world in which I live. I teach at a college that is rather Christian (Gordon College), in a state that is rather not (Massachusetts). So perhaps some worldview whiplash should be expected. I also should not discount how I may be personally implicated in this problem: The sorts of conversations that I’d like to have also require a lot of work. No doubt there’s more I could do to find the conversation partners that I’m currently missing.
But still, I can’t help but think that there is something else going on. Not long ago, I attended a mini-conference in which professors and graduate students took turns describing some of their research on faith and politics. As we slowly went around the room, I was struck by the fact that again and again, we were hearing variations on a theme. The European Christian Democrats who got in trouble with the Vatican for not being Catholic enough, the politician who was raked over the coals after quoting Leviticus in the state legislature, the evangelical lawyers fumbling for a faithful discourse but eventually resorting to liberal “rights-talk” in their arguments—all are examples of what I call the search for “middle ground” discourse.
What is “middle ground” discourse? It’s the language that lies somewhere between a “Thus saith the Lord”-type claim and a situation where a religious person is required to translate his or her views into secular language in order to have any standing at all. Is there not a middle ground—a way that people of faith can speak and act, in public, politically, respectfully, while keeping their convictional particularities intact? I’d like to think that such a discourse is possible—but I’m worried that my conversational difficulties are a sign that maybe it’s not. Or at least that it’s a lot harder than it used to be.
One reason perhaps is that Christians themselves aren’t so good at this sort of conversation. Although the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is only five years away, many of us are still having trouble getting over our establishmentarian habits: We still like to talk in the political arena as though the people across the aisle heard the same sermon we did last Sunday. This is not a path to middle ground discourse. Meanwhile, others of us are only too aware that we’re not the establishment—and so our central preoccupation is to get back what’s ours. And we actually talk that way. One can almost see the middle ground fade away to nothingness.
So one reason the middle ground is elusive is because many Christians don’t want to live there. But another reason, probably just as significant, is because liberal thought (and practice) hasn’t been very supportive of its appearance—indeed, it will occasionally go to great lengths to undermine it. Christianity isn’t unique in not responding well to threats of disestablishment. Nevertheless, I’m interested in finding ways, both in practice and in theory, that this type of middle ground discourse might be permitted, perhaps might even flourish. How might we undertake this search?
As an undergraduate, I was a regular participant in student theatre, taking part in a number of high school and college productions. I recall the first weeks of rehearsals as mechanical and not so very inspiring, as we worked through the blocking of individual scenes and as we stood in front of dorm room mirrors, memorizing and practicing lines. Finally the day would come, though, when we would go “off-book”; no more scripts on stage. That’s when it finally began to feel like theatre—when we no longer had to depend on the rules and directions that we carried around stage and that had been written by someone else. Now we were thrown back upon ourselves—what we knew about the people we were becoming and what we thought we knew about the other participants joining us on stage. Suddenly, the play was the thing.
Political theorists talk a great deal about scripts. One of the great would-be scriptwriters, John Rawls, not long ago proposed a script he called “public reason.” People could enter the political stage to perform any role they liked (Christian, Marxist, Kantian, and so on), but whatever they said had to be publicly accessible, or at least publicly understandable. To do otherwise, he warned, was to risk political actors not being able to understand each other (a prudential concern), or more seriously, actors not showing proper respect to each other (a principled concern). Unfortunately, Rawls had great difficulty in establishing what that publicly accessible basis might be. And that difficulty led some to imagine whether we might go “off-book” in our political discussions with each other. Can we imagine political conversations that don’t follow a script?
What I find appealing about politics without scripts is that it is a vision of politics in which Christianity and liberalism have both been disestablished, but without establishing anything else. It depends upon actors speaking in our own voices, depending on what we know about the persons we are becoming and what we think we know about the other participants joining us in the political arena. Suddenly, politics is the thing.
The hard part for me is considering just how such political conversations might proceed in this pluralist political arrangement. I’ve wondered if there are certain obligations or responsibilities actors have in such a political world, grounded not in a comprehensive worldview that all the actors share, but rather in the nature of the political itself.
For instance, when we listen to other actors in political life, we should not insist upon certain types of arguments as a condition for speaking with us—that is, we cannot require fellow actors to borrow a language not their own in order to speak to us. There can be no requirement that participants stick to our script, and certainly not a requirement that actors keep silent about their motivating reasons. Indeed, listeners should welcome arguments based in religious or other non-shared worldviews, and although there is not an obligation to agree with these arguments, neither should listeners discount the political merits of particular arguments merely because they are based upon different grounds that those we hold.
Meanwhile, as people who speak, we might consider whether we ought to make clear our motivating reasons as we make our political arguments. But equally important, speakers should be willing to make clear how these motivating reasons have reference to the political question at hand—normally this would make strategic sense in any case. This is not to suggest that we make religious contributions secular or neutral or reasonable; rather, we are specifying what we see to be the political implications of our philosophic or religious view.
Am I not imposing a new script by considering these responsibilities? One reason that I think not is that these are middle ground conversations: Actors speak to be understood, but they aren’t required to leave behind their deepest commitments. But more fundamentally, I wonder if these obligations stem from the nature of politics itself.
In the theatre, the actors, crew, even the audience perform specific agreed-upon roles as they bring the show to life. By its very nature, theatre depends upon certain behaviours and virtues to succeed. Something similar can be said to occur in politics. For political conversations to be successful, one must acknowledge the “rules of the game.” At one level, this may imply little more than agreeing to put aside violence and to respect the rule of law. But beyond these, and in fact underlying them, is a commitment to the methods of constitutional democracy, and from this commitment flows certain implications concerning certain behaviours and virtues that we follow in order for our conversations to be genuine conversations.
It bears mentioning that this is not how politics is usually understood. Historically, in the western world, political authority is justified in terms of a strong societal moral consensus on truth. Our modern liberal societies are no different in this respect. Emerging out of the wreckage of the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, early liberals sought a new foundation for the state, now that organized religion had been found wanting, and they found that new common basis in Enlightenment ideals of liberty, reason, and equality. For liberals, then and now, to contemplate a breakdown in that strong moral consensus that undergirds the state is to risk instability, or even violence.
For that reason, the pluralist politics that I have explored here is distinctive; it refuses to establish that strong moral basis. That is how it can avoid rules concerning the contributions that people might want to offer in the political space. But for that reason, it will be threatening to those who hold to the “community with a shared perspective” version of politics. At the very least, it will appear to be very risky.
They are right about the risk. The rules imposed in liberal democracies may be confining, but they do offer a certain security. But the risk is too great only if we believe that what fundamentally holds a political order together is an ideological or doctrinal agreement among citizens concerning the nature of that order. If this belief is true, then the situation truly is alarming. However, it is not obviously true. There may be many more things that sustain a political order most of which have little to do with a strong moral consensus.
Instead, let us consider a conception of the political that depends upon the willingness of the participants to respect the basic rules of a constitutional democracy, rather than upon a larger, integrative moral vision for politics that all must share. Of course, citizens enter into the political fray accompanied by their visions of the true and the beautiful—politics can be as much about the contest of visions of politics as anything else. But the basic constitutional guarantee for democratic participation is more important than a prior agreement concerning the moral grounds for that participation. Indeed, what else is a polity, as distinct from other human communities, than a structure that embraces all who reside in a territory, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and all the other distinctions that divide? And if the state embraces all, without regard to particularities, then our concern should to enable all to participate, without regard to these particularities, and especially without an insistence that participation be in terms of a particular common basis.
Can genuine conversation be possible in such an environment? I really hope so. Ultimately, our answer to that question may depend on our willingness to let go of the terms of the debate and to give up the concern that politics proceed upon “our” common basis. Once we have done so, the possibility for agreement comes closer, as people can come to agreement on particular points or conclusions or policies without agreeing on the underlying reasons for those points or conclusions or policies. Indeed, we might even see this plurality as strength rather than weakness, recognizing the plural bases of support as signs of widespread support for the political enterprise.
Then, perhaps, we can finally have some decent conversations again.