George Weigel – Religious Conviction and Democratic Pluralism

George Weigel is Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington D.C.
Seminar on 20 May 2004


During the American civil rights movement, a piece of African-American wisdom came into broad circulation in the United States: “You've got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk'. Which meant, simply, that public officials must act on their convictions, not just talk about them. It's a useful reminder that courage in public life is measured by deeds as well as words.

In the real world – the real world of Christian conviction and the real world of democratic politics – the two are not so easily separated, however. “Talking the talk,' often thought the easier of the two, can in fact be more difficult in pluralistic societies where different moral grammars and vocabularies are all in play at once. The question for discussion tonight is, how do we “talk the talk' of religiously-informed moral conviction so that our arguments can be considered and weighed by our fellow-citizens – or at least those among them who understand that moral judgment plays a crucial role in the policy process?

Even as the Anglophone world has become more strikingly secular in its public culture, a variety of Christian voices – some modulated, others shrill – insist, rightly, on a place at the table of democratic deliberation, especially on crucial life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the legal regulation of the new biotechnologies. Put these voices together with the utilitarian moral grammar that is the default position in much of the West, and what the late American Jesuit social ethicist John Courtney Murray used to call the essence of a civil society, “creeds intelligibly in conflict,' can seem more a cacophony than a symphony. So the question, to repeat, is, how do we “talk the talk'? How do we bring a measure of grammatical and syntactical order to the public debate so that the genuine conversation that is the lifeblood of democracy can take place?


So far as we know, the apostle Paul was not overly vexed about the public policy of Athens in the first century of the common era; but Paul's struggle to “translate' the Christian Gospel into terms that the Athenians could understand and engage suggests that the issue confronting Christians has a venerable history. Paul's invocation of the “unknown god' to the men gathered on the Areopagus was, of course, an evangelical tactic aimed at the religious conversion of his audience; the book of Acts does not suggest that Paul was very much concerned to reform deficit financing, health care, education, or defense appropriations in Greater Athens. But that evangelical instinct which led the apostle to seek a language – a grammar, if you will – through which the Athenians could grasp (and be grasped by) the claims of the Gospel is something on which we might well reflect, as we ponder such decidedly secondary and tertiary questions as deficit financing, health care reform, education, and defense appropriations in our countries – not to mention such “first order' questions as the life issues, which are at the moral foundations of free and virtuous societies.

Paul was a man at home with at least two moral-intellectual “grammars': the Judaic, in which he had been rabbinically trained, and the Hellenistic, which dominated elite culture in the eastern Mediterranean at the time. We may be sure that Paul regarded the Judaic grammar as superior to the Hellenistic, but he did not hesitate to employ the latter when he deemed it necessary for the sake of the Gospel.

This grammatical ecumenicity, as we might call it, was memorably captured in Paul's familiar boast, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some' (1 Corinthians 9:22b). Again, the questions behind this present discussion are questions of considerably less consequence than the salvation of souls. But if, in such a grand cause, the apostle of the gentiles could appeal to his audiences through language and images with which they were most familiar – if, to get down to cases, Paul could expropriate an Athenian idol as an instrument for breaking open the Gospel of Christ, the Son of the Living God – then perhaps it is incumbent upon us, working in the far less dramatic precincts of public policy, to devise means of translating our religious convictions into language and images that can illuminate for all our fellow-citizens the truths of how we ought to live together, as we have come to understand them through faith and reason.

There is danger in this, of course, and it should be squarely faced: Christians eager to be heard in the public square today may, through an excess of grammatical ecumenicity, so attenuate their message that the sharp edge of truth gets blunted, and thus debased. Flaccidity in the cause of a misconceived public ecumenism has been one dimension of the decline of the academic study of religion in the West, as it has been a dimension of the old Protestant establishments. Some would suggest that a similar disposition to excessive public correctness, as that set of attitudes is defined by the tastemakers of society, has also misshaped certain interpretations of the Roman Catholic ethic of life.

Moreover, it can often seem as if our cultural moment demands uncompromising confrontation rather than polite dialogue. When unborn children in America have less legal standing than an endangered species of bird in a national forest; when any conceivable configuration of consenting adults sharing body parts is considered in enlightened circles to constitute a “marriage'; when illegitimacy rates skyrocket while birth rates plummet: well, one is reminded of Orwell's observation, two generations ago, that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.' There are some hard, home truths to be told on the various Mars Hills of our countries, and one need not doubt that the telling of such truths, even in a publicly accessible grammar, is going to bring down upon one's head the odium of those committed to the establishment of the Kingdom or Republic of the Imperial Autonomous Self. Under such circumstances, the old rural wheeze which tells us that we may as well get hung for a sheep as for a goat retains its pertinence.

But the good news is that the bad news is not all the news there is. For in certain signs of these times we may also be seeing a new public recognition of the enduring realities of religious conviction and a new willingness to concede a place for religiously based moral argument in the public square. Both our countries are governed by men who are quite publicly unapologetic about their Christian faith. Both our countries have leading religious figures who are not shy about speaking what they understand to be Christian truth to power – even if we might have serious disagreements with their understanding of what Christian truth requires in public life. The “generation of 1968' is greying and waning in influence; and in the United States, at least, welcome signs of a fresh commitment to leading an authentically Christian life in the public square are evident among young adults – which is to say, among the children of the “1968' generation. (As one wit had it, there are many ironies in the fire, indeed.)


Still, the sheer fact that religiously based public moral argument seems “okay' again in certain influential quarters does not suggest the end of our problem. What we may have today, through a confluence of forces, is an opening through which to begin the slow and laborious process of reclothing what Father Richard John Neuhaus has frequently called the “naked public square.' The question is how, and in what livery, the square will be reclothed.

Permit me an example from my national history, because I believe Abraham Lincoln, and specifically his Second Inaugural Address, provides an important historical model for contemporary reflection. The American Civil War, as you know, was an extraordinarily lethal affair. As Lincoln rose on the Capitol steps to take the presidential oath of office for the second time in March 1865, some half a million Americans had killed each other in the preceding four years. How was he to speak to all Americans, on both sides of that struggle?

In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln interpreted the national agony of a violent and sanguinary civil war in explicitly biblical terms, citing Matthew's Gospel (“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh') and the Psalmist (“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether') to buttress his general hermeneutic claim that the workings-out of the American democratic experiment were caught up in a divinely ordered plan for human history.

Now, can anyone reasonably argue that, in his deliberate choice of biblical language and in his appeal to the notion of a providential purpose in history, Lincoln was excluding anyone from the public debate over the meaning and purpose of the War Between the States? Can it be reasonably contended that Lincoln's attempt to prepare the United States for reconciliation by offering a biblically based moral interpretation of the recent national experience constituted an unconstitutional “imposition' of belief and values on others?

Americans recognize Lincoln's Second Inaugural as perhaps the greatest speech in our history precisely because, with singular eloquence and at a moment of unparalleled national trauma, it spoke to the entire country in an idiom that the entire country could understand. No one was excluded by Lincoln's use of biblical language and imagery; all, irrespective of confessional conviction (or the lack thereof), were included in the great moral drama whose meaning the President was trying to fix in the national consciousness.

It is arguably true that, even in the midst of civil war, the United States (North and South) was a more culturally coherent nation than our America today; and it is certainly true that no statesman of Lincoln's eloquence and moral imagination is on the horizon of our public life. Yet there is still an important lesson here. And the lesson is that biblical language and imagery in public discourse ought to be used, not to divide, but rather to unite: not to finish off an opponent with a rhetorical coup de grace, but to call him (and all of us) to a deeper reflection on the promise and perils of democracy. 

This principle does not preclude hard truth-telling (as the Second Inaugural amply attests). But Lincoln spoke as one who had understood the frailty of all things human, and especially of all things political; he did not suggest, even amidst a civil war, that all righteousness lay on one side, and all evil on another; he knew, and acknowledged, that the nation was under judgment; and he spoke not as a Republican, and not even as a Northerner, but as an American seeking to reach out to other Americans across chasms of division at least as broad and deep as any we face today.

Such an approach – in which Christian conviction speaks through and to the plurality of our national life, such that that plurality is enabled to become a genuine pluralism – ought to commend itself to us, first and foremost, on Christian theological, indeed doctrinal, grounds.

The treasure of the Gospel has been entrusted to the earthen vessels of our humanity for the salvation of the world, not for the securing of partisan advantage. We debase the Gospel and we debase the Body of Christ (which witnesses in history to God's saving work in Christ) when we use the Gospel as a partisan trump card. Our first loyalty – our overriding loyalty – is to God in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of that loyalty, Christians are “resident aliens' in any polis in which they find themselves, as the second-century “Letter to Diognetus' puts it. But it is precisely because our ultimate allegiance is to a Kingdom not of this world that we can make a useful contribution to the workings-out of democracies that understand themselves to be experiments in limited government, judged by transcendent moral norms, and open to the participation of all. 

The democratic experiment could fail; it requires a virtuous people in order to succeed. All of this was implied in the Second Inaugural, and that helps explain the enduring power of Lincoln's address. None of us is Lincoln. But everything we say and do in public should make clear that our purposes are to reunite our countries through a new birth of freedom, not simply to throw their rascals out and get our rascals in.

And at a far more vulgar level, there are also practical considerations to be weighed here. Playing the Gospel as a trump card is not only offensive to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists; it is also offensive to other Christians – even (perhaps especially) to those Christians who may be otherwise inclined to make common cause on public policy issues. In brief, playing the Gospel as a trump card makes us less effective witnesses to the truths we hold about the way in which we ought to live together. (Moreover, and to go back to our primary concern, the suggestion that Christian orthodoxy yields a single answer to virtually every contested issue of public policy is an offense, not simply against political common sense, but against . . . Christian orthodoxy.)


Having seen in Lincoln a model for the proper deployment of explicitly biblical language in American public discourse, perhaps a word about natural law is in order.

This is not the place to explore the differences among the various natural law theories, or the points of tangency (and distinction) between Roman Catholic natural law theory and Calvinist concepts of common grace. Rather, the question before us is how Christians contribute to the evolution of a genuine pluralism out of the plurality of vocabularies in American public moral discourse today; the question is how today's cannonading is transformed (to repeat John Courtney Murray's pungent phrase) into a situation of “creeds at war, intelligibly'. And the issue is a serious one, for society will descend into a different kind of war, Hobbes' dread war of “all against all,' unless we can talk to each other in such a way that we make sense to each other – or at least enough sense to conduct the public business. 

“Natural law' here means the claim that, even under the conditions of the Fall, there is a moral logic built into the world and into us: a logic that reasonable men and women can grasp by disciplined reflection on the dynamics of human action. The grasping of that logic may be (and Christians would say, most certainly is) aided by the effects of grace at work in human hearts; and it may be the case that the Gospel draws out of the natural law certain behavioral implications that are not so readily discernible with the naked eye (so to speak). But that such a moral logic exists, that it is available to all men through rational reflection, and that it can be intelligibly argued in public, is, I think, a matter of moral common sense.

We saw that logic at work in the public debate over Iraq in the months before the coalition invasion of March 2003. In both our countries, and in venues ranging from radio talk shows to taxicabs to barber shops to pubs to the Palace of Westminster and the halls of Congress, men and women instinctively argued in the natural law categories of the just war tradition in order to debate the issue at hand: Was ours a just cause? What were our intentions? Who could properly authorize the use of force? Did we have a reasonable chance of success? Was military action a last resort? How could innocent civilian lives be protected? Our fellow-citizens and our political leaders did not instinctively reach for these questions because the just war tradition had been effectively catechized in our schools over the past two generations (alas); rather, we reached for those questions because those are the “natural' questions that any morally reflective person will ask when contemplating the use of lethal force for the common good. Moreover, the rather high level of public moral argument over Iraq suggests that this instinctive moral logic has the perhaps unique capacity to bring grammatical order to the deliberations of a diverse society.

To commend the development of the skills necessary for conducting public debate according to the grammar of the natural law is not to deny explicitly Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist) moral discourse a place in the public square. All citizens of a democracy have the right to bring their most deeply held convictions into play in our common life; that is – or rather, ought to be – one of the things we mean by the free exercise of religion. But those convictions will be most readily engaged which are translated into idioms that can be grasped by those whom we are trying to persuade. And one grammar capable of effecting that translation is the natural law tradition. Two examples may help illustrate the point.

The abortion license created by the Supreme Court in 1973 remains the single most bitterly contested issue in American public life; and while the legal situation and the intensity of public debate over abortion in the U.K. are different, the essential structure of the argument remains the same. It is self-evident that Christian orthodoxy regards elective abortion as a grave moral evil: as a profound offense against the entire structure of Christian morals. And there is no doubt that the steady proclamation of that truth, in love, has been a crucial factor in the perdurance of the right-to-life movement over the past generation. The overwhelming majority of those active on behalf of the right to life of the unborn are committed to that cause, and have remained committed in the teeth of fierce opposition from the elite culture, because they understand that the Lord requires this of us.

But how are we to make our case to those who do not share that prior religious commitment, or to those Christians whose churches do not provide clear moral counsel on this issue? And how do we do this in a political-cultural-legal climate in which individual autonomy has been virtually absolutized and a utilitarian moral calculus is the default position in both public and private life?

The answer is, we best make our case by insisting that our defense of the right to life of the unborn is a defense of civil rights and of a generous, hospitable democracy. We best make our case by insisting that abortion-on-demand gravely damages democracy by drastically constricting the community of the commonly protected. We best make our case by arguing that the private use of lethal violence against an innocent is an assault on the moral foundations of any just society. In short, we best make our case for maximum feasible legal protection of the unborn by deploying natural law arguments that translate our Christian moral convictions into a public idiom more powerful than the idiom of autonomy.

A similar strategy commends itself in the face of gay and lesbian activism. Again, the position of orthodox Christian morality is unambiguously clear: homosexual acts violate the structure of the divinely created form of love by which men and women are to exercise their sexuality in unitive and procreative responsibility. Thus “homosexual marriage' is an oxymoron, and other proposals to treat homosexuality as the equivalent of race for purposes of civil rights law are an offense against biblical morality: what many would call, unblushingly, an abomination before the Lord.

But given the vast disarray wrought by the sexual revolution, by the plurality of moral vocabularies in our countries, and by political pressures on both sides of the Atlantic from continental European jurisprudence, I suggest that we make a more powerful case against the public policy claims of gay activists by arguing on natural law grounds: by arguing that it is in the very nature of governments to make discriminations; that the relevant question is whether any proposed discrimination is invidiously unjust; that the legal acknowledgment of marriage as a matter between a man and a woman is no such invidious discrimination; and that the recognition of marriage as a stable union between a man and a woman is good for society because it strengthens the basic unit of society, the family, and because it is good for children. Given the fantastic damage done to the underclass by the breakdown of family life, one might think that this would be an easier argument to make today than it was, say, twenty years ago.

It may be that the cause of marriage rightly understood is doomed in large parts of the West, although I don't think it's lost yet in the United States. Win or lose, however, it will make a lot of difference to the future of public discourse in our countries if, during the marriage debate, we demonstrate that we can argue our case on grounds that do not require our opponents to share all our theological convictions – thereby demonstrating that our position, on this question as on abortion and euthanasia, is not a “sectarian: position, but a genuinely public position.

Similar models of argumentation can be developed for other “social issues'. In all such cases, it should be emphasized again, the goal is not to weaken the moral claims or judgments involved, but rather to translate them, through the grammar of natural law, into claims and judgments that can be heard, engaged, and, ultimately, accepted by those who do not share our basic Christian commitment (and, perhaps, even by some of the confused brethren who do).

Finally, a word about democratic etiquette. If patriotism is often the last refuge of scoundrels, then what currently passes for civility can be the last refuge of moral weakness, confusion, or cowardice. Moreover, as the fictional American pundit Mr. Dooley pointed out a while ago, “pollytics ain't beanbag'. That enduring reality, and the gravity of the questions engaged in the culture war in the West, remind us that genuine civility is not the same as docility or “niceness'.

But there is a truth embedded in the habit of democratic etiquette, and we should frankly acknowledge it. The truth is that persuasion is better than coercion. And that is true because public moral argument is superior – morally and politically – to violence.

All law is, of course, in some measure coercive. But one of the moral superiorities of democracy is that our inevitably coercive laws are defined by a process of persuasion, rather than by princely ukase or politburo decree. And why is this mode of lawmaking morally superior? Because it embodies four truths: that men and women are created with intelligence and free will, and thus as subjects, not merely objects, of power; that genuine authority is the right to command, not merely the power to coerce; that those who are called to obey and to bear burdens have first the right to be heard and to deliberate on whether a proposed burden to be borne is necessary for the common good; and that there is an inherent sense of justice in the people, by which they are empowered to pass judgment on how we ought to live together.

Thus in observing, even as we refine, the rules of democratic etiquette, Christians are helping to give contemporary expression to certain moral understandings that have lain at the heart of the central political tradition of the West since that tradition first formed in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome and gave rise to the civilization of the Middle Ages – the cultural soil in which the deepest taproots of democracy were planted.  And, not so inconsequentially, we are thereby taking a stand against the totalitarian temptation that lurks at the heart of every modern state, including every modern democratic state. To be sure, that is not the most important “public' thing we do as Christians. But it is an important thing to do, nonetheless.


Doing all of this requires a certain self-discipline for “public' Christians and for “public' Christianity. This self-discipline is required, first and foremost, for theological reasons. A partisan Gospel is an ideological Gospel; and as many of us insisted against the claims of liberation theology in the 1970s and 1980s, an ideologically driven Gospel is a debasement of the Gospel. “Christian voter scorecards' which suggest that the Gospel provides a “Christian answer' to the tax code or to increasing the national debt ceiling demean the Gospel by identifying it with an ideological agenda.

Another set of concerns arises from democratic theory. One can have no quarrel with describing our current circumstances as a “culture war'. But the suggestion, offered by Patrick J. Buchanan at the 1992 Republican Convention, that a culture war is to be equated, willy-nilly, with a “religious war' must be stoutly resisted. The two are not the same. A culture war can be adjudicated, and a reasonable accommodation reached, through the processes (including electoral and juridical processes) of democratic persuasion; a religious war cannot.

Moreover, the very phrase “religious war' suggests that the answer to the issue at the heart of the culture war – namely, the establishment of officially sanctioned secularism as our countries' official creed – is an alternative sanctified creed. But under the conditions of plurality that seem to be written into the script of history (by God, some of us would say), such a substitution is not and cannot be the answer. The alternative to the naked public square is the reconstitution of civil society. And what is “civil society'? Civil society is the achievement of a genuine pluralism in which creeds are “intelligibly in conflict' . Genuine pluralism is, as Richard Neuhaus has written on many occasions, not the avoidance of our deepest differences, but the engagement of those differences within the bond of democratic civility.

A third set of reasons for self-discipline in posed by the Islamist threat to the West. As this threat touches more democracies directly, the secularist temptation to regard all publicly assertive religious conviction as inherently coercive, even violent, will be ever more difficult to resist – and thus may give rise to an even more naked public square. Christians in the West can, by “talking the talk' in the terms I'm suggesting here, demonstrate in the hard struggles of public life the truth that Christian conviction advances in its effects on public life by persuasion, not coercion. That is a good in itself; it is also an important model for those Muslims trying to develop an Islamic case for what we know as “civil society'.

In talking the talk, in truth and in charity, with force and with wit, so that others can enter the great conversation over the “oughts' of our common life, religiously motivated citizens can make a signal contribution to the reclothing of the naked public square in our countries. And in doing that, they will be serving the Lord who stands in judgment on all the works of our hands, but most especially on our politics. For orthodox Christians politics is, or ought to be, penultimate. Talking the talk in the terms suggested here helps keep politics in its place: and that, too, is no mean contribution to the revitalization of democracy at the beginning of the 21st century.

GEORGE WEIGEL, a Catholic theologian, is Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author of numerous books, including WITNESS TO HOPE: THE BIOGRAPHY OF POPE JOHN PAUL II.



Discussion following paper by George Weigel

Robin Harris (Discussant): I should start off by saying that George Weigel, as you here will have heard tonight, is a most eloquent exponent of a particular view in the United States, and I should add that this view has done enormous good to the Catholic Church. What he and others, like Michael Novak, have done, is to show that capitalism and democracy, and American culture and society, are not at fundamental odds with the values and practices of Catholics. Both Mr. Weigel and Mr. Novak have written copiously on that subject and have done a great apostolate. Whether they thought of it that way I don’t know – I suspect they did. But they ought anyway to be thoroughly congratulated by their British cousins.

The second point is that, of course, as George has said, language is important. Language exists in order to communicate, but – as he has also said – the most important thing that language exists to do is to communicate truth. And a language which diminishes or falsifies or distorts truth cannot be the sort of language that we would wish to use. It is an extraordinary thing that this expression ‘all things to all men’ is now used in a pejorative manner, because, of course, the last part of what St. Paul said is now forgotten, namely that St. Paul was speaking in a particular language, in order to convey a truth which is the most important truth that anybody can ever hear. He wasn’t suggesting a sort of backtracking. But unfortunately we do live in a society where backtracking is the order of the day, and that is particularly so in Britain, more I think than in the United States. So I was particularly pleased when George mentioned the dangers of compromise, and I suspect those dangers are greater here than they are in America.

The United States is a much more profoundly Christian society than Britain. Britain is a deeply secular society. It has been one for many years. And it certainly is becoming more so. Just imagine, ‘Athanasius Against the World, Athanasius contra mundum’. In Britain today everybody would think he was off his head, they would put him in an institution. As a society, we just do not believe that truths are worth making any sacrifices for. And this I think is what we have to recognise.

We do not have in Britain, for example, – and for better and for worse, I can see both sides of the argument – a ‘Religious Right’. We do not have people who make their case either on the radio, or in politics, or elsewhere, using religious language to justify particular policies, even policies relating to matters of such profound importance as abortion. So I don’t feel that what George has spoken about is a problem that we have to live with in Britain to anything like the extent they do in the United States.

In Britain what we do have, and I think that this is worse, is the fact that the more traditional brands of Christianity are on the retreat. Unfortunately, you only have to look at the numbers going to Mass and you’ll see that that also applies to the Catholic Church. But at the same time we have one other religion which is definitely not on the retreat, and that is Islam. So I do not think that there is any danger that somehow coercion is going to be used in order to force people to be Christian. But I’m afraid I think that there are real dangers in our European societies that coercion will be used in order to force people to be Muslim, and what one does about that is a wider issue. But I think one thing that we do have to do is actually to state, unashamedly and without too many qualifications, what we as Christians believe.

I mentioned the secularism of British society. That is true of our political history over many years. We really have had no equivalent of Abraham Lincoln here. I suppose that Gladstone is about as close as you come to it. But Gladstone was a most unusual gentleman in political terms in Britain, really most unusual, and he certainly didn’t represent the dominant tradition throughout the 19th century. I would have said that Lord Salisbury was more representative, a man who had profound personal religious convictions but maintained outward scepticism on all matters. And I think that is by tradition the British way, but of course things have moved beyond that now.

We’ve reached that position which, as I recall, is propounded in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, which is that people simply do not agree about what the fundamental values of society are. There is just no moral consensus in British society. I thought that a useful statistic in order to illustrate that – and you may have seen it – is that 41% of births are out of wedlock. Now, if you have almost half of the babies being born outside marriage, it is an enormous problem to try to explain the benefits of marriage. The situation is declining or moving away from us at such a rate that intelligent discourse about such things is practically impossible. I’m afraid I think that’s true, even if it is conducted as persuasively as you do, George, using Natural Law. 

Well, it’s not for me – because I’m a mere critic – to offer any specific alternative approach tonight. But let me say this. I believe that one must reckon that there are periods in the history of societies where there is nothing much to be done except to hang on – hang on to what you’ve got, hang on to what you know is the truth – and wait for better days. When pagan invasions destroyed the Christianity which was based on the late Roman Empire, and when the Romanised societies saw their cities collapsing and the whole of the society falling to the pagans, they could not have known that within a few centuries there was actually going to be that fantastic Christian Renaissance of the Early and High Middle Ages. So I think we should hang on.

George Weigel: I think that’s very useful in sharpening the question for your particular circumstances here, which is after all what you are responsible for. I recognise that we are in a peculiar situation in the United States. I’m happy to have you make the case here even more bluntly on any problems, and on what is an effective moral grammar in a cultural environment in which no one can agree about anything as a reference point. This is very difficult indeed.

Adrian Thacker: Thank you very much both of you for your very cogent analyses of where we are today.

If we cannot agree on the basic norms which constitute society, then are we in a situation in which, as somebody rather famously once put it, ‘there is no such thing as society’, and in which we have instead the communitarian polity, if you like, of various groups which have their own discourse, their own grammar, their own logic, but which are unable to dialogue or to meet on common ground? I mean, you could, for example, talk of Islam where the idea of having an independent civil society is quite difficult, so it is quite difficult to dialogue with them when they make such an absolute claim to truth through their own internal logic. So it is quite difficult to find common ground.

As George was saying, how do we find the logic, even the Natural Law tradition, when people appeal to such very different logics? One example I would like to bring up is that the French, too, are aware of this problem. France is a state which has a much more theological way of doing things in a secular sense. France is a Messianic country in its own way, and it has its own sacred texts. It refers back to the French revolution and Voltaire and various secularist traditions, and France is making an appeal to that at the moment over the veil because it’s so frightened of creating this communitarian apocalypse if you like. Therefore, I don’t know whether it appeals to the Natural Law tradition, but it appeals to its own particular religious tradition.

Robin Harris: The statement, ‘there is no such thing as society’, actually meant that society always turns out to be ‘other people’, and there is ‘no such thing’ as society, because somebody specific has in the end to do the job required.

On France, I think you made, I must say, a very important point, because there is a distinctively French ‘way’. I would call it ‘cultural state-ism’. It is a sort of cultural imperialism. It involves quite a lot of authoritarianism, too. Whether it is an approach which could possibly be applied in our kind of society in Britain, I do not know. I think it is also incidentally an approach which may work for some of the time but also unfortunately leads to revolutions.

George Weigel: I used to spend a fair amount of time on campuses around the United States, not exclusively or even primarily religious colleges or Catholic universities. I often talk to colleagues in philosophy departments and religious studies departments who have remarkably similar experiences: they get kids out of American secondary education – both governmental and, alas, religious – who come to university quite convinced of the truth that there are no moral absolutes, and they are prepared to defend this point vigorously until they are asked, as one of my friends asks them in a basic philosophy class: is it ever right to park in a handicapped parking spot?; or, should you be allowed to light a cigar in the non-smoking section of a restaurant? And what these kids quickly discover is in fact they do believe in moral absolutes however poorly constructed. What they do not have is any way to defend the notion that they believe in moral absolutes. I think you may find that the example drawn from colleges is true more broadly in society than we might think. In fact most people do live by some standard, a fairly absolute, firm, standard of ethical conviction. What they have been bludgeoned into believing by the culture over the past several generations is that – and this is MacIntyre’s point – they don’t know how to defend the idea that there may be such things as moral absolutes. I think the closest you come to this in the United States today – in a broad based way, a way that one could tease some things out – is on the issue of race. There has been a genuine moral transformation in American society. I am 53 years old. I well remember when people used a vocabulary to refer to blacks that is simply inconceivable today. Now if you can begin to get people to reflect on that experience, you might be able to tease out certain foundational understandings about the dignity of persons and society, out of which other arguments can be constructed. 

On the French business I am not in favour of the veil ban. This seems to me a panic-driven response to demographic crisis: 10% of France is Muslim and that demographic is only going to increase. But why is 10% of France Muslim today? Because France has systematically depopulated itself over the past three generations. It has created a demographic vacuum which has been filled, as all demographic vacuums are, particularly in wealthy and resource-rich places, by people looking for a new place. And in an age of jet aeroplanes, when the Mediterranean is not a sea but basically a ditch, when you can get from Oran to Marseilles in 45 minutes, you know from where that demographic vacuum is going to be filled. Moreover, it seems to me, if France tells itself that this state, with this combination of state-ism and secularism which I believe to have contributed massively to the cultural erosion that produced the demographic catastrophe, can be fixed by an even larger injection of the same toxin, this really does not make a great deal of sense. I think there also very serious questions of religious freedom involved in this.

Russell Wilcox: You said of those of us who would like to propagate, or re-propagate, the Natural Law, that ours must be a path of persuasion and not one of violence. Of course violence can come in many different forms, but surely there are certain conditions required for us to be able to exercise our faculties of persuasion, or our faculties in the pursuit of persuasion. There are certain things which are so fundamentally at variance with the Natural Law, and therefore so much at variance with real autonomy, that they undermine the capacity to persuade others. So, at that point what you have is a secular society violently imposing itself upon those people who wish to meet it in a non-violent way, in the idiom of persuasion. That is certainly the case in this country on life issues and all sorts of other things. Are there certain types of struggle which may force people to go beyond normal, democratic, civil disobedience?

George Weigel: I remember the 1992 presidential election in the United States when the aforementioned Mike Novak was having a few people over to watch the returns. The party was on for 8 o’clock, and by 8:15pm it was clear that things were not going the way most of the people there had hoped they would go. I walked up to where Bob Bork was tending bar and I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do about this?’ He said, ‘Well, as a matter of fact Mariella and I are going to be in Rome next week. I think I am going to try to find a catacomb-building manual’.

It is an interesting question both in terms of non-violent resistance, and in terms of other forms of resistance. There has been a serious, and I think well-resolved, argument within pro-life circles in the US on the question of what does one do about perpetrators of infanticide. To put it most bluntly, is it a sin to shot an abortionist? I mean, can you attempt through some violently coercive means to prevent a grave moral evil?

The question is whether we are going to reach the point, and this will happen at different moments in different western societies, where we have a combination of Bob’s catacomb manual and some form of non-violent resistance in defiance of duly constituted law that is an offence against the moral law. I think this is an open question for the future. Certainly, to go back to my analogy on race, as the available moment of moral transformation and insertion of absolutes within positive public policy and legal affairs in the United States, I think there is no question that the moral witness of non-violent resistance, even in defiance of segregation laws, played an enormously important role, precisely in a Ghandian kind of way. I do not sense in the US any real drift in that direction right now.

Were the senator for Massachusetts to be elected President in November it would mean, among other things, the end in my lifetime of any real possibility of effective legal protection for the unborn, because changes to the constitution of the federal judiciary over a 4- or 8-year Kerry presidency would simply end that option as we know it today for the next 25 or 30 years. What kind of a mood that would put people in I don’t know. It is not clear how the marriage argument is going to affect public sentiment. I am absolutely certain that the crisis is coming in Canada. Canada’s combination of an extremely loosely-written constitution with an extremely aggressive judiciary and an extremely badly-written hate-crimes law recently adopted by the federal parliament, makes it, I think, virtually certain that at some time in the next decade an Orthodox Rabbi, a Catholic Priest or an Evangelical Minister who declines to perform a marriage between two men or two women is going to be in criminal jeopardy for engaging in hate-crime. I have heard entirely sober Canadians speaking quite interestingly about the emergence of two Catholic churches in Canada: an underground Church that will still be in communion with Rome, and a kind of model of the old Maoist Patriotic Catholic Association in China where the Catholic Left will go on with this business .

I really could not have imagined it 15 years ago, but I do not think it is hysterical to look far down the road and imagine that if certain current trajectories continue to unfold, that may provoke a withdrawal into intentional communities simply asking to be left alone. Now, whether they will leave us alone is another question. That is one strategy, a kind of dimming strategy effected by secularisation, in which people of faith are allowed to live their private lives but are dysfunctional publicly as in the Islamic world. The other is the option of non-violent resistance. I think all of these things are imaginable.

Oliver Bloor: It occurs to me that modern democracy grew out of Christianity and a Christian understanding of people’s sense of an individual’s worth and relationships with one another. As Christianity retreats, is a pluralist democracy still possible if we are struggling to find a common language, reflecting a lack of common understanding of what we are here for and how we should behave towards each other? Is it ultimately possible to maintain a democracy?

Robin Harris: I think this is a very good point. Perhaps there has to be quite a lot of unspoken consensus about the values which underpin society for people to be able to make a democracy work. That is something which you would have thought people on the Right might be talking about. In fact, the editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, a very thoughtful man on the Left, got into the most terrible trouble by suggesting that the huge inflow of migrants who did not actually have anything very much in common with the indigenous population was going to lead to working-class tax payers refusing to continue financing the Welfare State. The Welfare State, too, is based upon a degree of understanding that if somebody is old, or falls on bad times, then all of us who have not fallen on bad times have a responsibility to help out by some redistribution of money through the tax system.

So I think you make an extremely good point. But whether it is specifically a question of Christianity or whether it is a wider cultural point about a lack of general cohesion in society, I do not know. I think, however, that if you do not have that cohesion you probably will not have working democracy for very long.

George Weigel: In 1991 the Pope issued his most developed social encyclical “Centesimus Annus”, which I was discussing at Tyburn last night, and the most controversial phrase in that encyclical came, I think it’s in paragraph 42, where the Pope said ‘a democracy without values will quickly deteriorate into a thinly disguised totalitarianism’. All sorts of alarm bells went off in people’s minds: ‘What is this, some Francoist revival…?’. I think as I have come to know the Holy Father over the last 12 years, and in writing his biography, I have become more and more aware that the crucible in which the man Karol Wojtyla was formed was Weimar Germany. Therefore when he speaks like that in paragraph 42, I think he is speaking out of that experience. The spectre that is haunting Europe is not a spectre of communism anymore, rather it is the spectre of Weimar. Here was a beautifully constructed constitutional system designed by some of the finest minds in the 20th Century, Max Weber and others, resting on an entirely inadequate moral and cultural foundation. When the hard times came, specifically economically with the depression, the moral foundations crumbled and a decaying democratic system produced the Third Reich. I think that is what he had in mind, less French laicité than the Weimar cautionary tale. We must remember that that was at a time of fairly robust Evangelical and Catholic life in Germany, but there was somehow a singular incapacity to translate Christian moral convictions into a public idiom that could provide cultural foundations for the Weimar Republic.

Santiago Legarre: You made, I thought, a great case for the convenience of translating religious claims into the Natural Law grammar in various democracies. You were also quite optimistic as to the possible success of this sort of argument, but I wonder about that. You gave the example of homosexual marriage in the United States. Natural law theorists like John Finnis or Robbie George, whom you mentioned, tried to do that over there and they did not seem to achieve much success. They were scorned by academia. Their opponents would say that they were hiding religious arguments behind Natural Law arguments, that they were making metaphysical claims that are not the sort of empirical claims that work in a democracy. The question is, do not Natural Law arguments and grammar need, as a presupposition on the part of persons on the other side of the argument, a willingness to know the truth, and not to have fixed ideological agenda that will prevent them joining you in the position you advance in Natural Law terms?

George Weigel: First of all, lest my telling three jokes in the course of 40 minutes suggest optimism, I am not very optimistic , although I am not quite ready for a catacomb yet.  I am not optimistic in part because I do not think optimism and pessimism have much to do with Christianity. Optimism and pessimism are psychological states, they are ways of seeing things. You can change those as you can change the prescription on your glasses. Christians are called to be people of hope, and that hope is a secure hope because we know that the worst of human history has already happened, on Good Friday, and the answer to that was given on Easter Sunday, and that is the basis by which we live all of our lives, including our public lives.

It is an interesting question that you have raised. There was an old category, in traditional Catholic moral theology, of invincible ignorance: meaning that your brain was so distorted by some defect or other, that you could not be held morally responsible for your bad opinions or bad actions. You were, in a sense, tone-deaf to the music that the Church was proposing. The interesting question you raised is whether this combination of collapsing Christian conviction, State-ism and, at least in continental Europe, dramatically assertive secularism, has produced a kind of invincible ignorance, or at least something analogous to invincible ignorance, on the part of large numbers of people.

I do not sense that in the United States. There are some people who are invincibly ignorant. I hope at least that they are invincibly ignorant, because if they are not invincibly ignorant, they are irredeemable. But I think there is still a certain robust moral character in the United States, however confused the grammar and vocabularies are. The marriage debate will be an interesting test of this, as will the biotechnology debates. We are really on the edge of a very important, and, I think, as conducted by the President, intelligently laid out debate on what is the appropriate legal framework for regulating biotechnology – though of course 9/11 has pushed this way off the agenda.

On Robbie George and John Finnis and others… Robbie George, for those of you who do not know his work, was trained at Oxford by John Finnis and is the most important and visible Catholic legal thinker in the United States. He has built a remarkable little empire at Princeton University called the James Madison Institute, under the noses of a thorough secularism and utilitarianism in the Princeton administration, because he has raised an enormous amount of money, primarily from wealthy Catholics who want to support a Natural Law driven political theory. He just gets on with the project and draws enormous numbers of students for his over-subscribed courses.

I talked a bit last night and tonight about a generational shift I sense in the US where the children of 1968 are producing children who are rejecting the 1968 mentality of their parents, I think in part because they have seen the wreckages of so many lives in their parents’ generation. Quite sensibly they say ‘I do not want that; I am not quite sure what I do want, but I know I do not want that’.  I sense this all over the place.

Russell Wilcox: But institutions frustrate people who are so inclined. Certainly there are many young people interested in, or getting more and more interested in, the pro-life movement, but the structures of the movement in this country, with the exception of some newly-formed organisations, are terribly stultifying. There is lacking also an intellectual focus which can act as a lightning rod.

George Weigel: Let me take up your point and illustrate it with an anecdote, even though one should not draw too much from it. My older daughter who is 25, trained in philosophy but always wanted to be a doctor, and is now in her third year at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore which, from its faculty’s point of view, is the apex of medical education in the galaxy, I mean not the solar system, not the planet, not the hemisphere, but the whole galaxy! The level of scientific arrogance is quite astonishing. My daughter was there for nine months and then astonished the entire server list in the Johns Hopkins medical institutions, which is all the research staff as well as the medical school, the hospital, etc., by sending out a very cleverly crafted e-mail to some 5,000 people – I had nothing to do with this, I just got the e-mail just like everybody else. She said how impressed she was by all these brilliant people who were teaching her medicine, and how deeply struck she was by their commitment to being on the cutting edge of society, and of these great issues. Therefore she was happy to announce the formation of ‘Johns Hopkins Medical Students for Life’! Then she found about a dozen from among 120 kids in her class alone – mostly evangelicals, a couple of Catholics, one Muslim – who themselves see that there ought to be some forum for this discussion in the school, and were willing to step out of the closet. It has been a very lively thing for three years, and continues. It has drawn respect. It has obviously not drawn agreement, but it has strong respect. What is interesting is something she told me several months ago. She said this had been intriguing to put these arguments, the anti-abortion argument, adding of course the scientific issues, and to have people listen, maybe not to agree but at least to admit that this is not a ‘done deal’ in the way they had imagined.

Mark Lloyd Davies: I am concerned about the manner in which the importance of morality for society is conveyed through the media. In political discussion with Members of Parliament or other policy-makers one finds some understanding of the importance of Christian morality for the fabric of society. Many people up and down the country have a deep interest in this , particularly the younger generation which has rejected its parents’ ways. They are highly sceptical of institutions but not of ideas, so they are also interested in this concept.

But I do not think I have ever heard the mass media, the BBC for example, say anything positive about Catholicism, let alone Christianity in a broad sense. It is a powerfully damaging weapon on the moral front of society. It fuels a concern among politicians, chief whips, and so forth, that the message conveyed by the media may undermine any effort in Parliament to uphold morality in society. In Britain the Hutton Report has not really been accepted by the media, and it has not significantly hurt them. It is hard to be very optimistic in this situation. I should like to know what you think about that, and about how you think the future may look in this respect.

George Weigel: Irving Kristol did more to put conservative political-economic thought in play in the United States than anyone else, with the possible exception of Milton Friedman. Irving, who is now about 82 years old, used to say – and I think he was right – that the way you change the world is through small magazines and think-tanks – to which I would today add the Internet. The emergence of a robust, newly-configured, conservative in a broad sense, philosophical, theological-political phenomenon in the United States has taken place completely outside the big institutions. I am not at a University. There is a reason for that. Most of my close colleagues, with the exception of people like Mary Ann Glendon at Harvard Law School and Robbie George at Princeton, are the same. All of this intellectual energy has been generated primarily outside the academy, in small research institutes, which have freedom to explore in any way they think is right. You may not know where the next month’s pay cheque is coming from, but at least you have the freedom to do that.

Irving’s reference to small magazines shifting opinion is like the rudder on a great ocean liner. It is in fact a very small thing, and all you have got to do is to get that rudder to turn a degree or two, and suddenly this massive thing starts moving, albeit slowly, in a different direction. Welfare reform in the United States simply would not have taken place in the 1990s without the intellectual groundwork laid by the magazine that Irving and Marty Leipzig founded, the Public Interest, which is a quarterly and has never had a circulation higher than 10,000. The Wall Street Journal has two million readers a day. Public Interest has 8,000 subscribers. Anyone who traces the intellectual history of this massive turnaround from a New -Deal approach to the Welfare State will notice that this change from simply taking care of the poor in a way in which essentially they stay poor, to an empowerment strategy where the whole purpose of social welfare is to give people the opportunity to get the skills to enter circles of productivity and exchange, happened out of minute circulation magazines. Now in some sense this ought to be even more possible today because of the fantastic megaphone effect of the Internet. That is why one of the journals I am associated with, First Things, which is a journal of religion and public life, one of the most broadly-read intellectual journals in the country,  is put up in its entirety on our website the day the next issue is available to subscribers. The important thing is to get the material out there with the public.