Richard John Neuhaus
Richard John Neuhaus
In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin says our task as social conservatives is one of vision-casting and persuasion rather than outrage and complaint, but we’re out of practice.
Rather than working to enforce a set of norms that large majorities of American at least claimed to accept, [social conservatives] now find themselves needing to make the basic case for their ideals and moral premises. And they are out of practice, and do not always do that as effectively as they might.
Having long been accustomed to speaking from the point of view of commonly shared goals, social conservatives often incline not to speak in ways that that seek to appeal, but rather in ways that seek to lament. They have been much clearer about what they are saying no to than what they are saying yes to, and therefore emphasize the options they would close off rather than the options they would offer. They have operated implicitly as the guardians of a broadly shared consensus working to enforce it rather than as the champions of a poorly known ideal working to draw converts.
They therefore speak of what is lost more often and more forcefully than of what might be gained. And in pointing to losses, they incline to prophesize doom where their neighbors often see harmless change or welcome liberation.
Social conservatives must…make a positive case, not just a negative one. Rather than decrying the collapse of moral order, we must draw people’s eyes and hearts to the alternative: to the vast and beautiful ‘yes’ for the sake of which an occasional narrow but insistent ‘no’ is required.”
p 162, 164
Levin’s basic premise of the book is that both the cultural right and the cultural left are too dependent on nostalgia. They look back to a time we can’t return to instead of making the case for why their competing visions might work best in the world we’re in now.
I think that Levin’s broader argument plays down the genuine threats to religious liberty. These threats make it more difficult for conservatives to actually set forth their vision of of the flourishing community. But he’s absolutely right to remind us to take a posture of patient persuasion rather than angry complaint. “It is cultural traditionalists who are now in the role of outcasts, rebels, and dissenters,” Levin writes, “That is a role to which most conservatives are unaccustomed, yet also in which our traditions have frequently thrived in the past” (p. 169).
An atheist can be a citizen, but he cannot be a good citizen. A good citizen does more than abide by the laws. A good citizen is able to give an account, a morally compelling account, of the regime of which he is part – and to do so in continuity with the constituting moment and subsequent history of that regime. He is able to justify its defense against its enemies, and to convincingly recommend its virtues to citizens of the next generation so that they, in turn can transmit the order of government to citizens yet unborn. This regime of liberal democracy, of republican self-governance, is not self-evidently good and just. An account must be given. Reasons must be given. They must be reasons that draw authority from that which is higher than ourselves, from that which transcends us, from that to which we are precedently, ultimately, obliged.
The American experiment in constitutional democracy was not conceived and dedicated by those who today call themselves “atheists,” and it cannot be conceived and dedicated anew by such citizens. In times of testing – and every time is a time of testing for this experiment in ordered liberty – a morally convincing account must be given. One may ask, Convincing to whom? One obvious answer in a democracy, although not the only answer, is that it must be convincing to a majority of citizens. Minorities, including the minority of atheists, are assiduously to be protected in their legal right to dissent. It is the responsibility of their fellow citizens to give a moral account – an account that atheists cannot give – of why that is the case. Giving such an account in continuity with the truths by which this political order was constituted is required of good citizens, not least because those who cannot give such an account depend on others who can.
American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (pp. 116, 118)