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July 11, 2005

On "Weigel, Smith, and Disowning Our Past"

Topics: Faith

Here's one of my favorite reads of the day, posted by Rick at "Mirror of Justice." Owing to what appears to be some spacing problems in the post, I have reposted it here in it's entirety. I believe that the post is sufficiently informative so as to warrant making it as easy to read as possible (so apologies to Rick reproducing his post). By the way, I happened to have also recently read Weigel's new book, "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God," and I found it so engaging that I read it in a single sitting.

- Rick at Mirror of Justice
A few weeks ago, on a long airplane trip, I had a chance to read George Weigel's new book, "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God", and also Steve Smith's essay, "Justice Douglas, Justice O'Connor, and George Orwell: Does the Constitution Compel Us to Disown Our Past?". The recent Ten Commandments decisions, and all of the debate about the place, if any, for acknowledgment -- even endorsement -- of religion in public spaces and discourse, got me thinking again about these two works.

Smith's essay is a reflection on Justice Douglas's (in)famous observation that "we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Smith believes that this statement - one that might today seem incongruous with what we now know, or think we know, about Justice Douglas - is true. That is, he contends, most of "we are the people" are -- in some meaningful, if sometimes less-than-deep, sense -- "religious." What's more, he continues, our "institutions" do - or can plausibly to be said to - "presuppose", rest upon, and proceed from claims and commitments regarding a "Supreme Being" and that Being's connection to human affairs and action.

If all this is true, Smith asks, why are we so uncomfortable with Douglas's claim? In particular, why do we see so many hotly contested lawsuits about the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments, our National Motto, the names of California cities, and so on? Why have we moved from a constitutional commitment to the dis-establishment of religion to what Smith regards as a (very different) obsession with (at best) ignoring and (worse) re-writing our history?

This and other questions lead Smith to a reflection, inspired by Orwell's "1984," on memory, history, truth-telling, and identity. As he puts it, "if we are cut off from our history, or if we degrade our history into a mutable fabrication fashioned not according to truth but rather by present perceived needs, then we lose our identity and become merely transitory phantoms of shifting consciousness and conversation, without continuity or substance. . . . For a nation, history is not merely what holds it together: it is only as a historical entity that a nation enjoys reality in the first place. After all, does anyone believe that a political community has anything like an immaterial soul that might give it identity independent of its temporal history? And in this view, it seems that whetehr this nation exists and can 'long endure', as Lincoln put it, depends among other things on having leaders who are bold enough, or at least reckless enough, to proclaim the large, enduring truths that constitute it. Truths like 'we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.'"

Weigel's book is short, accessible, and engaging, but it covers a whole lot: freedom, faith, democracy, Europe, danger, and hope. Among other things, Weigel explores the causes and implications of the debate that played out not long ago - though, in light of recent events, it might seem like ages ago - concerning the place (if any) of Christianity in Europe's proposed (now apparently rejected) Constitution. Weigel not only makes the case that "the Cathedral" (i.e., Europe's long tradition of Christian humanism) is a better candidate for supporting the values to which Europe professes to be committed (democracy, equality, freedom) than "the Cube" (the modernist La Grande Arche de la Defense, erected in commemoration of the Declaration of the Rights of Man), he also expands on the claim (like Smith's) that the effort to deny, ignore, and/or rewrite Europe's history - to pretend that Europe and its values are a product of 1688 or 1789, but not Christianity, is to doom the project. Any account of Europe, and of human freedom, that denies these things is going to do a bad job of explaining and sustaining Europe, and of explaining and sustaining human freedom.

Here is a First Things essay by Weigel that explores some of the same themes as does "The Cube and the Cathedral."

Source - Mirror of Justice

Posted by Hyscience at July 11, 2005 9:47 PM

Excellent post- and I almost missed it!

I'm going to read the book, ASAP. The subject matter is important.

Posted by: Sigmund, Carl and Alfred at July 12, 2005 11:39 AM

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