Thursday, December 20, 2007

Did Michael Novak actually read my Weekly Standard article?

19 November 2007

To the editor, National Review Online:

I ran across the following article by Michael Novak in the National Review, "Salt Lake Debate," December 17, 2007, taking a quick shot at the end at my Weekly Standard article this week, "Mormons, Muslims, and Multiculturalism," available online here (and some additional discussion at my blog post, here).

Look, I grant that the article was very long and had a long list of targets.  I acknowledge that numbers of people - including intellectuals, professors, theologians, etc., had some trouble following the argument.  Inelegant?  Possibly. My fault for bad writing?  Maybe.   Emotional?  No doubt, for reasons I explain at length in the essay. 

Still, it is hard to believe that Mr. Novak actually read the article before penning the following paragraph about it:

In another vein, a writer in The Weekly Standard, a former Mormon, urged publicly testing candidates even about purely theological matters — transubstantiation, baptism by immersion, circumcision, and other particular practices or beliefs of various faiths — just to see how, by the criteria of Enlightenment and liberal correct reasoning, the candidate “reasoned” about such matters. This, I think, makes Enlightenment and liberal political philosophy a new orthodoxy. And that test would provide a very narrow gate into republican self-government. By that test, only a small part of the population of the United States might pass. Most Americans have a much larger definition of “reason” and the “reasonable” than that.

Does my article urge publicly testing candidates about purely theological matters as transubstantiation, baptism by immersion, circumcision, etc., just to see how by the criteria of the Enlightenment and liberal correct reasoning, the candidate "reasoned about such matters?  

I offer three basic rules of thumb for what it is okay to ask of a candidate for public office about his or her religious doctrines.  The first is that any question of religious doctrine must have something to do with public policy or governance.  Specifically, I say:

[A]re there principles that can help define what religious questions should be in-bounds and what should be out of bounds in a tolerant, liberal polity?

First, for something to be "in," [bounds for questions] there does have to be a connection to governance, politics, and the public sphere. This is the most traditional form of American religious toleration in politics. A Buddhist's belief in reincarnation ought to be neither here nor there; a Mormon's conception of the Savior likewise; and a Jew's refusal to regard Jesus as Lord likewise.

Well, I don't know, that sounds to me like it rules out questions of transubstantiation, baptism by immersion, etc.  How else would Mr. Novak take it?  Indeed, the article does specifically raise transubstantiation and the Virgin Birth.  What does the article say?

Just as it is not considered irrelevant to know if one believes that space aliens came to Roswell, New Mexico, or has views on Area 51--shades of Dennis Kucinich?--a candidate's views on the Virgin Birth or transubstantiation or creationism are likewise relevant to making an informed electoral choice as to a candidate's fundamental rationality.

True, that does sound like it subjects the Virgin Birth and transubstantiation to politically correct tests of reason.  It sounds indeed as though this would create a new orthodoxy of reason, as Mr. Novak suggests.  But suppose we actually look at the article and see to whom this view is attributed:

And note that on this matter, atheistic rationalists and religious overbelievers join hands to say, all-in. A Hitchens, after all, would say that the electorate deserves to know the full irrationality of a candidate, and that is best expressed in his or her religious beliefs, even apparently private ones. (He would say this, and has said it: "Phooey," writes Hitchens, "to the false reticence of the press and to the bogus sensitivities that underlie it.")

So, this new orthodoxy of reason is attributed to ... the atheist rationalist Christopher Hitchens but also religious zealots like Huckabee who would insist that all religious practice, including weird aspects of Mormon belief and ritual that have no connection to governance, should be considered in deciding for whom to vote.  Mr. Novak's plainly rejects that and, I would have thought pretty obviously, so do I.  I'm arguing against it.  It is stated pretty clearly in this paragraph.  I don't believe that Mr. Novak read it, or at least not closely enough to follow it.

Past this first principle - that the religious belief in question has to have some relevance to public governance in order to be up for question at all - I further add a second, still more limiting principle on questions about religious doctrines.  It is that even where a religious belief does conceivably have a connection to governance - such as abortion or opposition to the death penalty - questions put to a candidate should be framed in a way that focus on the issue of the candidate's private conscience and belief about such matters, and not on the religion as such, in order to avoid, as Romney correctly said, making the candidate a spokesperson for the corporate religion as such.  I praised Romney on that very point, and took it even further in defense of liberal toleration:

To be sure, there was something good and liberal in part of his answer, and we should start with that. Romney said--correctly as a matter of deep liberalism--that for him to give representations as to the content of his faith would make him a representative of that faith, rather than of the people, who are of many faiths. To do so would be to head down the path of communalism, a political space defined not by a religiously neutral public sphere but by a division accepted as reasonably legitimate consisting of groups--religious, ethnic, whatever--that have claims on behalf of their immutably identified members.

How Mr. Novak could get from that to an assertion of a new liberal orthodoxy is quite beyond me.  I simply doubt he read the article.  What is so hard about this?

Finally, I offer a third principle, for when it is appropriate to take account of religious doctrine of a candidate.  It is in a limited circumstance - important, but limited by the previous two principles.  If a candidate asserts, or gives sufficiently good reason by his or her actions to show, that a position is rooted not in religious belief as such, but in the authority of the church, and thus puts an officeholder squarely between two authorities and obligations - church and the polity - then it is legitimate to inquire into the content of doctrine. 

I offer an example that I say flatly is hypothetical and indeed "fantastical" - the Catholic bishops announcing that any Catholic politician voting for abortion funding will be excommunicated and is therefore in peril of his or her salvation.  In that case, a genuinely devout candidate is genuinely caught between two competing authorities, the obligation to God and the obligation to the commonwealth, if, for purposes of the hypothetical, that is the will of the populace and, for example, prior to the announcement of this new doctrine, the candidate had promised to support abortion funding (saying, eg, that this was not his or her private religious view, but following the clear will of the majority).  In that case, it seems to me perfectly liberal and consistent with toleration for citizens to inquire into the content of doctrine that might lead a candidate, or even an officeholder, to vote in a way that is loyal to one's soul and God, but not loyal necessarily to one's citizens who are not necessarily of the faith. 

Any reasonable reader - no, any reader - of my article would recognize that the intent of this essay is to offer straightforward principles of liberal toleration that Mr. Novak himself would broadly endorse.  It seems pretty obvious to me that he started reading, perhaps got annoyed at the length (but surely Mr. Novak is used to reading things longer than 1500 words?) or at the tone of the essay, landed on a particular paragraph without bothering to read to whom its view was attributed, decided that it was my view, and engaged in a little drive-by libel. 

I understand that some readers found this essay hard to follow.  I don't defend its elegance; I was quite annoyed when I wrote it, and decided to take on all targets.  If it was too scattershot or emotional for Mr. Novak's sensibilities, my regrets.  But I can hardly think that the views he attributed to the me or the article by Mr. Novak are correct on any reading.  They are exactly what they are - views attributed to my foils, in this case Hitchens in particular.  Thirty seconds more of reading would have shown Mr. Novak this. 

I don't defend the readability of the article.  If it confused Mr. Novak then I will grant it had its problems of readability.  I do think Mr. Novak, whether my fault or his, has quite misread it.  He is, with good reason, a widely respected commentator, and his views on what the article said will and, all things being equal, should carry weight with those who might read the article Would Mr. Novak care to withdraw or amend his reading of it?