The Republic of Babel

I owe a debt to this year’s crop of presidential candidates. Time and again, one of them says something so outrageous that it brings my thoughts into focus.

First it was Herman Cain saying, “If you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Until that moment, I had vaguely wondered about the role of shame in keeping the 99% down, but it took Herman to crystalize it for me.

More recently, Rick Santorum has been my teacher:

When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left? The French Revolution. What’s left is a government that gives you rights. What’s left are no unalienable rights. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine.

Yep. Secular government inevitably leads to the Reign of Terror. (If you don’t believe it, go visit some secular hellhole like … just about anyplace in Europe, where mobs roam the streets beheading people at will.) Blue Texan has already exposed Santorum’s ignorance of the actual French Revolution, but I want to go somewhere else with the quote: What the heck is Santorum talking about? What could be burning so brightly in his mind that he needs this mangled French Revolution analogy to express it?

I think Santorum has mushed two ideas together: One is an important insight that I wish everyone would think about, and the other is totally wrong. Here’s how I pull it apart:

  • Important insight: American democracy is losing its language of discourse.
  • Wrong: Until recently, conservative Christianity provided that language.

Put them together and you get Santorum’s point: Unless we get back to God, our democracy is going to fall apart.

But let’s not put them together. Let’s discuss the insightful part first, and then step around the Evangelical rabbit hole Santorum has fallen down.

Language in the broad sense. By “losing our language” I don’t mean English. I’m thinking about all the social and intellectual infrastructure that allows us to talk through our differences: taken-for-granted assumptions, shared frames, common concepts, a portfolio of shared heroes to emulate, and so on.

Sharing a language of discourse with somebody doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree. But it does mean that you can explain your problems to each other and empathize with each other’s difficulties. It means that you have some basis on which you can construct a compromise.

Dictatorships can get along without that kind of language. A master-slave relationship functions just fine with grunts and gestures and maybe a few words of pidgin-speak. Common understanding? Just show the slave what to do and beat him until he does it.

But democracies need to be able to talk. I have to know more than just what you want to do or want me to do. I need to understand why you want what you want, and I need to be able to explain why I want something different. We have to be able to discuss the nuances of our hopes and fears and plans — what’s absolutely essential and what isn’t — so that we can cobble together a solution that we can all live with.

A democracy that can’t do that devolves into mob rule or military coup or Potemkin elections that rubber-stamp decisions already made by a governing elite. That’s when the French Revolution analogy starts to make sense: Without a language of discourse, you can have Robespierre or you can have Napoleon, but you can’t really achieve Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.

Consensus and compromise. The Bible doesn’t tell us what kind of government developed in post-Tower Babel. But we can be pretty sure it wasn’t a democracy.

As I’ve described in more detail elsewhere, democracy only works when the issues worth killing and dying for — genocide, slavery, the legitimacy of the property system, and a few others — have already been decided by consensus. Otherwise you’ll have civil war, because the 49% will not march meekly to their fate.

In that essay, though, I treated consensus as a static thing — as it is in the short term. But any lasting democracy has to be able to evolve consensus on new issues as they come up. That can happen if you have a language of discourse. You can make temporary compromises and tinker with them over time until they acquire the prestige of tradition.

Think about pacifism, which is as stark a moral issue as any: To one side, war is humankind’s greatest evil. To the other, it’s essential to defending our way of life. What room is there for compromise?

And yet, we have compromised: The nation continues to defend itself, but pacifists who don’t interfere with the military aren’t jailed or considered traitors. They’re allowed to claim conscientious objector status in a draft, but their taxes support the military just like everyone else’s.

No simple principle would lay down that boundary, but each part of it has become time-honored.

Now think about abortion, where the argument has not really changed since Roe vs. Wade. Either you want to kill babies or you want to subjugate women. It’s been that way for 40 years.

What the Culture War is about. When you grasp the Babel problem, you see the Culture War in a whole new light. What we’re fighting about isn’t abortion or homosexuality or traditional values or even religion. We’re fighting about what the language of American democracy is going to be. What worldview is going to frame the issues that we will then debate and vote on?

One candidate is a secular worldview of reason and science. Another is the worldview of conservative Christianity.

Either one could work, up to a point, if we could reach consensus on it. And neither would require that everyone convert to that worldview completely, only that everyone learn to speak that language in the public square.

Other religious worldviews could work as well as Christianity. There’s no inherent reason we couldn’t have an Islamic Republic or a Jewish Republic or a Hindu Republic, if that’s what we decided we wanted.

But what we can’t have is a Republic of Babel. Not for long.

The Language of the Founders. You know whose language of discourse really worked? The Founders.

The Constitution is a masterwork of compromise. Effective government vs. individual rights; state power vs. federal power; the mob vs. the propertied elite — they worked out a series of good-enough solutions that let the country move forward. Only slavery was too much for them, and even then their band-aids held things together for most of a century, giving their children and grandchildren a chance to avert disaster.

You think abortion or same-sex marriage would have stumped the Founders? No way.

That’s why there’s so much Founder-nostalgia today. At the Constitutional Convention, problems didn’t just sit there, and factions didn’t move further and further apart forever. Whatever came up, they figured out how to keep the process moving.

One frustrating part of Founder-nostalgia is the unending clash of examples “proving” that they were either for or against religion: Franklin calling for prayer at the Constitutional Convention (and invoking the threat of Babel), or Adams signing the Treaty of Tripoli declaring that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.

It goes round and round. If you’re selective, you can quote Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin on either side. Washington was a lifelong Anglican, but he didn’t take communion. No one knows why.

The reason we keep arguing about this is that we’re asking the wrong question. It doesn’t really matter what theology the Founders believed in their private hearts. What matters is how religion influenced their public language of discourse.

God in the Declaration. The most quoted phrase of the Declaration of Independence is

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

This mention of “the Creator” is supposed to back up the claim that the Founders’ worldview was fundamentally religious, and to counter the observation that God was completely left out of the Constitution.

God is mentioned exactly two other times in the Declaration: “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in the first paragraph and “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” in the last.

Interestingly, these phrases were altered from Jefferson’s original draft. The edits cut both ways. “Self-evident” (an Enlightenment philosophical term) was originally “sacred and undeniable” (a religious term). Rights originally came “from that equal creation” with no personification of the Creator. And “Divine Providence” did not appear at all.

Notice what you don’t find in any version of the Declaration: Jesus Christ, the God of Abraham, or any other sectarian name of God. God is given purely functional names that any monotheistic religion would recognize. (Even a polytheistic Hindu would understand: “Creator” means Brahma, and “Divine Providence” refers to Vishnu the Preserver.) The Declaration finds God in the Laws of Nature, but it makes no no reference to any sect’s scripture.

Now think about the era: 18th-century science provided no well-founded theories of origin — no big bang, no primordial soup in which proteins could randomly develop, no evolution by natural selection. If you talked about origins and foundations at all, you ended up talking in religious terms, because there was nothing else. (David Hume was as close to an atheist as the 18th century allowed. The participants in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” eventually converge on a theory of intelligent design.)

So here’s what you (and Rick Santorum) should notice about the Founders’ most important products: The Declaration and the Constitution were written in the most secular language that existed in that era.

But weren’t the Founders religious? Individually, yes. But they didn’t all have the same religion, and they knew it. Patrick Henry would fit right in at a fundamentalist megachurch in Virginia today. If he brought Franklin along, old Ben would probably keep his objections to himself and leave everyone charmed. But Jefferson and Madison would get themselves ejected in short order, and an outspoken New England Universalist like Ethan Allen would be completely beyond the pale.

What’s more, the Founders could see the bad example of England, where Anglicans, Catholics, and Puritans had been hanging each other since Henry VIII. That, they knew, is where sectarian government leads.

But unlike the worst excesses of the later French Revolution, the Founders didn’t attempt to eliminate religion or create a new one. Instead, their public gatherings worked in secular language, because that was a language that everyone could understand. If you needed sectarian language to justify what you wanted to do, they figured, the government probably shouldn’t be doing it.

The Secular Tribe. Something important has changed between the 18th century and today: Secularism has developed into a more complete worldview. It has a theory of origins, a psychology, and humanistic ethics. 18th-century secularism did not threaten sectarian worldviews any more than medieval Latin threatened vernacular French or Spanish. One was a rich, earthly language of everyday life and the other a more philosophically subtle language for widespread professional communities.

In the 18th century, essentially no one spoke Secular at home, so it was not involved in the tribal rivalries of the individual sects. But today, many people do speak Secular at home. And so, while I think it’s a mistake to talk about Secularism as if it were a rival religion, it is a rival tribe. Today, secularism is part of many people’s individual identity. And so, demanding that other people express themselves in secular terms in public can mean that I want them to adopt my tribal identity and abandon their own.

More and more, then, the sects are digging in their heels against this threat to their identity. They are building their own parallel institutions and becoming separatist. As they do this, they are developing their own set of acceptable “facts” and establishing defenses against any non-sectarian evidence or logic. (The idea that the Founders established a Christian Republic is one those false “facts” they are rallying around.)

If that trend continues, it will kill democracy. Elections will give one side or the other a temporary advantage, but will solve nothing for the long term. When the options on the ballot are Kill Babies and Subjugate Women, the losing side just reloads and tries again.

How do we save democracy? First, we have to realize what we’re doing. Whether you speak Secular or Evangelical or something else entirely at home, you need to stop trying to use the public square to validate your identity. That’s not what the public square is for.

Second, all sides need to examine themselves for tribalism — secularists most of all, perhaps, because many of us are unaware of the possibility of secular tribalism. We may need to construct a meta-secular language that purges the tribalism out of secularism. Religious people need to keep asking what is really essential to their religion and what is simply a tradition that has become a comfortable habit and a source of tribal identity.

Third, we all need to understand that a compromise that allows us to live together is an achievement and not a corruption.

Finally, we all need to stretch our understanding and strain to hear each other’s deepest meanings rather than react reflexively against whatever we can perceive as an insult. The Republic of Babel cannot last, but it can move in either direction: towards the war of all against all, or towards the struggle of all to understand all.

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  • Stephanie  On March 6, 2012 at 11:08 am

    This is terrific!!!!
    BUT–you left out the psychology of good manners. If I call you rude names, you will shut out what I’m saying and invest your energy in defending your own position. If I indicate that I’ve heard you clearly but don’t agree, then you are more likely to respond by listening to me. That doesn’t ensure that we can reach a compromise but it prevents us from sabotaging the process at the beginning.

  • Kim Cooper  On March 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    “…I think it’s a mistake to talk about Secularism as if it were a rival religion.” You don’t think secularism is a religion, but you do think Consumer Hedonism is a religion? What’s the difference?
    I hope we can develop that language that allows us to compromise. Right now, no one prominent seems very interested in achieving compromise, peace, or even saving democracy. I hope the Millennials figure out what they want in time. Obama seems to be trying to get the sides together, but everyone just seems to resent his efforts. I wish I could send him this article.

    • weeklysift  On March 12, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      I see Consumer Hedonism as one of the ways Secularism can be fleshed out into something more like a religion. Secularism could also lead to Humanism, scientific materialism, and a lot of other things.


  • By Reason’s Tribunal « The Weekly Sift on March 5, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    […] The Republic of Babel. Tyranny can manage with a simple vocabulary of commands, but democracy can’t do its business without a rich discussion-language of shared concepts and frames and taken-for-granted assumptions. That’s what the culture wars are really about: Will American democracy conduct its business in a secular language or in terms defined by Evangelical Christianity? […]

  • By Creatures of Society « The Weekly Sift on March 12, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    […] the Sift in ways that don’t show up in those stats.) I know I’m prejudiced, but I think The Republic of Babel deserved more attention than it […]

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