In Search of a More Beautiful Question

Posted by Lori Walsh on

What good is talking?

I spend my days finding fascinating conversation partners. The In the Moment team searches out interesting people doing interesting things and doing those things for a reason.

Then I spend two hours a day in conversation. Much of the afternoon is spent processing and coordinating and planning for further conversation. And sometimes I have to wonder: Does all this talking make a difference in the world?

Here's what I've learned. It's not so much the talking that matters.

It's the listening.

A recent conversation with Joseph Bottum helped clarify this for me. We talked about the role of faith in public life. Along the way we also talked about Confederate symbolism, prayers during a legislative session, and what happens when law enforcement officers allow angry Americans to interact with impunity.

Bottum is an author, a philosopher, and an ethicist. Halfway through our time together I realized, once again, that on In the Moment, we aren't peddling the "correct" answer on any given topic. More often we are grasping for the right question. A more revealing question. A more beautiful question.

What role does faith play in your life? Do you believe other Americans should express their faith in public or does the whole concept of faith make you uncomfortable? Does it make you angry?

As you grapple with issues of racism and resistance, you might find yourself wondering ... when so many feel a call to action, what good is talking about all this?

Better yet, I humbly submit, what good is listening?

The following is an edited version of the conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:

Let's expand the conversation now with one of our favorite philosophers and ethicists, Joseph Bottom. He leads the classics institute at Dakota State University in Madison. Classics, by the way, stands for Collaboration for Liberty and Security Strategies for Integrity in a Cyber Enabled Society. He is the author of "An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America." We're reaching him in Madison. Dr. Bottom, welcome.

Joseph Bottom:

Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh:

How old is this conversation about religious displays and government in America, really?

Joseph Bottom:

This has been going on so long, and we are all so tired of it.

Lori Walsh:


Joseph Bottom:

And this, of course, the First Amendment originally bound only the Federal Government. And we had state-established religion in New England states as late as 1830. But gradually, and then explicitly after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, we had the First Amendment applied to the states, apply to local governments. And they were compelled not to have state religions or state sponsorships of religion.

About the first part of the kind of two-prong argument that our state attorney general just put forward, about the first part he's absolutely right. It is, our religious jurisprudence in this country has been a mess for nigh on 100 years. It was a mess with Pierce in the 1940s with that decision. The Lemon test of the 1970s has failed. We don't have a clear sense of what is listed and what is not under the Constitution. And the Supreme Court keeps not quite giving us one. And so lawsuits get filed by absolutists like the ACLU, who want to abolish all religion and all references to religion from anything that the state touches, that the government touches. And we go around and around. And our jurisprudence in religion is so confusing. The Supreme Court has consistently held, for instance, that it is perfectly alright for the National Legislature through Congress to begin with a prayer. This is a pre-encoded self, every session opens with the proclamation "God save this honorable court." And since that was the practice of the founders, it cannot be that the amendment the founders passed prohibited that.

And at the same time, we've just got this mess of how far that extends. What a government can do, what a government can't do. No one knows, and the Attorney General seems to me, our Attorney General is absolutely right in asking for clarification. Can we finally have a bright line rule? So that we don't have to go to court every three years to defend-

Lori Walsh:

I think I lost Joseph Bottom for just a moment there.  Oh, I can hear you now. We were talking about the bright line rule. Can we finally have some clarification, and that's where you dropped out.

Joseph Bottom:

Right, can we finally get, so that we don't have to go to court every three years to find out if Lemmon, South Dakota can begin their city council meeting with a prayer.

Lori Walsh:

Okay. What sort of questions should the rest of us be asking, as we look at these conversations? What sort of conversations are really useful and what sort of conversations are the ones where we just get stuck and we're sick of talking about- How do we move from the basic knee-jerk reaction to a deeper thought process about this?

Joseph Bottom:

Well, I think, understanding the history is a big help. But another way, perhaps the best way, would be to think what the Attorney General has just asked. He's basically putting forward two propositions: One is that the state of South Dakota, like every other state, needs a bright line rule, so that they can understand what they can and cannot do, without endless lawsuits. The second thing that he's putting forward, is a proposal that the bright line be drawn in a particular place, asking for freedom for some religious expression through the state. That second one the Supreme Court has spoken to fairly consistently. If there's any consistency in our religious jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has said these references are allowed if they have a kind of cultural meaning. And the trouble of course, is that we stand at a moment in which there's no clear consensus on what the culture is. There's no center left to it. The way the old, Protestant mainline churches kind of gave a center to the culture for 200 years. With that gone, who's to say that the Ten Commandments are part of the mainstream of the culture? Their cultural expression speaking to the aspirations and common good sense of the people. If they're perceived as religious, fundamentally, then they have to go. But, the Supreme Court itself has Moses as a law giver figured on it, and along with and other figures from history. So that you don't know quite how to sort all of this out. It seems to me that the common sense that South Dakotans would demand, is a sort of robust, broad-shouldered acceptance of religious difference, and the fact that people are going to want to express their religious feelings in ordinary circumstances.

Lori Walsh:

This is where we come against words like "sincere religious beliefs" and "reasonable display." How does that kind of language or definition fir into the conversation?

Joseph Bottom:

It's reasonable only if you have an idea of reason at the center of culture. And of course, what we saw in Charlottesville, is the complete breakdown of culture, last week. And we see this, this week I guess. And we see this kind of over and over again, that the old center of culture, a kind of broad-shouldered American Protestantism, so broad in fact, that it almost isn't religious anymore at all, that that kind of center of the culture is basically gone. And we're increasingly angry with one another, so that you can't have an old display of the Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn anymore, without it making someone angry. And of course, our anger is fought out, hopefully in the courts, and sometimes on the streets.

Lori Walsh:

Right. So, what's the role of history when you talk about depiction of Moses, or as we saw in Charlottesville, we were looking at a general of the Confederacy. If something has been established a long time ago, does that make a difference, versus something that you're trying to, a monument you're trying to create today?

Joseph Bottom:

I think so. I think time sort of adds a pattern to these things. It puts loss on these old statues, and allows us to see them in their context, or it ought to. If the Confederacy is a living symbol, then let's tear it down. If it's a living symbol for slavery and sedition, and breaking apart the Union, that Abraham Lincoln gave us this almost mystical expression of, then by God, we ought to tear down every single monument. We ought to rip Confederate battle flags off the corners of Southern states' flags. We ought to tear it down. If, on the other hand, this is an expression of our history, of where we've been, of how we've moved on, of all the blood spillt in that war, the Civil War, then it takes on a different light. And we should be able to live with it. In fact, we should sort of admire this expression that calls us to contemplate our depth of being in this country. How long we've been here. How much we've been through.

And I think, the trouble with the people who are angry about Confederate symbols, for instance, or the Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn, the trouble is, they call into being another set of angry people, who want to defend it for, perhaps for its symbolism as the Confederacy. Perhaps for its symbolism as a religious imposition in the case of the Ten Commandments. Whereas, if we see it instead as an expression of American history and the culture and the long tradition that we've had, there's no occasion for people to be so angry with one another.

Lori Walsh:

So, is it a matter of having the conversation and having the discourse? Or, is it a matter of policy and clarity from the courts?

Joseph Bottom:

I hope the court gives us clarity and I hope that it draws the line, much in the place that our Attorney General wants it drawn, which is a kind of robust, common-nonsensical understanding that America is a nation of religious people. And you can't arbitrarily strip the public square of all religious expression. But one way or another, we need some kind of clarification and, I hope that we can accept it. One of the most interesting things about what happened in Charlottesville, is you had two sides of very angry people.

And the force there that represented the middle, that represented the culture, in general, were the police, and they stood aside and let the two sides battle. And of course, it's much in the news that the police did not interfere while these fights were going on. The National Guard was there, and also did not interfere, and let the battle kind of go on. That's a horrifying thought: If the center of culture is so gone, that it's going to stand back and let the angry people fight each other, then I'm not sure even a Supreme Court decision say, on this or anything else, is going to speak to kind of authoritative imposition of general culture, to which everyone has to subscribe. At which point we really are back in a situation of sedition and anger, riot and war.

Lori Walsh:

Can you articulate why people who follow a certain faith or people who have sincerely held religious beliefs, why do they need to express their religious preferences in the public life? They who will say, "Well, that's your private, sort of, do that on Sunday." Why is it important for people of faith to be able to express that publicly?

Joseph Bottom:

Well, first of all, it's guaranteed under the same First Amendment. That's the second religious clause, which is the Free Expression Clause, which is that people have the right to express their religion, not merely believe it in private, but express it. And again, that's subject to a terribly confusing jurisprudence that we still haven't sorted out. But, in answer to your question explicitly, if religion is of the deepest stuff of human existence, then to arbitrarily set aside an arena in which it may not appear, in which your prohibit it from appearing, is to create an arena that cannot address the deep stuff of life, about how we live and how we die. And government is, law is concerned with how we live and how we die. It passes laws about murder. It passes laws about abortion. It passes laws about euthanasia. These are all the deep, bloody stuff of human life.

And if we are not allowed, if I say to every immigrant from India, "You cannot bring your Hinduism and your thoughts about that into the public square. You're not allowed to vote based on that. You're not allowed to serve on a jury based on that. You're not allowed to do anything that expresses your religious convictions," I've thereby created a world in which we have laws involving the deep stuff of life without the capacity to think. That the premises by which we might think about those issues.

Lori Walsh:

Does the center of the culture, as you've been referring to, been knocked away, fallen away at this point? Does it come back? Does the culture sort of morph into something new? What are your thoughts?

Joseph Bottom:

I don't think the center is entirely dead, but I think many of its premises, many of the props of it have been knocked away. I don't know. If the center is destroyed, we end up with a situation of, an unruleable culture. And no one has to accept anything. I think we do end up with riots, and we end up with a culture that looks like Charlottesville ripped large. And so, I hope that we can retain the culture, the center of the culture, with the idea of the family as apart from the government, as a center of the kind of culture. With the idea that rights are not granted by the government, but inherent human beings. And the amendments in the Constitution are not grants of rights, they are recognitions of pre-existing rights that all human beings have. If we can maintain that old founders' sense of what it is to be a human being, and to live under a government, and to share a state with one another, then I think there is sufficient culture there to hold onto what we've had for 200 years.

Lori Walsh:

You've been listening to Joseph Bottom. He's the author of "An Anxious Age." He leads the classics department at Dakota State University, specializing in cyber ethics.




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It’s a place for just one more question.


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