In the final two chapters of his book, John Perry brings us full circle. Having shown us in the first two chapters that all is not well in contemporary American liberalism, Perry has led us on a sure-footed tour of 17th-century political theology to show us why all is not well, and now he brings us back to the present, to clarify for us how all is not well, and what we might begin to do about it. The crucial thread in Perry’s narrative has been that of the “turn to loyalty”: where Rawlsian liberalism can dismiss the problem of religious loyalty and imagine that religious and political loyalties ought by their very nature never to conflict, Locke recognized clearly that such conflicts do happen, and such loyalties must be carefully attended to if they are to be harmonized. Accordingly, he provides not merely a solution of political theory, but a solution of political theology that attempts to establish, from within Christianity, the proper nature of Christian loyalty. Unfortunately, most interlocutors today simply no longer recognize the tension but persist in a naïve conviction that civil loyalty and religious loyalty ought to pose no threat to one another in modern America.
Perry sees this naïvete particularly in two groups he labels “Lockean natural lawyers” and “Jeffersonian separatists,” and suggests that it is these two who dominate the political discussion in contemporary America, and deadlock it by their mutual incomprehension. Although at opposite extremes, these two share the same pathology: an inability to make the “turn to loyalty,” or rather, a failure to recognize that it is necessary. Both are convinced that being a good American and being a good Christian will fit together without difficulty—the natural lawyers because these two so perfectly overlap, the separatists because they do not overlap at all.
Perry’s treatment of the former is particularly thorough and revealing, showing that the so-called “religious Right” is a more complex and confusing phenomenon than most of its critics recognize. It is not, or at least not straightforwardly, on a quest to impose a narrowly religious morality on a broader citizenry that does not necessarily share these moral convictions, for essentially religious reasons. Rather, it seeks to impose the morality that it is convinced is most conducive to the effective functioning of the Republic, and is convinced that, as the foundation for the public good, this morality is at some level publicly available. This was the vision of the iconic Founding Fathers, and all people of goodwill can be brought to embrace it as well. The most careful and self-aware of this school, says Perry seek to draw these connections through some doctrine of natural law, one that they argue was shared by Locke (hence “Lockean natural lawyers”), but many seem blissfully unaware of the philosophical underpinnings of their argument. By and large, the Religious Right seems to simply ignore the possibility that there might be real tension between being a good Christian and a good American—the values of the one will necessarily reinforce those of the other. There ought, on this reading, never to be a real conflict of loyalties, a case when citizenship makes demands that faith cannot accept, or vice versa; inasmuch as conflict persists, it is because “liberal secularists” are un-American.
Needless to say, this sort of conflation of loyalties is just as detrimental to authentic Christian practice as it is to responsible political engagement. Perry does not, as a matter of fact, dwell on this issue, but he might well have done so given its prominence in Locke. We will recall that Locke’s argument in the Letter Concerning Toleration was not first and foremost that the public good was endangered by lack of toleration, but that Christianity was, since “toleration is the chief characteristic mark of the Church.” By conflating their religious agendas with civil ones, Locke argued, Christians were losing sight of what their faith was all about. Although it of course took different forms, this line of argument was another that Locke inherited from his Protestant tradition, which going back to the Reformation had jealously guarded the “two-kingdoms” distinction not primarily to keep the civil realm free from the taint of religion, but to keep the Gospel from being enclosed in the elements of this world. It is unsurprising, then, that many of the fiercest recent critiques of the Religious Right’s Christian Americanism have come from those within the Church harboring similar fears.
Perry’s discussion of the “Jeffersonian separatists” is briefer and more straightforward, covering similar ground to his treatment of the early Rawls in chapter 1. These theorists are convinced that religious claims may be set to one side when engaging in politics, without suffering thereby any abridgment. If some believers still seem to find themselves facing a conflict of loyalties, this just shows that they haven’t understood rightly what religion is—something by nature merely private. Of course, the irony here is that such theorists are making theological claims about what religion is and isn’t, should be and shouldn’t be, in the process of denying theological claims any relevance in the public square. In this, they are considerably more naïve than Locke, who recognized quite clearly that only a theological argument about the nature of religion could possibly succeed in circumscribing its political manifestation.
What is to be done?
With the political landscape divided between two such confused and overconfident interlocutors, what is to be done? Are there any better alternatives for conceiving the relationship of civil and religious loyalty in modern democracies? Well yes there are, concludes Perry, though none is without its own difficulties, some of them significant. In his final chapter he identifies three contemporary attempts to make the “turn to loyalty”—to give serious consideration to the role that religious identities must play in the political sphere. They are “loyalty through cultural republicanism” (represented here by Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus), “loyalty through ordered pluralism” (represented by John Witte and Nicholas Wolterstorff), and “loyalty through fidelity to conscience” (represented by Martha Nussbaum). (Perry cautions us not to see the confessional identities as particularly significant here, although he happens to have chosen Catholic exponents of the first alternative, neo-Calvinist of the second, and Jewish of the third.)
The first group, like the more naïve alternatives seen just above, seek to restore a lost balance they claim to find in the American Founding Fathers, who were on this narrative careful to balance the more problematic, liberal aspects of Locke with a republicanism deeply rooted in the Christian and classical tradition of political ethics. Thus Rawlsian neutrality represents a wrong turn; Christian values can and should be fostered as the basis for a well-ordered polity, as many of the Founders clearly believed. Unfortunately, says Perry, this perspective turns out to just be a slightly more sophisticated version of what the “Lockean natural lawyers” offered, and as such, runs the same danger of instrumentalizing religion as merely a useful prop for civil institutions.
The second group is broadly committed to the ideal of a liberal polity, but not of an overly Lockean sort; rather, they seek to temper the influence of Locke by appealing to Abraham Kuyper and his doctrine of sphere-sovereignty, on the one hand, and to the Puritans and their covenant theology on the other hand. Both of these offer a more multi-dimensional model of civil society than Locke’s individualism, and hence a greater role for ecclesial institutions; both also see a need for a public recognition of the Christian God, and perhaps even a publicly established religion, even while other religions are freely allowed within the commonwealth. Perry’s greatest misgiving about this alternative is its historical viability: was the American Founding really influenced by the Puritans as much as Witte suggests? Was its liberalism more Kuyperian than Lockean, as Wolterstorff suggests? If not, the viability of these Calvinist models may be limited in contemporary America.
Perry finds the third alternative, that offered by Martha Nussbaum, the most compelling, though still inadequate. Tracing the roots of the liberal tradition not from Locke but from Roger Williams, Nussbaum highlights the sacred inviolability of conscience, and hence seeks a toleration that is attentive to and accommodating of conscientious objections, rather than a procedural neutrality that rules them out of court. True equality requires that we not be blind to difference, but perceptive of and responsive to it. While sympathetic to this approach, Perry sees Nussbaum’s concept of the inviolability of conscience as still problematic, for it is one that not all religious believers will share—what of those who think that loyalty to God requires that we force others to comply with His commands? And how are we to determine what are legitimate protests of conscience and what are mere “pretenses of loyalty,” like the Tennessee man who claimed that his religion required him to wear a chicken-suit in court? No neutral starting-point can determine in advance how far our accommodation can extend.
Where are we left?
Where then are we left at the end of this remarkable book? As mentioned at the outset, Perry is deliberately hesitant to provide a solution—inasmuch as he does offer one, it is one that insists that ultimately, no principled solution will quite do; we will have to be willing to be somewhat ad hoc in our approach, and this means regaining our faith in rhetoric. Liberalism, Perry suggests in his conclusion, has developed an unhealthy suspicion of rhetoric, of persuasive speech ordered toward the particular situation and presuppositions of one’s audience. Liberalism thinks that rhetoric is either doomed to failure or too likely to succeed by mere deception or manipulation, hence our desire to establish procedural rules in advance, based upon an abstract rationality that we seek vainly to persuade ourselves that everyone must in fact share. If they do not in fact share it, then we’re suddenly at an impasse—our opponent must just be being irrational, and the calm reasoned discussion degenerates into a shouting match, as so many contemporary political debates show.
Perry suggests therefore that what we need above all is a heightened awareness of the problem, of the fact that we do not in fact all share the same presuppositions of what is to count as rational, and what ends are appropriate for human beings and for society. But this does not mean that these differences are wholly incommensurable. We must regain faith in the possibility of public debates in which such conflicting visions of the good are made explicit, and in which persuasive reasoned speech can resolve such conflicts in part, and to the extent that they are not resolved, help us at least to agree on reasonable ways of managing them. Of course, for such agreement to be possible, we must have a certain confidence also in the natural virtues—confidence that, outside of Christian belief, we will find fellow citizens imbued with a certain sense of virtue and a shared desire for truth. And most importantly, we must be willing to accept the penultimacy of political life, to renounce the quest for a final solution like Locke’s that would establish the “just bounds” of rival loyalties for all time.
It seems inappropriate to conclude this review without a proper conclusion, without saying a word of two of evaluation or application. However, I have little to add to the strong endorsement I provided at the outset of this review, finding Perry’s diagnosis of the contemporary situation, his ressourcement of Locke, and his tentative prescriptions for a healthier political discourse to be quite persuasive—both reasonable and rhetorically beguiling, and thus a fine example of the art of rhetoric he commends to us.
I would like to briefly suggest just two points by which Perry’s study could be considerably enriched. First, as I have remarked at points throughout, his study of the early modern background needs to dig somewhat deeper. Locke is, as Perry recognizes, as much an end as a beginning, and more attention to his Protestant predecessors—not merely Milton and Williams, but Hooker and Calvin, Grotius and Pufendorf, and many more—is very much-needed. I think that Perry and others will find in such thinkers surprisingly useful contributions to current debates, and to Perry’s concluding themes of the role of rhetoric and the natural virtues. Second, although beginning with the malaise of contemporary liberalism in general, and drawing on examples from a number of Western societies, Perry disappoints somewhat on his return to the contemporary scene in chapters 6 and 7 by limiting himself exclusively to American politics and American thinkers. Too often American political theorists have their imaginations unhealthily constrained by our own rather unique cultural and political heritage, and we could learn much by attending to how other liberal democracies, many with long-established Christian churches, have wrestled both legally and theoretically with the conflict of loyalties. But Pretenses of Loyalty is only Perry’s first book, so perhaps we can look forward to such investigations in works yet to come.
Brad Littlejohn is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh, where he is working under Oliver O’Donovan on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker. He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the field of political theology, in which he has forthcoming book chapters on the role of Scripture in political discourse and on theological approaches to property rights. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.