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Editor's Notebook: "American civic life is a moral imperative"

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Jean Bethke Elshtain argues that we need more religion in politics. 

Her essay on this point is timely. And we expect it will be controversial. At least we hope so. We commissioned Elshtain, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago Divinity School, as Illinois Issues' first Paul Simon Essayist. Then we asked her to explore the underpinnings of our civic life.

This is an unusual subject for us. But Simon, one of this magazine's founders, had a deep interest in the relationship between ethics and public service. And, shortly after his death a little more than a year ago, our staff decided to honor him with an annual essay that looks at policy questions from a moral perspective. This first contribution, which establishes the frame for those to follow, was made possible by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.

Elshtain got into the spirit of the assignment easily. A public intellectual, she has focused her scholarship on the connections between political and ethical convictions.

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. - Jean Bethke Elshtain

  She also recognizes that promoting religion in public life is controversial. For many Americans, this raises the specter of theocracy. Maybe more so these days. But Elshtain addresses that issue head on. "Without morality," she argues, "there would be no civil society as we have come to understand it." Further, regular church attenders tend to be more active in their communities. "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." 

More to the point, without a religiously grounded moral impulse, Americans would be in danger of sliding too far toward individualism. That would endanger our civic life, and democracy itself.

There is, as Elshtain notes, a long history to this. Religious values have always been central in American politics. In fact, political scientist James Morone has written a history of the nation's political life that analyzes the dual nature of this tradition. Morone, too, argues that we need more religion in our politics. But Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History posits a cyclical movement between neopuritanism — the impulse to control individual morality, especially other people's morality — and social gospel, the belief that we are our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. 

Morone was on the campus of the University of Illinois at Springfield last month for a conference on politics and religion sponsored by the Center for State Policy and Leadership. He argued that, just as the religious right has gained sway in public life, the left has lost touch with its religious roots and retreated from communitarianism into the realm of private rights.

In a sense, Morone and Elshtain are arguing for more of a certain kind of religion in our politics. Morone supports the social gospel's idea of building a good community, and Elshtain supports a religiously based morality that promotes human dignity and worth. 

She cites, for instance, the movement to abolish slavery. Today, stem cell research raises anew questions about human dignity and worth. 

Such issues, Elshtain believes, should be debated in this context. "Civil society," she writes, "cannot be a realm within which private interests masquerade as public concerns." Rather, "through participation in civil society we come to know a good in common that we cannot know alone." Religion empowers us, each and all. 

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, May 2005

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