The Illusion of Neutrality
Public Discourse, 11 September, 2014
Reproduced with permission
The secular state cannot be neutral in matters
The reader will no doubt know which side I take on
these issues. My point here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an
illusion. The nakedly secular state is not a neutral thing.
We have all heard what has come to be a liberal dictum, that the State
must remain neutral as regards religion or irreligion. One can show
fairly easily that the men who wrote our constitution had no such neutrality
in mind, given the laws that they and their fellows subsequently passed,
their habits of public prayer at meetings, and their common understanding
that freedom without virtue, and virtue without piety, were chimeras. To
show that that understanding persisted, all one need do is open every
textbook for school children published for almost two hundred years; or
recall that Catholic immigrants established their own schools not so that
their pupils might read the Bible, but so that they might choose which
translation they were to read.
Still, there are two more fundamental reasons for rejecting the dictum.
One is that it is not possible. The other is that it is not conceivable, even
if it were possible. It is a contradiction in terms.
The Nude Beach Principle
On the impossibility: consider the effects of a permission that radically
alters the nature of the context in which the action is permitted. We might
call this the Nude Beach Principle. Suppose that Surftown has one beautiful
beach, where young and old, boys and girls, single people and whole
families, have been used to relax, go swimming, and have picnics. Now
suppose that a small group of nudists petitions the town council to allow
for nude bathing. Their argument is simple—actually, it is no more than a
fig leaf for the mere expression of desire. They say, "We want to do this,
and we, tolerant as we are, do not wish to impose our standards on anyone
else. No one will be required to bathe in the raw. Live
and let live, that's our motto."
But you cannot have a Half-Nude Beach. A beach on which some people stroll
without a stitch of clothing is a nude beach, period. A councilman cannot
say, "I remain entirely neutral on whether clothing should be required on a
beach," because that is equivalent to saying that it is not opprobrious or not
despicable to walk naked in front of other people, including children.
Two factors must be at work, for the Nude Beach Principle to apply. One
is whether we can expect some people to act upon the permission. The other
is an easily predictable harm that the permission so acted upon will bring
to people who do not act upon it, or who, because of moral disapprobation,
disgust, fear, or pain, would never act upon it. In Surftown, it means that
ordinary people will have lost their beach. They will have lost it to the
intolerance of the nude bathers, who, even if they were correct
about the moral permissibility of their parading their wares, will not
forbear with their more scrupulous neighbors. In this matter, to pretend not
to choose is to choose.
Nor do we need physical proximity to invoke the principle. A few years
ago in Nova Scotia, after losing a string of referenda, proponents of
all-day any-day business won out, meaning that, for the first time,
businesses other than hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations
could remain open on Sunday. Opponents of the referendum appealed to the
good that families and neighborhoods enjoyed, because they could rely on
almost everyone being at home at least one day in the week. They understood
that it was illogical to say that no particular business would be compelled to
keep the strange hours, since the permission would mean almost immediately
that many would do so—just as the permission to wear nothing on a beach will
bring out many sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. They saw that that in
itself would compromise or destroy the good they sought to preserve.
Now, you could say that that lost good was outweighed by the good of some
purported economic development, just as you could say that the lost good of
a beach friendly to families was outweighed by the good of exhibitionism or
what have you. But you could not plead neutrality. To say, "I remain neutral
on whether a people should set aside one day in a week for cessation of most
business," is to say that it is not important that such a day be
set aside. Again, to pretend not to choose is to choose.
The referendum in Nova Scotia illustrates something else, too, beyond the
particular issue. Sometimes to permit is not only to alter the context of
the permitted action, but to alter the whole social order. You
cannot say, as Stephen Douglas tried to say, that you will allow slavery in
those states whose citizens vote for it, and then pretend that that is an
act of calm and statesmanlike neutrality. A society that says that some
people may own slaves is an utterly different society from one that
says that no one may own slaves. That is not a distant consequence
of the permission; it is immediate, indeed implied in the permission itself.
You cannot say, as liberals try to say, that you will allow abortion for
people inclined to procure one, and then pretend that that too is to remain
blissfully neutral and tolerant, no more than if you tried to say that you
would allow infanticide for parents who decide, after all, that the diapers
are too messy, or the baby too ugly or too sickly or handicapped. A society
that allows some people to kill babies is a society that does not protect
babies, period. It is a society that does not view them as possessing any
inherent claim upon our protection. A society that freely permits
pornography is, by that very permission, a society that sees nothing
especially sacred in the human body and the marital act. You can say all you
want that no one is required to leap into the open sewer. They still have to
live with it right there, with all its stench, among people who have
grown accustomed to it, or fond of it.
You will be deprived of the help that a very different kind of society
might have conferred upon you, as you try to discipline yourself and your
children to virtue. There's a scene in Eugenio Corti's semi-autobiographical
novel about the Second World War that illustrates the point quite well. One
of the soldiers from their district—the writer and intellectual among
them—has fallen in love with a chaste and beautiful girl. But his
imagination has not been formed or deformed by the vices of military life or
the brutalities he witnessed on the Russian front. It has been formed by his
faith. The girl is sure not only that Michele loves her, but "that his love
was great, the kind of love given by a real man who had held himself ready
for an only love." When she daydreams about the children she will give him,
she does not dwell on the physical expression of love, though that, says
Corti, was to be great and joyful: "Her Christian morals at present
forbade that, and she would obey that in her docile way, realizing that her
so splendid love was in no small way brought about by her faithful
acceptance of the moral code." Without that code publicly acknowledged and
fostered, there is no such marriage, for "Michele's love for her would have
been less, perhaps limping along, spent." No Ferdinand and Miranda, no
Orlando and Rosalind, no Renzo and Lucia.
The Principle of the Empty Distinction
And these considerations bring us to the edge of recognizing that
neutrality in many questions is not only practically impossible, but
perfectly meaningless. We might call this the Principle of the Empty
Distinction. Suppose you say you are agnostic on the issue of whether you
will recognize a man's property as his own. You have just contradicted
yourself. You are not agnostic at all; that is but a hand-washing
distinction without a difference. You have in effect refused to recognize
the right of property, and where the right of property is not recognized,
what is yours is mine if I have the inclination and the power to take it.
Given the same object, there is no conceivable compromise between (sometimes
or somewhere) permissible and (always and everywhere) impermissible.
The illogic is most acute when the professed agnosticism applies directly
to the duties of the party so professing. If I say, "I must remain
assiduously neutral on the question of honoring my father and mother," I
have declared that I do not owe them the honor that they are due, and that
is in itself to dishonor them. If I say, "I am strictly agnostic on the
question as to whether I owe gratitude to the man who has paid for my
college education without any expectation of return," I have declared that
there is no debt, nothing that binds me. I am saying that my gratitude
is a matter of indifference or caprice; and that is itself ungrateful.
It does not matter whether the party is a person or a nation. The virtue
of religion, as our founders used the word, pertains to the duty that a
person or a people owe to God. Now there either is a duty or there is not.
You cannot say, "The People must remain absolutely neutral as to whether the
People, as such, owe any allegiance to God, to acknowledge His benefits, and
to pray for His protection." To say it is to deny the debt. It is to take a
position while trying to appear to take none. To decline to choose to pray,
now and ever, is to choose not to pray. It is to choose irreligion. One
should at least be honest about it.
The reader will no doubt know which side I take on these issues. My point
here is that for certain questions, neutrality is an illusion. The nakedly
secular state is not a neutral thing. It is something utterly different
from, and irreconcilable with, every human polity that has existed until a
few anthropological minutes ago. It is itself a set of choices which, like
all such, forecloses others; a way of living that makes other ways of living
unlikely, practically impossible, or inconceivable.