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Civic Virtues: Moral imperatives grounded in religion call us to come to know a good in common

Civil society is on the tips of many tongues these days. This shouldn't surprise us — not in the American democracy. American civic life was not lopsidedly state-centered, as in Europe, but more dispersed, more open to citizens within the purview of their particular communities. 

When we speak of civil society, we call to mind that world of associational enthusiasm that so enchanted Alexis de Tocqueville when he toured the fledgling republic during the Jacksonian era. 

Tocqueville observed something new under the political sun — a world of civic engagement that was neither officially governmental, nor specifically economic. Civil society, then, is neither work life nor structures of governance but, rather, the many-sided world of churches, voluntary organizations of every sort, community networks, far-flung national efforts with local affiliates, and on and on. 

Moral norms and notions are interlaced with civil society; indeed, people propel themselves into community and organizational life because there are things they care about, values they endorse, goods they embrace. Without morality, there would be no civil society as we have come to understand it.

Nearly a decade ago, I chaired a Council on Civil Society that produced a report titled A Call to Civil Society that was released to the nation at large. Our council was composed of a bipartisan group of distinguished citizens from many walks of life: law, politics, the professoriate, community organizing, mothers' organizations, the clergy, business and labor. The premise that underwrote and framed all our thinking was a profound yet simple one: American civic life is a moral imperative.

Some critics took strong exception to our findings and our claim. "No," they declared, in so many words, "civil life is about economic interest or power, about who gets what, when and how." Some even suggested that we had knowingly steered the discussion away from "structural constraints" to the ground of "personal morality" because we had not wanted to tackle the power and income disparities in American life. 

But the ground of morality is where Americans have always engaged politics. Think of abolitionism, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, dozens of peace and justice organizations.

There is a long history to all of this, for American civic life from its inception was premised on the complex intermingling of moral and civic imperatives. If you re-read the papers, pronouncements, declarations and letters of our founders, the moral tone is inescapable. Even those, like Thomas Jefferson, who were not traditional Christians (though the vast majority were), spoke of "nature and nature's God" and about the divine providence involved in America's coming-to-be. They had no doubt that the American project was a moral as well as a civil experiment.

With what many have called the refounding of our nation during the Civil War, the tone of America as a moral project grew ever more explicit and profound. In his great Second Inaugural, a masterpiece of brilliant prose and economy, Abraham Lincoln evokes God no fewer than 14 times — this is an address that is only a few pages in length. So the critics really didn't have a leg to stand on when they complained that we were somehow substituting "morality" for "politics." In America, you cannot separate the two. So powerful was this intermingling that Lincoln could refer to the nigh-mystic ties of brotherhood that linked us to our fellow citizens. 

In my book about the horrible events of 9/11 and our reaction to it, I wrote of the poignant and profound "civic fellowship" that we, as citizens, experienced in relation to all our fellow Americans as we identified with one another and, most especially, the bereaved families of the murdered innocent.

To be sure, there are many foreign critics, as well as the domestic ones I have noted, that either cavil at the American connection of the moral and the political, or fail to understand it at all. For example, there are foreign critics who see the hand of a crude would-be theocracy lurking just beneath the surface of the moral pronouncements of our political leaders, Democrats and Republicans. Critics do not appear to appreciate that, were one to yank the moral imperatives out of American civic life, historically and currently, there would be very little left. And critics often fail to understand that one of the most cherished values of many who interject morality into political debate is the free exercise of religion. No one wants a theocracy. But citizens have always sought ways to embody certain cherished norms in political life. 

Consider but a few of the moral civic projects or civically moral projects of the American past. The quest for independence itself was construed in moral terms. This wasn't just a power grab by a few agitators on the eastern seaboard. No, in the hearts and minds of those making the case for revolution, a deep moral ethic, grounded in a providential understanding of history, lay in the American appeals for, and claims to, independence. The rights of American colonials as Englishmen were being abridged, to be sure. But more, much more, than that. Our God-created and sustained liberties also were being violated by the English king. 

The colonists launched what, in the writings of political philosopher John Locke, an influential figure to our founders, was called "the appeal to Heaven." By this, Locke meant that, were political remedies unavailable to deal with egregious and continuing violations, a people could, in extremis, make their "appeal to Heaven." That meant they articulated clearly their grievances before God and man; they demonstrated the ways in which a political and civic standing grounded in our very natures was under assault. In political statements, the rebels declared their allegiance to certain universal laws of nature, good for all time and all places. And God was the author of these laws.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of convulsive social and political movements forged powerful links between religious faith, morality and desired political ends. I have already noted abolitionism, the temperance movement spearheaded by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. None is understandable outside an appreciation of the moral imperatives for civic engagement each entailed. 

Abolitionism and women's suffrage drew upon biblically derived norms to critique what amounted to systematic assaults on those norms. In cases of such conflict, we are obliged to obey the "higher law" rather than the flawed and unjust laws of man — so went the argument. Slavery denied the moral equality of all persons in the eyes of God, and the presumptions concerning decent or ill treatment that flowed from that equality. Separating women from the franchise, consigning them to second-class citizenship based on gender alone, thus to a noncivic status in a full-fledged sense, raised deep moral questions of political morality.

The third movement on my list — temperance — is in a rather bad odor these days. We see it as an example of narrow moralism rather than acceptable morality. But to the vast armies of women who were soldiers in the temperance movement, excessive drink was directly responsible for the ruination of families and the catastrophes that flowed from that. Whether one finds temperance arguments persuadable or prudent is, of course, a long-debated matter. But it would be patently absurd to refuse to see the robust link between morality and politics in this, and so many other broad-based movements for civic and social transformation.

On the smaller scale, in thousands of communities nationwide, citizens, including the hundreds of thousands of women who could not yet vote but were engaged in a plethora of civic activities nonetheless, did the hard work of building and sustaining decent communities on the basis of deeply cherished moral imperatives — most often derived from their faith. From the beginning and since, religious faith mutually engaged with and helped to constitute political life. 

The skeptic might grant this much but then go on to argue that "that was then, this is now." They would then go on to describe "now" as a period when there is no workable civic consensus on nearly all politically and morally fraught matters; when we are a vastly different and religiously pluralistic nation where once we were more uniform; when the necessary civic projects can be undertaken most effectively in the absence of religious or moral influence. They see religion as encouraging obstreperousness and dogmatism, as a way to try to "shove things down people's throats." Since morality in America most often derives from religion, it follows, to these skeptics, that we are better off without either as far as the civic world is concerned. Other critics might not go that far but would say that they aren't against morality —they just think it belongs in private life and should not be a central part of civic life, for to involve it is an inappropriate mingling of church and state.

Such criticisms are rather easily answered, I think. All one need do is point to the many dogmatisms favored by self-declared secularists to demonstrate that dogmatism and religiously based morality are not synonyms. There is plenty of dogmatism — from time to time — to go around. 

One might then go on to show how ordinary American politics would come to a dead halt were morality to be stripped away, for Americans think of their lives and the lives of their communities in inescapably moral terms. To insist that persons of faith with moral convictions are obliged to cast aside those beliefs when they enter into a political dispute is to unfairly saddle about 80 percent (or more) of the American public with an unfair and draconian burden. 

This is not a matter of blurring church and state. Church and state are not synonymous to religion and politics. We keep the first pair separate; we put the second pair together all of the time.

In the Call to Civil Society we reminded readers that America is unique in being a polity knowingly brought into being on the basis of a cluster of universal moral propositions. It is overwhelmingly the case that much of our civic life has been involved in trying to bring our practices into greater harmony with our principles. If we truly believe that our liberty and dignity come from God, what political implications flow from that? If we truly believe that we cannot have decent politics absent a sturdy moral compass, what difference does it make? Every reader can answer the first of these two questions for himself or herself, for we have seen the answers work themselves out in our history in and through the movements I have already noted — and more. 

Think again of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the moral-political fight for integration. Think of a variety of ethical responses to war and war-making. Think of concerns with Third World poverty or the AIDS crisis or just about any major global problem to find moral voices crying out. So the first question finds ready answers.

The second question is a bit more difficult. What difference does it make? Do we really need God-talk if we have rights-talk? For God-talk at least as much as rights-talk is the way America has spoken and continues to speak, to a remarkable extent. I see the difference working itself out in a number of ways.

First, we know from the most reliable social science data and evidence that persons who attend church regularly are far more likely to be active participants in their communities on the civic level than those who have little or no connection to religion. So there is an empirical dimension available to us. The difference religiously derived morality makes is that it is more likely to get us up and out of the house and into civic life than the alternative of no religious connection or a very thin one.

Second, those engaged in civic life on the basis of moral imperatives are more likely to articulate reasons for engagement that go beyond self-interest. When that great traveler and political observer Tocqueville toured America, he noted something new under the political sun, namely, the extraordinary role religion played in American civic and political life. So important was this to Tocqueville that he devoted many chapters of his masterwork, Democracy in America, to the theme. 

Tocqueville believed a quest for democratic equality was nigh-irresistible. But he feared that certain excesses might follow as everybody hunkers down in an individualistic way and goes in quest of the same thing. This might invite what Tocqueville called democratic despotism, a terrible isolation of selves, with the government increasingly a powerful and remote stranger.

To forestall this dire outcome, Tocqueville insisted that religion and its robust presence would become more, not less, important as American democracy matured. For religion and religiously derived moral imperatives call us out of ourselves, call us to come to know a good in common we cannot know alone. By this Tocqueville did not mean that everyone had to become an evangelical or get born again as it is called — then and now; rather, he insisted that strong religious institutions help to constitute hope. Hope is born anew with the birth of each child. The world into which we are born may nourish or crush that hope. 

Religion nurtures and sustains hope as a constituent feature of our identities and morality. It insists that we hopefully engage one another; that we really are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. It was said of the early Christians, "see how they love one another." Something of that love or caritas is necessary if we are to forestall a slide into isolating individualism and sustain the hope that, in turn, nourishes civic life.

Those of us who are involved in the debate about civil society often speak of civic virtue. I prefer the plural — civic virtues — for civic virtues are plural, not singular. Engaging with others from a stance of open-hearted conviction and sincerity is a civic virtue and it requires patience. When we try to engage others to persuade them, we open ourselves up to persuasion at the same time. It takes a bit of fortitude to do that. We know that we are never going to get our own way all of the time. Compromise is a civic virtue in a democracy. Decent compromise is something we have to learn as this civic virtue doesn't come easily.

When I was in Prague, the Czech Republic, in the heady days following the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989, I was told by a dissident, who suddenly found himself in government, that one of the things he and his compatriots had to learn was the virtue of compromise. "For us it has been a dirty word," he said, "because we refused to compromise with the Communist regime. But now that we are democratic citizens, we must treat compromise as a virtue, as a lesson to be learned."

Moral courage is a civic virtue. It takes some gumption to go against the grain because you believe a deep moral norm is being violated. There is a story about the redoubtable Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the women's suffrage effort and its leading theoretician. Stumping for suffrage in Kansas in the company of Kansas suffrage leaders, she told one, as they prepared to go on stage to face hoots and catcalls, that they should hold their heads high and persevere. "My dear," she said, "we must all have a bit of stage courage." We must sometimes stand fast even at the risk of being a bit unpopular.

Participation is a moral virtue. Critics of the insistence that civil society is a moral imperative sometimes say, "Well, since you like participation so much, I guess that means you cannot criticize the Ku Klux Klan or the militias. They certainly mobilize people to participate." At this, one shakes one's head ruefully. For if such critics were paying careful attention, they would understand that participation of the sort civil society advocates, honors and praises must be consistent with the dignity of the human person.

Most of our highly charged moral-political debates have to do with human dignity. The abortion debate forces one to ask who is in or outside of the moral community. Is the unborn child a moral being of infinite worth, or not? From the stance of human dignity, rather than exclusively "rights," this question looks rather different. End-of-life issues vex and alarm us. We hear the phrase "dying with dignity." But what does this mean? If we think of humans as beings of infinite worth, what responsibilities does this impose on us if one among us is ill or infirm or permanently disabled? 

Unfortunately, with the hotly contested stem cell debate, some have chosen to represent the issue as science versus private faith, or science versus irrationality. But here, too, questions emerge concerning human dignity and worth. Do we permit a set of businesses devoted to the manufacture and destruction of human embryos? Or is the liberal journal Christian Century right that this amounts to an unprecedented instrumentalization" of human life? These questions give us a framework for debate as we keep in mind the moral imperative that frames civil society rightly understood. 

Civil society cannot be a realm within which private interests masquerade 

as public concerns. It follows that no form of activism that systematically degrades whole categories of people because of accidents of birth (such as race or gender) can be part of a world of morally derived civic virtues.

Finally, we live in a morally divided era. On many of the central moral issues there are deep and abiding disputes. In a democracy, it is the case that these disputes will come to the surface and be debated, one hopes in a spirit of civic brotherhood and sisterhood. September 11 reminded us in the most shocking and horrible way how much we are a part of one another; how much a murderous assault on some is a murderous assault on all. 

As the great Lincoln put it, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." We can live with our differences so long as they do not become dangerous divides that invite invidious assault. Perhaps one might say that civic engagement as a moral imperative calls us to active civic life and, additionally, calls upon us to temper our claims in order that all of us might participate in civic life as equals one to the other. 

About the Paul Simon Essay

We are pleased to publish Illinois Issues' first Paul Simon Essay. And we are grateful for the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, which made possible this first contribution by political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Our goal in commissioning these annual essays will be to find new ways to frame policy questions. 

One of the magazine's founders, Simon had a deep interest in the moral and ethical dimensions of a wide range of issues. Though the magazine's mission has always been to publish in-depth analyses of policy questions, we have never consistently approached policy from an ethical or moral perspective. But these essays will be distinct in that they will take clear positions about the state's collective responsibilities. And this theme will be the thread that ties the project together over the years.


You can help
We created the Paul Simon Essay in our 30th anniversary year to honor one of the magazine's founders. We plan to commission another high-quality essay every year in his name. And this is where you can help. We invite you to make a financial commitment to the future of Illinois Issues and to the kind of reporting and writing that informs and challenges politicians and citizens alike. For your convenience, we have provided a link to the University Foundation. Please remember to tell them you want your gift to go into the Paul Simon Essay Fund.


Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. She also is co-chair of the national Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 


Elshtain has written extensively on the connections between the nation's political and ethical convictions. The timely Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World was published in 2003. Augustine and the Limits of Politics was named one of the top five religion books of 1996 by The Christian Century. And Democracy on Trial was named a New York Times notable book in 1995. She's a contributing editor of The New Republic magazine. 

Illinois Issues, May, 2005

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