Sen. John McCain’s final service to his country came in the form of so many tributes after his death last month that credibly held him up as a symbol of what Americans used to be as a people — honorable, respectful, friendly. In death he even brought a momentary pause in our culture war when former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama jointly spoke his praises.
Meanwhile, however, maybe Americans should also thank President Donald Trump for exposing the depth and intensity of our class, racial and cultural angers and fears. Nearly two years after his election, it is obvious that America is no longer a viable national community — no longer “E Pluribus Unum.”
A June Rasmussen poll found that 73 percent of Americans are more or less open to the possibility of a civil war coming upon us, with 31 percent expecting one “in the next several years.” To temper our divisions, unprecedented since the 1850s, Obama recently pleaded: “Democracy demands that we’re able to also get inside the reality of people who are different than us, so we can understand their point of view.”
He added: “You can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start, and you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they are white or they are male, somehow there is no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Many are calling for a de-escalation in our culture war, proposing new rules of rhetorical restraint and urging more interpersonal engagement to rein in the worst excesses of the cultural tribalisms, now pushing us toward national suicide.
I propose something more. I propose that we save our country by ending the culture war once and for all, through compromise. That we end the war with a simple compact not to fight each other anymore. No winners, no losers — each to his or her own as he or she sees fit.
Could that be possible?
Yes, in much the same way that brutal religious wars between Catholics and Protestants were finally brought to an end hundreds of years ago — not by resolving all disagreements, tensions or even animosities, but by largely preventing their leading to bloodshed.
The formula for peace was suggested by English philosopher John Locke in his 1689 paper “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” Its essence was later written into our federal Constitution in the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
No one, Locke argued, should use the power of government — the police power — to compel another to follow religious teachings not of his or her choosing.
Locke blamed a “narrowness of spirit on all sides” as the cause of “our miseries and confusions.” But he made clear that toleration did not mean an end to debate or efforts to persuade those with other beliefs.
He wrote that “all the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind,” adding that “every man has commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error and by reasoning draw him into truth.”
Abraham Lincoln, too, urged civil discourse instead of civil war:
“When the conduct of men is … to be influenced, persuasion — kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. … If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason,…
“On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned or despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself … you shall be no more able to pierce him than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
“Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interests.”
The formula for toleration, therefore, is that whatever is religious — whatever is the stuff of faith and belief — is not for the state to establish as a public norm with the force of law. It must be left, just as Lincoln advised, to respectful private remonstrance and persuasion.
The issues that most bitterly and intractably divide Americans now — climate change science, abortion, same-sex marriage, understandings and aspirations surrounding gender, multiculturalism, free speech and political correctness, the clashing demands of identity politics — can easily be seen as implicating faith-based convictions, broadly understood.
Ultimately, the choice of any personal narrative and ideology is faith-based, as it is not imposed upon us by the nature of things. Every human being is born with free will. Separation of church and state protects the exercise of that free will.
But many politically active Americans, in exercising their free will, seek to ensure that others will think and act as they do. They turn to government to employ its police powers on their behalf.
Thus, we have our culture war with its passions grounded in different faiths. Some of these “faiths” are secular, others theological; some are traditional, others postmodernist.
We need, therefore, to distinguish, on the grounds of liberty, those issues where Americans can go their own way in conscience, thought and speech, free from government coercion, and those where the state may regulate for the common good.
Now, if we are to declare an end to the culture war, how will we live with each other despite differences that so command our loyalties and stir our emotions and thus disrupt our civil concord?
Stopping our cultural strife will be very difficult for those Americans on the extremes of the right and the left who are the most committed to the fight (about 36 percent of us all told, to judge from various polls and election results). They will have to tolerate persons, beliefs, expression and actions they may find deeply offensive.
Social conservatives will have to tolerate, in a minority of Americans, a freewheeling hedonism they reject for themselves. But, by the same rule, those on the left will have to tolerate disdain for their liberalities and rejection of their demands for entitlements on the part of a socially conservative minority.
Such reciprocal tolerance may be the price we always must pay for freedom.
As we think about the emotional cost to some individuals of ending the culture war for good, what might be the legal state of affairs if the government were to fully respect freedoms of conscience?
On divisive issues such as abortion, gay marriage, assertion of privileges and advantages based on gender, race or religious status, on immigration, on climate change, how would Americans behave once the government would not favor some faith-based beliefs over others?
Under the new order, the “Blue” tribe would be unable to have the government: 1) legitimate all marriages they would like to legitimate; 2) force all employers to fund contraceptives via insurance; 3) provide unrestricted access to abortions after, say, the fourth month of pregnancy; 4) demean and marginalize religious institutions; and 5) use personal identity politics to privilege some Americans over others.
The “Red” tribe would be unable to have the government: 1) ban or hinder abortions prior to, say, the fifth month of pregnancy; 2) defund Planned Parenthood’s provision of pre-pregnancy health care; 3) forbid same-sex marriages and transgender accommodations; and 4) ignore the science of climate change.
With regard to abortion, each side argues with the other over what it considers a self-evident truth — actually a faith belief about the status to be assigned to a fetus in a mother’s womb at the commencement of a pregnancy, whether it is or is not a human being. Believers on either side should be left free to follow their consciences and to act according to their faith. Government should not force one person to act on the faith conviction of another.
But freedom of religion has limits. At some point, all our faith-based ideas run up against scientific realities and lose their transcendental justifications. Government needs something more objective, more tangible, more provable in order to use its police powers rightly.
Here is where we can prevent too much tolerance from destroying community. Tolerance of faith beliefs should not lead us into favoring those who would act without thought, with malice, and seek not the common good. Freedom of conscience cannot justify just anything. Law puts limits on conduct where practical wisdom and majority consent align.
Where science presents us with facts, government may regulate. The state has jurisdiction over matters civil that are fully in and of the world and that do not arise from faith alone.
So, when a fetus comes close to the end of its gestation and is ready for birth, science can determine with certainty its fully human characteristics. At this point, the status of the fetus vis-à-vis state regulation would be determined by the state as a secular policy matter based on scientific knowledge.
As for the moment in a pregnancy when government regulation of a mother’s authority to abort commences, a compromise between the faiths is needed.
Second, if the culture war ends, what would be the status of marriage?
The state would not specify the religious forms of marriage — a private estate that is esteemed differently by different faith communities. Forming private partnerships acceptable to others should be democratized by leaving the choices as to who is married to whom up to social communities small and large. Some will solemnize marriage only between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman; some others will be comfortable with honoring same-sex or other marriage relationships.
With respect to all these private contracts for marital obligations, the state would legitimately regulate their purely secular aspects: protection against forced or child marriages, enforcing or terminating contractual provisions of a marriage; setting terms for the custody, support and education of children; having default rules on property dispositions in cases of divorce and death where the parties have not expressed their preferences. Secular concern for the upbringing of children would support reluctance to give legal recognition to contracts for plural marriages.
Third, what would be the regulatory future of environmentalism? Much opposition to taking expensive steps to limit global warming arises from religious ideas about the superior place of humanity in God’s creation. Others read Christian scripture differently to believe that humanity was created to tend to creation and make it flourish. Some argue that nature is divine and so beyond human exploitation.
No such religious perspective should determine what our governments do or do not do about climate change. Science must have the dispositive word, as environmental realities arise from facts. Here government may regulate for the common good as it is directed by the voters.
Fourth, how would government deal with immigration if identity politics were taken off the table? The right to enter a country is not a matter of faith. It is the province of international law and sovereign prerogative.
No person has a right to enter any foreign country without first getting permission from that sovereign to do so. And, absent any commitment to follow an international agreement, say on refugees, a sovereign may be arbitrary and capricious in its decisions as to who will be admitted to its territory.