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December 31, 2012

George Will on Religion and Politics

I caught on C-SPAN the other night this speech (video here, text here) by George Will, which was delivered earlier this month at Washington University under the auspices of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. I admire much about Will, though there is always plenty to disagree with in an author who has been writing regularly and prodigiously since 1974 (!), and I think his best work reflects an earlier American Toryism in such books as Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does (1983) and the collected essays in The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions (1982). Will is himself not a religious believer, as he discusses somewhat autobiographically in the talk (philosophical trivia: Will mentions his father, Frederick Will, a longtime member of the Philosophy Department at the University of Illinois and also a friend and colleague of moral philosopher James Wallace, father of David Foster Wallace). But Will thinks religion serves an important purpose in American politics, expressed in his thesis:

Religion is central to the American polity because religion is not central to American politics. That is, religion plays a large role in the nurturing the virtue that republican government presupposes because of the modernity of America. Our nation assigns to politics--to public policy--the secondary, the subsidiary role of encouraging, or at least not stunting, the flourishing of the infrastructure of institutions that have the primary responsibility for nurturing the sociology of virtue. 13

I worry, however, that the rest of the talk expands upon a basically instrumental and peculiarly modern (see the praise of Hobbes at pages 25f that will surely cause panic among some of my MOJ colleagues) conception of religion and politics that is too theologically austere to sustain itself, even if I am sympathetic in some respects to what Will says on, for example, natural rights (but then note the debatable anti-perfectionist conclusion to this line of argument):

They [the Founders] understood that natural rights could not be asserted, celebrated and defended unless nature, including human nature, was regarded as a normative rather than a merely contingent fact. This was a view buttressed by the teaching of Biblical religion that nature is not chaos but rather is the replacement of chaos by an order reflecting the mind and will of the Creator.

This is the Creator who endows us with natural rights that are inevitable, inalienable and universal--and hence the foundation of democratic equality. And these rights are the foundation of limited government--government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should chose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions--private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones--that supply the conditions for liberty.

In short, read or watch the talk for its engaging and provocative presentation of a certain kind of "American-establishment-constitutional-conservative-natural rights-liberalism," but then ask what it leaves out.

Posted by Michael Moreland on December 31, 2012 at 02:14 PM in Moreland, Michael | Permalink

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I read Will's talk, rather than listening to it, so I am sure I missed some of the verbal nuances, expressions, etc. With that said, while I enjoyed the essay for its simple and straightforward manner, and the obviously fine mind behind the writing, I did have some facial tics at various places. I think I was somewhat bothered by the positive reference to Hobbes, as well as leaning on Locke as the individuals to whom the Founders owed the most thought on pre-existing rights. (And, being Catholic, reliance on Kant, Machiavelli, and Luther makes me twitchy.) I have found Forrest McDonald's essay on the Founders' influences here - http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=176&Itemid=259 and the related list by Donald Lutz, here - http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?Itemid=259&id=438&option=com_content&task=view - to be both instructive and fascinating.

Posted by: Jonathan | Dec 31, 2012 4:30:25 PM

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