Belief and Public Policy: An Answer To “People For The American Way”



by William H. Marshner

Family Policy Insights
VOL. V: Number 2
721 Second Street, N.E.Washington D.C. 20002
(202) 546-3004
February, 1986

Family Policy Insights is published by the Child and Family Protection Institute, a project of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt educational organization. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Child and Family Protection Institute or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.


In the public-policy debate on family issues, it so happens that religious beliefs and religiously based moral convictions are absolutely crucial to some of us who are parties to the debate. Should we be penalized for that fact? Should we have to play by different rules from other parties in the debate, whose views are more secular?

Norman Lear seems to think we should. At least, that is the view implicit in the approach of People for the American Way, a 150,000 member national organization founded by the successful television producer. I say that this discrimination against religious people is “implicit” in their approach because People for the American Way (PAW) does not state its position in general principles; it picks rather on specific instances of political action by the Religious Right, or on specific statements by conservative Christian leaders (almost always out of context), and attacks that action or statement as somehow anti-democratic; but with a little patience one can distill some general principles out of these specifics, and when one does, the results are discriminatory on their face. I draw this conclusion subject to correction of course, from PAW spokesmen, should they care to point out the error in my analysis; but as best this editor can deduce from their materials, including materials requested from PAW for this purpose, the following list emerges as PAW’s general assumptions and tenets:

  1. American public policy is necessarily relativistic (by the nature of the Constitution), and anyone not respecting such relativism does not respect the Constitution. Thus any judgment that a public policy is “evil” is essentially an un-American judgment.
  2. Description of any public policy action as a “sin” is a message of hatred which vitiates public debate.
  3. Any appeal to God’s Word on issues of public morality or on social issues impinging on moral standards is contrary to open debate and religious liberty. As such, it is un-American.
  4. It is un-American to pray for the conversion of office-holders with the intent of shaping public policy on moral issues.
  5. Any public approval of religion by any government agent is un-American, or undemocratic.
  6. The Church has positive duties towards the State, obeying laws and regulations that shape the Church’s behavior. The State, however, has no such duties towards the Church. Its sole duty, in response to the Church’s expectations, is negative: to do nothing.
  7. Any public policy that can be linked in any way to a religious doctrine is un-American, undemocratic. Thus, to outlaw abortion would be undemocratic because such action would conform to Catholic or Fundamentalist beliefs.

It takes no great discernment to see that principles like these, if sold successfully to the American people, will spell political doom for any idea unlucky enough to have a religion concurring with it!

Where do PAW’s discriminatory principles come from? What vision of the American ideal can possibly justify such notions? An interesting answer emerges in the following essay, written by Prof. William H. Marshner, chairman of the Theology Department at Christendom College. Known to many FPI readers for such monographs as The New Creatures and the New Politics (1980) and The Morality of Political Action (1984), Prof. Marshner is currently working on a larger book, tentatively titled A Theology for the Christian Right, intended to address many more aspects of the Church-and-State issue. The essay is an adaptation of a chapter from this work.

Patrick F. Fagan


It is a commonplace of political theory that human beings need to have some “common ground” if they are to form a community and be “fellow” citizens in it.

What is meant by “common ground” in this context is a set of shared values and beliefs. These form what is sometimes called a “public orthodoxy.” It is easy to verify that societies in the past have enjoyed a sizeable stock of common ideas. Indeed, over most of the globe and most of history, the common stock has been so large as to include a public form of worship. The heart of each nation’s public orthodoxy has tended to be a religious orthodoxy.

The United States of America is an exception to this tendency. It is no longer the only exception, and it may not have been the first; but it is certainly the most important. The Constitution of the United States marked a two-fold break with previous political tradition. It replaced the sovereign monarch with a federating Republic, and it denied to this Republic the power to establish a national religion or to restrict the free exercise of religions. Thus, the mold of the Peace of Westphalia was broken; the new Republic had the regio but not the religio. And the success of this experiment quickly prompted imitation and debate — from the revolutionaries of France to the liberals of 19th century Europe and Latin America, to the world leaders of today — debate over the place of religion in society and, more generally, over the nature and extent of the common ground societies must have, if they are to prosper and endure.


The purpose of the present essay is to advance this debate by clearing away a source of confusion. One thing relevant about the American experiment to the rest of the world (and to political philosophy) does indeed consist in the fact that Americans have found a non-sectarian common ground on which to cooperate as fellow citizens and on which to define their national identity. But there are two kinds of common ground fitting this description; each is often said to be the kind which Americans have, or ought to have. Failure to distinguish them, indeed, failure to recognize their incompatibility in certain regards, fosters deep misconceptions of the American ideal. Hence, in what follows, the merits of these two kinds of common ground will be examined, as will their separate credentials as ingredients of the American experience. It will be argued that the ultra liberal pressure group, People for the American Way, fosters the kind of misconception just mentioned.

Exposition of the two kinds of common ground will be a good deal less turgid if the author may relax the obligation to keep his pronouns in the third person. Diversities in religion and morals, philosophy, ideology, and culture, are better expressed in the contrast of “mine” and “yours” — my creed vs. yours — than in clumsy phrases like “the one group’s” and “the other group’s.”


Given the antecedent fact that you and I are members of a religiously (and/or morally and/or ideologically and culturally) diverse society, the first kind of common ground arises in a very natural way. We hunt down points of agreement in your religion and mine, common precepts in your morality and mine, common values in your culture and mine. In turning to the problem of public policy, neither of us sets aside his system of belief. Rather, we insist that public life be shaped by the common content of our two systems. Since this content is a part (but presumably not the whole) of your belief-system, and likewise a part of mine, each of us believes in this part and believes it ought to shape public policy, precisely because (and only because) each of us believes a whole of which it is a part. Hence, my religion, my morality, or my culture remain intensely relevant to what I judge to be a suitable public orthodoxy for our society — as do yours to your judgment.

The justifications for developing and using this kind of common ground are at once practical and theoretical. In a democracy marked by multiple levels and branches of government, there are so many “levers” of power that it is difficult for my group to have enough of the lever-holders in its own ranks (and what matters more: in its own disciplined ranks) to implement my vision of the good society in solitary triumph. Unable to prevail alone, my group is obliged to seek allies, such as, perhaps, your group. And since you are unlikely to become an ally unless I can persuade you that my public agenda is also a point of your doctrine (perhaps a deduction from it, or a valid application of its principles), my own political hopes compel me to develop with you the kind of common ground we have just been talking about. That is its practical justification.

The theoretical justification comes in many versions, and which one will be found acceptable by a group depends upon the theology, philosophy, mood, or history of that group. But in very general terms, an especially common version goes like this:

To see the whole truth is a great gift. We should be grateful for it, because many have not received it.

Those unconverted (or unenlightened) persons need to be won over; but to that end (and in the meantime) they need to be lived with. How do we manage that? Within what common framework can believers and unbelievers (or Hebrews and Hellenes, or Hellenes and Philistines) co-exist socially, in daily life or in public capacities? The question gets an answer for me, as soon as I am able to isolate a subset of my beliefs which can be vindicated not only on my (perhaps very distinctive) principles but also on your principles or on principles of reason common to all.

For then a subset of my beliefs will provide the common framework we both needed; a social theory adequate to the needs of our diversified society will not be imposed upon me, then, by an alien humanism, mandating an unwelcome conviviality, but will emerge out of my own integral beliefs.

The nature of this first kind of common ground (intersecting beliefs) and the admissible justifications for developing and appealing to it should now be clear.

Yet the reader may also have spotted a serious problem. We can explore the problem and also effect a transition to the second kind of common ground by raising the issue of quantity. Does the search for areas of agreement yield a big enough common ground?

The Problem of Quantity

Obviously, the accidents of history can shape societies in which the yield is more than big enough. Mass conversion of the population to my religion or philosophy can yield a society in which the subset of my belief-system shaping public policy is (to speak mathematically) an improper one: the subset is the whole set, and (to speak politically) we have a Confessional State. In other words, there is no upper limit on how extensive this kind of common ground can be. It will be bigger in some societies than in others, because different histories yield different demographics (and, at any given size, its impact on public policy will be bigger in some societies than in others, because prudent men will make different accommodations in different places). But is there a lower limit? That is the more interesting question. For this type of common ground, the problem of quantity emerges when creedal and cultural diversity become very great.

On the one hand, in this situation common ground can be large and important even where explicit points of common creed are few. For, in any religion, morality, or culture, much remains implicit. It often happens that diverse and even contradictory beliefs share a common presupposition. For example, certain Christian denominations hold direct abortion to be intrinsically evil and hence impermissible even in the pursuit of a good end, such as to save the life of the mother. Other Christian denominations, plus Orthodox Jews, plus all kinds of other people, hold direct abortion to be permissible only to save the life of the mother, because, in that special case, the life-threatening fetus can be viewed as an unjust aggressor.

These are certainly diverse beliefs, and contradictory on the central point. But both presuppose that the unborn child is a true human being. The one presupposes this point because it is the ground for declaring direct abortion intrinsically evil. The other presupposes it because only a human being can be an unjust aggressor. Hence the holders of both views can agree that public policy on abortion is to be dictated by the humanity of the unborn child. In other words, the idea that there is a simple, inverse ratio between the degree of “pluralism” in a society (especially religious pluralism) and the quantity of common ground attainable is simply false.

It overlooks the impact of implicit beliefs.

On the other hand, it has to be admitted that this kind of common ground (intersecting beliefs) is not inevitably large or important. One can point to philosophies and other systems of religio-moral belief so constituted that they clash in their deepest presuppositions and hence have no points, or only very trivial points, in common. (Nietzscheanism and Christianity are perhaps an example, like Marxism and Islam, or Hinduism and Unitarianism). Differently stated, it can easily happen that two systems of belief are so divergent that (in this first sense of ‘common ground’) the amount of common ground they yield is radically insufficient to shape a public policy. This possibility exists despite the fact that, between any two sane persons, no matter how diverse their high intellectual systems, there is an enormous field of agreement filled with down-to-earth facts, practicalities of everyday life, and other “unproblematic” matters. This field of agreement, often balleyhooed with inflated optimism as “our common humanity,” will be a help to public policy only so long as it has nothing to do but solve problems of housekeeping. As soon as there are tough questions of value to face, and no agreement on the values at issue, public policy must choose between competing and value-laden theories of all kinds (religious and secular), and the common banalities of human life cannot contribute to the choice because they are logically compatible with all the competitors. Hence these banalities fail to preclude the possibility that competitor systems arise which are so diverse that no policy-relevant common ground can be extracted from them. Given such a possibility, what is one to do?

There are two possible responses to this problem, and in modern political theory they mark a divide of continental proportions.


The one response is to say something like this:

All right, there can be cases in which, instead of seeking to base public policy on the common ground between you and me, what I should do is simply exclude you from influencing policy.

This need not mean that I will try to outlaw your beliefs, or persecute you for them; but it does mean that I will compete head-on with you in the struggle for numbers and influence, and that I will use whatever majorities and whatever levers of power I can garner to shut your beliefs out of the public arena.

Moreover, I will decide which cases demand such competition and which don’t — in other words, I will decide who my possible allies are — on the following basis: whose belief is close enough to mine to yield a substantive and satisfactory common ground, and whose isn’t.

The merit of this response is that it shows real adherence to our respective beliefs.

We take our faiths, philosophies, etc., seriously enough to allow them to dictate lines of battle, and not just opportunities for “ecumenical dialogue.” We use our beliefs to set the limits on toleration and collaboration. So, if our beliefs are sound, good, constructive, and intelligent, the limits on social tolerance are likely to be approximately where they belong. But if not?


The other response is to say something rather like this:

There is something very wrong here. If there are cases in which this kind of common ground fails to emerge, then what we need is another kind of common ground. Maybe there was a time when all the different belief-systems in America had a lot in common (being different stripes of Protestant Christianity), and maybe that was a happy time of consensus and innocence. But things are different now. Today we need a common ground for religionists and atheists, gays and straights, people of every imaginable philosophy, creed, and ideology (including Oriental ones). The old idea of looking for common points within our diverse beliefs has become hopeless.

It is time to find a way to rise above them all.

The merit of this response is that it shows a strong attachment to social solidarity. It shows a refusal to sacrifice tangible social goods (peace, harmony, friendship) on the altar of intangible (and perhaps unverifiable) beliefs. It also completes our transition.


A second kind of common ground is possible. It arises by abstraction from religious, moral, and cultural differences. Instead of trying to find common content in your belief and mine, we try to bracket both. We try to stand on a ground which is at once neutral and higher. This is the ground of mutual tolerance-and-fairness, taken jointly as an ultimate value (or perhaps as a kind of higher-order value). On this ground, where public order is concerned, the rules of your morality are put in brackets, as are the rules of mine, so that the only norms still in force are the rules of tolerance/fairness itself. These can be more exacting than one might suppose; tolerance makes stern demands on those disinclined to be tolerant, for example. We shall return to these demands below. What matters for now is the fact that, where the second kind of common ground is invoked, the rules of tolerance form the public morality (indeed, the public orthodoxy) of the society, whereas the rules of your morality or mine (which may well include an emphasis on tolerance, but which will surely include a great deal else) are alike privatized.

Five Rationales for Mutual Tolerance

For seeking this kind of common ground, a variety of justifications can be advanced. Let us look at them.

First, one can have an agnostic justification. You were raised in one religion; I was raised in another. Who knows which is true? You have come to one set of moral conclusions; I, to another. Who knows which of us is right? You represent one culture; I, another. Who knows which is better? In the absence of knowledge, it is wise to tolerate the gamut of opinions.

Secondly, one can have a relativistic justification. Your religion is fine for you, but mine is right for me. Your moral values, if you’ve really thought about them, are probably the right ones for you; but mine are right for me. Your culture and mine — in fact, all cultures — are of equal value; each is full of meaning for those living in it. Here the agnostic justification is nowhere in sight. Here there is no doubt or uncertainty. Tolerance is demanded by the sure conviction that truth is relative.

Thirdly, there is a practical rationale which might be called cognitive despair. It builds on the agnostic position and goes further. It says not only that we don’t know which of us is right but also that we can’t find out — that it would be futile to try. It is useless to argue about religion (people say), or about morals, philosophy, or most other cultural topics. It is a waste of time (people say), because the arguments never prove anything and, even if they did, hardly anyone is ever convinced by them. Mutual tolerance, therefore, saves time and effort. It spares the feelings of all concerned. It cuts down the amount of needless acrimony at large in our society.

A fourth rationale is psychological. Open and tolerant attitudes are “healthy,” it says. Closed, hostile, or critical attitudes are bad for you. In the face of differences, you will feel better if you avoid being “judgmental.” This way of justifying tolerance as the social common ground is akin to relativism but stops short of the latter’s clarity. Instead of asserting that relativism (or any other position on the objectivity of religious and moral claims) is true, the psychological rationale speaks only of human health and feelings. We will all feel better, and function better (it says), if we behave as if relativism is true. But it need not be. Perhaps reality is in tune with human needs, and perhaps it isn’t. The psychological rationale does not pronounce on that question.

A fifth rationale is at once political and humanitarian. It says that a humane democracy demands tolerance. Democracy means that every citizen, regardless of his or her religion, ethics, culture, or ideology, has an equal right to vote, lobby, and otherwise act to shape public policy. In theory, no doubt, this political openness could mean that each religious sect, school of morals, or other cultural grouping, has a standing invitation to use the ballot box to secure the limitless triumph of its own ideas. But in practice, allowing religious and moral passions to sweep freely through the electorate is dangerous to democracy. It can even be fatal. Look at Northern Ireland. In concrete terms, therefore, democracy’s political openness must mean that religious sects and other groups are to practice self-restraint; they are to sift and prune their ideas; they are to keep the more controversial things private (and in a very pluralistic society, a great deal is controversial); they are to bring forward into the political sphere only those ideas which support mutual respect, tolerance, and the other humane values upon which democracy itself (which includes the freedom of each sect) depends.

One can now begin to appreciate the stern exactions of pure tolerance. These five grounds for invoking it are rarely distinguished. Its partisans often hold several at once and merge one of them into another unconsciously. But their combination is deadly to any substantive creed — secular or religious, philosophical or moral.

For every creed is forced to censor itself on the strength of ground (5); any position that dares to claim exclusive truth is unacceptably absolutist, on the strength of ground (2); moralities and philosophies are obliged to step gingerly away from certitude, on the strength of ground (1). Thus, when the grounds are combined, all positions of every kind are held to a combination of tentativity, relativity, and political docility, lest they “breed” intolerance.

Of course, there are defenders of pure tolerance who admit only one of these grounds, such as the political-humanitarian fifth one, or who defend it on some exotic ground which is different from all the above (such as Professor John Rawls’s) “thin theory” of the common good, a plant grown only in academic gardens). But even an unblended case for pure tolerance puts pressures on churches and other groups which do not exist when the first kind of common ground is sought. For, instead of being allowed to promote and seek allies on any part of their creed, groups are obliged to emphasize doctrines of benevolent acceptance towards all people and all creeds. Groups which have doctrines positing any sort of “exclusion” are thereby pressured to change their creed or else suffer public opprobrium as “bigotry.” It is one thing when such pressure is brought to bear on certifiable hate-groups. It is quite another when clergymen of major denominations are pressured to suppress standard parts of Judeo-Christian morals (as happened to James Robison, to the Salvation Army, and to the Archdiocese of New York).

Nevertheless, this observation does not touch the central issue. The demands of pure tolerance may be severe, and harder on some of us than on others; but we shall have to bear them as best we can, if it is in fact the case that this is the kind of common ground our society requires — and not only requires but demands as the American Way.

Is it? That is the question we must now face.


Readers who have been attentive to current politics will have noticed that the two kinds of common ground correspond rather closely to the two sides of a lively struggle that began in the early 1970s and has continued unabated through the ’80s. Abortion, homosexual rights, and a number of other moral or “social” issues have recently pitted American Liberals (championing the second kind of common ground) against a coalition of Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish religious groups (the “religious Right,” championing the first kind of common ground). In this fray the Liberals, represented by their action group, People for the American Way, have taken the stance of guarding the purity of American ideals against a new onslaught of “intolerance,” lecturing religious people on the proper place of their dogmas in the American pluralist order, and lecturing secular conservatives on the need to keep the religious ones in line. Though usually admitting that the political deeds of the religious-Right activists are within their legal rights, Liberals reject the stance of the religious Right as un-American. The concept of common ground upon which that stance reposes (common ground of intersecting beliefs) is denounced as an obsolete hope for cultural uniformity.

What should one think of this Liberal position? One’s answer, I wish to suggest, ought to depend heavily upon the status of the second kind of common ground (the highground of mutual tolerance). Is it a real alternative to the first kind? Can it wholly replace the first kind as the basis of public policy? Are affirmative answers to these questions ingredients of the revered American past? Of the American ideal for the future?

The answers begin, I think, in an odd place. The reader may have noticed that at least four of the five reasons for invoking the second kind of common ground (mutual tolerance) arise from an experience which has been widespread in the last two centuries. A person raised up to Calvinism rebels against its theology; someone raised a religious Jew ceases to keep kosher; someone raised a devout Catholic gets “shook” on certain dogmas, someone who was once a strong Mormon or Baptist lapses, falls away, or “backslides” — not one family in a thousand is unacquainted with this experience. It even crops up where religion is not an issue: people raised in some definite political ideology or swept into the work of some Cause, whether of the Left (like stopping the War) or of the Right (like stopping the ERA), “burn out” or drift away. To all the many forms and varieties of this experience, it will be convenient to give a common label. Let us settle on “apostasy,” because, despite its harsh and old-fashioned sound, it is a good word for our purposes. It underscores the difference between the experience we are talking about and the one called conversion. The convert goes from one creed to another, or from doubt to certitude. The apostate does not; he goes from a creed to an absence of creed; he goes from a state of certitude to one of doubt, nonconviction, or inquiry.

Now observe the connection between this experience and the reasons for seeking a social common ground of the second type. From any definite religion, ideology, or moral formation, apostasy yields uncertainty (the agnostic reason). The pain of uncertainty can be, and often is, escaped by a “safe” decision that everyone is right (the relativistic reason), or can be flaunted with a cynicism about knowing who is right (cognitive despair), or can be sedated with a dose of psycho-babble (the fourth reason).

For those of us who are not apostates, and who therefore don’t need these maneuvers, the only impressive ground for invoking pure tolerance is the fifth, the political-humanitarian one. And it doesn’t prove much. At most it proves that diverse religions and schools of morals, in a democracy, ought to seek the first kind of common ground (the intersections of their beliefs), and ought to compete fairly in those quarters where they can’t find any (neither of which is done in Northern Ireland); it doesn’t prove that they ought to seek the second kind. To borrow a phrase, it doesn’t prove that the public square has to be naked.

Now, I bring up the experience of apostasy because it offers a clue to deeper points. It is just a matter of historical fact that American Liberals, better educated or more free-thinking than their conservative neighbors, have tended to be people who drifted away from religious conviction. They have not lacked secular conviction. They have usually held intense and morally charged secular convictions, but they have tended to view religious imperatives and polemics with distaste.

Keep that fact in mind as we turn to face another fact. American history has known bruising religio-moral-ideological fights (over slavery, Prohibition, race-relations, etc.) in which people who were perfectly good Americans have called for different kinds of common ground; and which kind they called for depended upon whether or not their own beliefs — the ones from which they had not apostatized — were at stake in the strife. Where their own belief (I mean real belief, not one to which they paid lip-service) was generating a clash, they gladly allowed that belief to dictate who their enemies were and who their allies could be; they accepted no substitute for the first kind of common ground. But instead of advising their enemies to do the same, or confronting them in head-on debate, they often told their adversaries to “rise above” their particular views, appreciate diversity, and settle for the second kind of common ground — and they gave the same sort of advice, of course, to the warring groups whose beliefs were all foreign or all irrelevant to them.


If these factual observations are correct, the current Liberal polemic against the religious Right is something rather different from what it purports to be. Instead of being an instance of a true-American pattern of seeking common ground of the second type, it is an instance of the more complex pattern we have just sketched. Liberal defense of a “wall of separation” between religion and public policy emerges as an instance of preaching pure tolerance to the side you have apostatized from (or whose belief you never held), while demanding that society be shaped substantively by the beliefs you have not apostatized from (in this case, secular-liberal beliefs).

Notice how this analysis explains an interesting asymmetry. In their rhetoric against the religious Right, the Liberals have not suggested that churches abandon their moral beliefs about abortion, sodomy, etc.; it seems that we are all free to reject these things “for ourselves,” that is, to exclude them from our personal morality; what we are not free to do, apparently, is act politically to prevent others from promoting these things. In other words, the churches may not project into the public arena the morality they inculcate (and may freely inculcate) among their own members. But no such restriction attaches to Liberalism itself, nor to the various sects of Feminists and Gay-Rights activists associated with it. Their members may seek to influence public policy, alter the content of public-school instruction, etc. They are allowed to project their morality into public discourse and impose it on the shape of public policy. Why is that?

There is only one way to explain this asymmetrical standard: the Liberals and their allies really believe their own beliefs (and hence act publicly to implement them) and don’t believe the religious groups’ beliefs (and hence advise the latter to rise above them).

And there is only one way to explain the fact that this peculiar double standard is so little noticed or denounced: A broad majority of ordinary Americans have been conditioned (mainly by the familiar experience of religious apostasy, personal or vicarious) to hold religious belief to a different standard from nonreligious belief — as though the one had more of credibility in it than the other, or rather, as though the one were belief and the other weren’t, so that whereas beliefs must efface themselves modestly before the public norm of tolerance, secular positions need not.

This conditioning greatly helps the Liberals in their current fray (though not always enough, since most people decline to see their revulsion from homosexuality, for example, as a sectarian belief). But whatever its political advantage to any side, the conditioning is grossly fallacious. Religions are not alone in being “beliefs;” secular ideologies, philosophies, and systems of morals are also beliefs. Nor do religions necessarily demand more credibility than other beliefs. After all, which is easier to believe: that there is a God who created men and women different, or that there is a giant, male conspiracy which has made them different? Nor are religions unique in being unfalsifiable, that is, immune to overthrow by experience and experiment. Christianity is far more readily falsifiable than Feminism or Freudianism. Produce the bones of Jesus, and Christianity is finished. What possible finding of science would be accepted by Feminists as overthrowing Feminism? In short, the tendency to hold religious beliefs (and religiously based moral beliefs) to a different standard of public conduct than secular beliefs (and secularly based moral beliefs) is indefensible”


On the face of it, then, what certain organized People are trying to palm off as The American Way is a crooked deal, in which all the aces are dealt to one hand. Enjoying the first kind of common ground is the right thing for them, it turns out, though they preach the second kind to us. What obscures this simple truth is the fact that there is a diversity between Us and Them as to the kind of belief uniting the two sides. In other words, instead of one batch of religions against another (which would make the double standard obvious), the case is presented as a secular side against a religious one; instead of one morality against another (which would also let the double standard show), the case is framed as a pragmatic side against a moralizing one. Where that kind of disparity exists, or where the issue is framed to suggest that it exists, the double standard can remain hidden by prior conditioning to the effect that religious fanatics and moralistic people — other people — hold more beliefish beliefs (hence more dubious beliefs and less-to-be-acted-upon beliefs) than non-fanatic and non-moralistic people like us (though of course it is not at all the case that religious and moral people (like us) hold more dubious beliefs than irreligious and immoral people — like them).

One cuts through all such conditioning, and one puts the double standard under a pitiless light, when one abstracts from the difference in kind between the two sides’ beliefs. Then one simply sees beliefs; one sees two ways of handling them in cases of conflict, which generate two kinds of common ground; and one sees that the one kind is demanded by believers for what they still believe, and the other demanded by non-believers for what they don’t (any longer) believe. One sees that this is true even in the odd case of those ACLU-purists who hold no strong belief in anything whatever except in tolerance; for, being non-believers in everything else, they tolerate everything except intolerance, the one thing incompatible with their real belief.

Does this analysis mean that the second kind of common ground is a hoax? Should we say that the two kinds of common ground have both had their “place” in the American experience, but that their places have been different in nature — a place in political life vs. a place in political rhetoric?

The answer will depend on whether all appeals to tolerance are similar to the one the Liberals are making in their current fray. Are all such appeals vitiated by a double standard? Look: we are all believers in some things and non-believers in others. So, according to the above analysis, we all have occasions to call for tolerance. Are we always being hypocrites if we do?

Needless to say, the answer is no. But why is it no? If we look into the why, we shall also find the answer to a question raised above and left dangling: are the two kinds of common ground really separable; can one have the second (as a long tradition of liberal Constitutional theory seems to believe) without the first?


To clear the matter up, let us go back to what was said before about the pattern which really characterizes the American past, and let us observe that it contains the following five points:

  • (1) People act upon the beliefs they hold with real seriousness; (and what alternative do they have? To act upon nothing? Upon beliefs they don’t hold)?
  • and (2) people demand a social order conformed in some measure to their serious beliefs; (having again no alternative, though some people have never known what Americans have learned: that the measure of conformity need not be total)
  • but (3) people do not act upon the beliefs they don’t hold or don’t hold seriously; (having again no rational alternative”),
  • and (4) they prefer that the social order not be conformed to them (the beliefs they don’t hold); (and how could they prefer anything else),
  • and (5) to secure that preference they tell the people who do hold them not to act on them, (which is a perfectly reasonable thing to tell them, though there is an alternative).

One must come all the way down to the fifth point, then, before one finds any reasonable alternative to the pattern. Through four major points, the pattern of the American past is just the normal human pattern. Americans handle their beliefs the same way all other human beings do. But on the fifth point, there is a choice. Here it is: instead of telling other people to “set aside” or “rise above” their peculiar beliefs, lest they act upon them — the procedure which generates the second kind of common ground — one can just as well tell them that their beliefs are false, and that there are such-and-such reasons why they ought to abandon them. Debate, in other words — a procedure which can generate the first type of common ground — and tough competition when debate fails, is a good rational alternative to preaching tolerance.


Now, is there any way to eliminate one of these alternatives? Here in America, or anywhere else, could the practical management of public policy dispense with the one or the other?

Suppose we try to dispense with tolerance. We can imagine a bull-dog form of Rationalism, which would hold that preaching tolerance is always wrong, and that one ought to debate to the finish with everyone holding any position with which one disagrees and that one ought to compete to the finish with anyone left unpersuaded. But such a position would be eccentric — not to say, idiotic. One cannot say that debating is always the better course of action. Getting people to change their minds is hard work (though not impossible or useless, as the partisans of cognitive despair imagine), and one does not always have the time or the energy for it. One has other things to do in life besides setting people straight — much less fighting everybody who hasn’t been set straight. Therefore, there is nothing in the world wrong or inconsistent about urging tolerance — agreeing to disagree — when it is appropriate.

But could it always be appropriate? Suppose we try to eliminate competition and debate. We can imagine — no, we have seen — a masochistic form of Liberalism which would insist on tolerating even the most virulent dangers to a free society: Marxism, neo-Nazism. But even the masochists draw the line at violators of the criminal law. Neither American society nor any other can dispense with having a body of criminal law. One can hold, of course, that those who only preach violation of the law (who believe it is a merely bourgeois law, or who think there shouldn’t be any law) are not to be debated or confronted in any way — only tolerated. But such a position would be eccentric, not to say idiotic. One needlessly compounds the problems of law-enforcement if one refuses to confront the ideas, the “advocacies,” that conduce to law-breaking. To be a bit less abstract about it, the history of the twentieth century has convinced even the most complacent minds that extremist ideologies, of the Right and of the Left, are sewers crawling with things not tolerable. So let’s not belabor the obvious: it is more than permitted, it is praiseworthy, to confront, debate, compete, exclude from power (even outlaw), when strong action is appropriate.

So neither alternative, neither tolerance nor competition, is eliminable.

Either can be appropriate.

This is already an important result. For if confrontation and debate over the truth and substance of the matter, and competition where debate breaks down, and the rounding up of allies to win the competition — all procedures generating the first type of common ground — cannot be eliminated from social existence, then neither can the first type of common ground be eliminated. It cannot be shrugged off as obsolete. It cannot be replaced everywhere by the “I’m OK, you’re OK” of pure tolerance.

But now back to the thread of the argument. Either alternative, competition or tolerance, can be appropriate. What, then, makes it appropriate? Very interestingly, the answer is another stack of beliefs. Over and above the stack of beliefs that you and I have on the rights and wrongs of various issues, we have another stack of beliefs bearing on the importance of issues. When your beliefs tell you that this issue is a matter of dire public urgency, it is imperative for you to confront those who think it unimportant or who take the other side of it. But when your beliefs tell you that the issue is unimportant, or at best of secondary importance, or at least that it can wait, then there is nothing wrong in telling those who are stirring it up to pipe down, “live and let live,” etc.

In this thoroughly humdrum fact, however, we have a second important result. Tolerance is not an absolute, independent, or higher-order norm, presiding over all substantive beliefs; far from it. Tolerance is regulated by a substantive belief; tolerance is rendered appropriate or inappropriate by a belief about the importance of the issue at hand. So now watch: if I succeed in preaching tolerance to you, that is, if you do pipe down, agree to disagree, etc., it is because you have come to accept my view of the importance of the issue (namely, that it doesn’t have much); whether you have come round to this position on your own principles or under the influence of mine, the result is the same: we have the second type of common ground only because we share a new portion of the first type! An intersection of belief proves impossible to eliminate even from the cases where toleration is appropriate!


Now we can answer the question about hypocrisy — the question of when I can call for mutual tolerance without invoking a hypocritical double standard. Easy:

I can do it, when I can reasonably expect you to share (on second thought) my evaluation of the importance of the issue.

Here is what is fishy about the current Liberal lecturing to the religious Right. On abortion, for example, it is irrational for Liberals to suppose that those of us who regard it as murder will, on second thought, come to share their view of the importance of the issue. No group can be expected to tolerate what it clearly believes to be mass murder. No group should be expected to perform such a mental gymnastic. So on this issue, at least, the lecture can hardly be given in good faith. It is talk intended not to persuade but to paralyze. It is a case of tolerance preached by a party which does not believe in tolerance on this issue but is arming itself energetically to exclude pro-lifers from public influence.

The same is true on other issues. Liberals cannot rationally expect people who believe in God, who take Him as Ultimate, who take His revealed Will as definitive, to set all of that aside and, on second thought, join them on a merely human terrain that purports to be “higher” ground than Absolute Truth. So the lecturing to the effect that religious conservatives ought to demote Biblical morality to a place of secondary importance, behind certain secular values, can hardly be given in good faith, unless the Liberals have grown so dense that they have forgotten what religion is.

Bad faith or incredible insensitivity — neither of those should be the American Way, eh?

William H. Marshner
Professor of Theology
Christendom College

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