Or, the Civil in Civility
It’s odd that we hear so much about the Judaeo-Christian tradition (usually in the context of values) these days from the Culture Warriors who believe that our values are going to ruin all around us. It’s as if, like the artist Frederick Goodall, they have a mental image of the finding of Moses amid the reeds of dissipation, ready to blossom into manhood and bring the tablets down from the mountain. In fact, it’s important for our democracy that we ground our common values in secular notions. Locke in his famous Letter on Toleration argued that religion must remain purely a matter of private opinion and that liberty depended on this. It’s not surprising that Locke and other founders of Liberalism would hold this view, in the wake of the enormous destruction wreaked on the social fabric by the Civil Wars, and indeed that the secularisation of international politics occurred after the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. The reference to Christian values (and Irant has the good oil on why Judaism gets a guernsey over at Immanuel Rant), and the controversy over the alleged threat to Christian festivities are a sign that those who are running this agenda are conservatives indeed, and no liberals at all.
As Irant writes:
The term Judeo-Christian gives the impression that our ethical and legal standards have the imprimatur of God. The same idea is the erroneous basis that the 10 Commandments are the foundation of our legal/moral codes (as I’ve commented on before). It is an exclusive term as it is code for “Christian” and the religious traditions outside of Christianity and also those of an irreligious bent are not considered at all.
Indeed. A liberal and secular moral code allows for inclusivity and difference over ethics and the good life. A religiously grounded one does not – hence the impulse to theocracy and the sort of extreme violence that tore Europe apart in the Seventheenth Century that is a tendency (only a tendency) in all of the Abrahamic salvific faiths. Adopting God’s blessing on our culture also sends a signal to those with different universalist ethics from the Christian (for instance, adherents of Islam, and the example is not lightly chosen) that they are to conform themselves to “our” values. It draws a line of exclusion not around respect for the law and citizenship but around the public endorsement of private values. The private values of a minority. Many of the Culture Warriors are not themselves particularly religious, but find convenient the disingenuous assertion that all our values stem from Christianity, and that (by inference) any other values are heretical and outside the pale.
To borrow a well-chosen quote from yellowvinyl on another thread,
All cultures, even the most sophisticated, have magic formulas, words or phrases that cast an emotional spell totally unrelated to their basic meaning. No one is free from this effect of language, though the basic formula may be quite different in two different cultures or even for two individuals of the same culture. Witness the definition of infidel in Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Devil’s Dictionary’: “In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.”
Charles B. Maurer, Call to Revolution: The Mystical Anarchism of Gustav Landauer (1971:9)
The use of the term Judeao-Christian, I’d argue, as with that of the dating systems AD and BC, does make a real difference in the public sphere because of what’s implied in it (a hierarchical and exclusive moral judgement and an exclusive claim to moral rectitude) and the exclusions that Ambrose Bierce was quick to pick up on.
I wrote about the faux nostalgia that Culture Warriors like to engage in on the Dr Mannix thread recently. A further reflection, Keith Windschuttle notwithstanding, is that perhaps it’s in the Culture Warriors’ interest that Australians be ignorant of history. They appear to display little or no grasp of either its nuances or the fact that social strife has been with us from the beginning. And nor do they seem to know that some of the earliest legislative acts of representative Australian assemblies – particularly in NSW in the 1840s – related to the secularisation of education and the separation of Church and State. Maybe they’d rather not know, because it interferes in conjuring up the image of imagined tradition to which they’d like to shackle us all.
There’s an argument, by the way, made by the Sociologist Louis Hartz in his 1964 book The Founding of New Societies that Australia, like America, is in part a Lockean society. In that light, and in light of the values of toleration, pluralism and civility that appear to be going to ruin around us, Locke’s Letter on Toleration is well worth a read.