Church and State: Still Learning This Whole Democracy Thing

Two initial remarks: 1) this will be a particularly important presidential election and 2) I care little about who wins.   The election will be important, not primarily because Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will win, but because it will further bring to the fore the signs of the nation’s struggle to develop and to live in a pluralistic democratic society.

Face it, nation: we’re still figuring out this whole democracy thing.  As much as we use and cherish words like “freedom” and “justice,” we’re still amateurs at defining them and putting them into practice.  Pluralism is difficult. No one gets her ideal society.  Instead, all of us have to make a case for our worldviews in the marketplace of ideas, whether the location is some website or the floor of the Senate.

Everything from our policy proposals to our comprehensive doctrines come into conflict and competition, as we’re seeing, for example, with the debate over the coverage of contraceptives between the Obama administration and the Catholic bishops.  Different ideas about freedom and justice, along with measures to give those ideas the force of law, have put each side into conflict.  That’s life in a pluralistic democracy; it’s not a sign of the reemergence of Nazism or some other such evil.

Pluralistic democracy entails irresolvable conflict.  Sometimes compromise cannot be reached because the core positions of each side are incompatible.  Culture wars erupt as the competitors attempt to resolve the irresolvable conflicts by culturally vanquishing the opponent and thereby eliminating the opposing ideas.  These “wars,” I submit, are signs of the failure to live in a pluralistic democracy, a way of life which requires its own ethic. Living in a pluralistic society unavoidably means participating in social actions and structures that conflict with one’s own values and principles.  And yet, if ethics means anything, it means drawing the line somewhere.  As the competing worldviews in our society continue to diverge, it becomes more pressing and more problematic to discern where to draw the line.  Individuals and institutions, both secular and religious, have work to do towards this discernment.  So too has society as a whole.

I harbor no doubts that the general presidential election will prove an ugly affair, but one way or another it will highlight the underlying moral conflicts that divide us as a people, and perhaps amidst the campaigns we will make some progress toward discerning the ethic needed for hospitable coexistence.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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16 Responses

  1. It is good to fail to live in a pluralistic democracy.

  2. J.J. Gittes says:

    “Cultures fight wars with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them. Cultures have different perceptions, which determine what the world is. They cannot come to terms. There is no communication about the highest things…Culture means a war against chaos and a war against other cultures.”
    —Alan Bloom, “The Closing of the American Mind”

    There’s always the Nietzschean alternative. That worked well in the last century, didn’t it?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Bloom is both right and wrong. The cultures of the world cannot be brought into a coherent whole; even two cultures cannot come to terms because their terms makes sense only within the culture itself. That said, it’s not cultures that fight wars, but the people who live in them that wage wars. And they have a choice about how to respond to cultural difference and incompatibility. Culture war is one response, and probably the easiest, simplest, and cleanest. But it’s not the only response.

  3. GordonHide says:

    I think you’re getting too pessimistic. Every well functioning democracy is a system in tension between the various power groups. If the US has a serious problem it’s its tendency to become a plutocracy. As long as the rule of law holds up the degree of pluralism is not a serious problem.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I’m not sure where you’re reading pessimism in what I wrote. I’m an advocate of pluralism and cultural diversity.

      • GordonHide says:

        Perhaps pessimistic was the wrong word. I feel you have exaggerated the scale or effect of disagreement in the US pluralistic setting.

  4. Mark A says:

    I wouldn’t say I don’t care who wins but I don’t think it particularly matters. Two sides of the same coin I say. As far as figuring out this whole democracy thing, I think we’ve overcome some pretty significant hurdles to get where we are. Compared with what we’ve faced as a nation in the past the current political debate over culture is but a minor skirmish. I realize the mouthpieces on each side of the debate use hyperbole and histrionics to try and further their ends but most of us reasonable types can coexist hospitably even if we disagree. At least it makes for great theater and I, for one, like the feeling of superiority I get judging the shrill indignation voiced by others. Just don’t mention light beer or Nickelback in my presence.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      It is a minor skirmish, but it’s an important one, because I suspect our society, via the election and the actions of the state, will in effect be making some important far-reaching decisions about how we understand religious liberty and the relationship between church and state.

  5. I don’t really see why this is a particularly important election. It’s important in the way that most elections are important, but to what degree are the stakes really all that monumental, assuming we cannot know the stakes ahead of time? (With retrospect, we can of course see that the effects of certain elections were “fundamental and astounding,” but I just don’t see 2012 as being all that important in the broader scheme of things.)

    • Will H. says:

      That’s sort of what I get out of it.
      It’s like the Miller Lite commercials where the people are arguing:
      “Great taste!”
      “Less filling!”
      And no one seems to realize they’re drinking the same cheap swill.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The particular importance is in the particularly divisive conflict we’re not seeing between church and state, specifically the Roman Catholic bishops and the Obama administration, a conflict that has brought the question of religious freedom to the center of the stage. These are tensions and conflicts and questions that we need to address.

  6. GordonHide says:

    I think the Obama administration has already correctly addressed this question. The Catholic bishops are not asking for religious freedom but religious privilege. Read this piece by the Australian philosopher Russell Blackford:

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The Catholic bishops are not asking for religious freedom but religious privilege.

      That’s one of the matters we as a society are in the process of answering. I expect the bishops to continue to assert their position and the administration to champion theirs. Who will win may not be decided by this election, especially if Obama wins, but it will keep this the clash of interpretations front and center.

      • GordonHide says:

        Yes, but should it take “a society” to decide the definition of particular phrases. I suspect what constitutes freedom and what constitutes privilege is matter for lawyers or philosophers. Did you read the Russell Blackford piece?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Philosophers may influence the lawyers who codify these legal terms into law, but ultimately society, assuming that society is democratic, has to get behind those definitions, at least in effect, for them to remain the socially accepted definitions. Today we’re seeing the larger society begin to discuss the distinction between freedom and privilege. Whose definitions will “win” will be determined, in part, by which definition society embraces. Of course, this may be a long process that extends well beyond this election season, and it’s also possible that this debate will continue indefinitely.

          I have not yet read the Blackford piece.