[Paleopsych] Fish: One University, Under God?
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Mon Jan 10 22:48:47 UTC 2005
One University, Under God?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7
One University, Under God?
What will succeed high theory and race, gender, and class as the
center of intellectual energy in academe? Religion.
By STANLEY FISH
In an episode of the long-running TV drama Law and Order, the
character Jack McCoy, an assistant district attorney, addresses a jury
made up largely of Jews. The jury's composition has been engineered by
the defendant's lawyer, who knew in advance that he would try to
justify his client's act of homicide by saying that it had been done
in the name of Israel and the Jewish people.
McCoy challenges the jury: "Are you going to render your verdict as a
citizen or as a Jew? Do you choose citizenship or culture?"
It goes without saying that no network program would tackle an issue
that did not resonate with the general public. That is especially true
of Law and Order, which from its beginning has had its plots follow
the headlines. Only if the tension between commitment to the rule of
law and commitment to one's ethnic or religious affiliation was in the
news would a television writer put it at the heart of a story.
Nowadays, in the wake of September 11, there often seems to be nothing
else in the news, as we continue to debate the questions that were
being asked within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center: Is
this a religious war? If so, what exactly is our religion? If not,
what kind of war is it? Do the terrorists represent Islam or only some
perverted version of that faith? Who is to say?
But even before the events of September 2001, there was a growing
recognition in many sectors that religion as a force motivating action
could no longer be sequestered in the private sphere, where the First
Amendment, as read in the light of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson,
had seemed to place it.
It was Locke who had proclaimed (in A Letter Concerning Toleration)
that it was above all necessary to "distinguish exactly the business
of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just
bounds between the one and the other." Jefferson coined the phrase
"wall of separation" and glossed it: "It does me no injury for my
neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God; it neither picks
my pocket nor breaks my leg."
To be sure, there are many instances in our history when Locke's "just
bounds" were not observed; but even so, for a long time it was still
the presumption that the doctrine of religious freedom went in both
directions: Individuals could freely practice their religion no matter
what it might be, and the state could enter into its deliberations
free of any concern that what it did might fall under the interdiction
As we entered the last decade of the century, one could say that the
wall of separation was pretty much in place. But in the last 15 years
a lot has changed, and by 2000 observers were alert to the change and
commenting on it. Peter Beinert, in the midst of the Bush-Gore
election campaign, predicted that "religion will increasingly replace
electoral politics as the realm where battles for the national soul
We now know that he was not quite right: What we saw in the election
of 2004 was the interpenetration of religion and electoral politics,
with professions of personal faith becoming as important or more
important than the announcement of policy positions.
Some Roman Catholic bishops inveighed against John Kerry from the
pulpit. A Gallup poll tells us that two out of three Americans believe
that the problems of the nation can be solved by religion. The Left
Behind books are a publishing phenomenon. One of the most popular
movies of the year (or of any year) has its characters speaking Hebrew
and Aramaic. Almost every athlete interviewed on television attributes
his or her success to Jesus Christ. Every speech given by every
politician ends with "God bless America." What's going on here?
A full answer would require hundreds of columns and many books, but
that answer would certainly take note of a number of developments: a
growing lack of confidence in the capacity of the political process to
do (or even recognize) the right thing; a feeling, sometimes vague and
sometimes sharply articulated, that there is something missing at the
heart of American life; the increasing political activism of
fundamentalist faiths; the rise of "New Age" spirituality and the
proliferation of "spiritual paths"; the emergence of "identity
politics," politics that eschews universal standards of judgment in
favor of judgments tied to group interests; the related emergence of
multiculturalism, which honors the values of particular cultures and
calls into question the availability or even the existence of an
independent set of values recognized by all rational persons.
There have also been specific signs: In 1995, the Supreme Court
surprised many by ruling (in Rosenberger v. Rectors) that the
University of Virginia must grant financial support to an evangelical
magazine, on the reasoning that to deny it money would be to commit
the First Amendment sin of viewpoint discrimination.
A more recent decision (2002) opened the way to vouchers for
church-supported schools so long as the money is funneled through
parents and not given directly.
So-called faith-based initiatives have been embraced by both major
parties. In every sector of American life, religion is transgressing
the boundary between private and public and demanding to be heard in
precincts that only a short while ago would have politely shown it the
And the academy is finally catching up. Not that religion has been
absent from the university as an object of study. Courses like "The
Bible as Literature" and "The American Puritan Experience" have been
staples in the curriculum for a long time, as have related courses on
the civil wars in 17th-century England and the religious poetry
(formerly called "metaphysical") of the same period.
The history of religion has always been a growth industry in academe
and has brought along with it the anthropology of religion, the
sociology of religion, the economics of religion, the politics of
religion, and so forth.
But it is one thing to take religion as an object of study and another
to take religion seriously. To take religion seriously would be to
regard it not as a phenomenon to be analyzed at arm's length, but as a
candidate for the truth. In liberal theory, however, the category of
truth has been reserved for hypotheses that take their chances in the
"marketplace of ideas."
Religious establishments will typically resist the demand that basic
tenets of doctrine be submitted to the test of deliberative reason.
(The assertion that Christ is risen is not one for which evidence pro
and con is adduced in a juridical setting.) That is why in 1915 the
American Association of University Professors denied to
church-affiliated institutions of higher learning the name of
"university"; such institutions, it was stated, "do not, at least as
regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom and
What that meant, in effect, was that in the name of the tolerant
inclusion of all views in the academic mix, it was necessary to
exclude views that did not honor tolerance as a first and guiding
Walter Lippmann laid down the rule: "Reason and free inquiry can be
neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test
of reason and inquiry." And what do you do with "opinions" (a word
that tells its own story) that do not submit? Well, you treat them as
data and not as candidates for the truth. You teach the Bible as
literature -- that is, as a body of work whose value resides in its
responsiveness to the techniques of (secular) literary analysis. Or
you teach American Puritanism as a fascinating instance of a way of
thinking we have moved beyond.
Of course, there's still a lot of that, but alongside of it is a
growing awareness of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of keeping
the old boundaries in place and of quarantining the religious impulse
in the safe houses of the church, the synagogue, and the mosque.
Again the causes of this shift are many and would require volumes to
explain, but some things seem obvious. The enormous effort of John
Rawls to maintain the boundaries by elevating for public purposes
one's identity as a citizen above one's identity as a believer has
produced a vast counterliterature of its own, much of it opening up
questions that the liberal academic establishment had thought long
The debate was joined from another perspective in 1984 when Richard
John Neuhaus published his enormously influential The Naked Public
Square, a passionate argument against the exclusion from the political
process of religious discourse. Not long afterward, Neuhaus
established the journal First Things, a subsidiary of the Institute on
Religion and Public Life "whose purpose is to advance a religiously
informed public philosophy for the ordering of society."
Many of the contributors to First Things are high-profile academics
situated in our most distinguished private and public universities,
and it is clear from their commentaries that they see no bright line
dividing their religious lives from the lives they pursue as teachers
Following in the wake of Rawls and Neuhaus, any number of theologians,
philosophers, historians, and political theorists have re-examined,
debated, challenged, and at times rejected the premises of liberalism,
whether in the name of religion, or communitarianism, or
To the extent that liberalism's structures have been undermined or at
least shaken by these analyses, the perspicuousness and usefulness of
distinctions long assumed -- reason as opposed to faith, evidence as
opposed to revelation, inquiry as opposed to obedience, truth as
opposed to belief -- have been called into question. And finally (and
to return to where we began), the geopolitical events of the past
decade and of the past three years especially have re-alerted us to
the fact that hundreds of millions of people in the world do not
observe the distinction between the private and the public or between
belief and knowledge, and that it is no longer possible for us to
regard such persons as quaintly premodern or as the needy recipients
of our saving (an ironic word) wisdom.
Some of these are our sworn enemies. Some of them are our colleagues.
Many of them are our students. (There are 27 religious organizations
for students on my campus.) Announce a course with "religion" in the
title, and you will have an overflow population. Announce a lecture or
panel on "religion in our time," and you will have to hire a larger
And those who come will not only be seeking knowledge; they will be
seeking guidance and inspiration, and many of them will believe that
religion -- one religion, many religions, religion in general -- will
Are we ready?
We had better be, because that is now where the action is. When
Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know
what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender,
and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I
answered like a shot: religion.
Stanley Fish, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly
column on campus politics and academic careers. For an archive of his
previous columns, see
E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.
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