The Contested Sacred

The Place of Passion in Politics

Evils are horrendous only if they violate, profane, or destroy something sacred. To be sacred is to be worthy of reverence. It is appropriate to respond to sacred things by celebrating their existence and their excellence. It is also appropriate to express horror at the prospect of losing them, to mourn when they are lost, to commemorate them, to be angered by assaults on them, and to take offense when they are profaned. And it is appropriate to protect them from violation, destruction, and profanation—for example, by instituting prohibitions of certain kinds.

None of these responses can be wholly excluded from political life so long as there are those who attribute sacred value to something. The sacred can be a source of social solidarity for any group that largely agrees on such matters. But a society like the United States encompasses many visions of the sacred, many conceptions of what, if anything, has the kind of importance that warrants reverential responses.

The decision to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday is an example of the politics of commemoration. To commemorate King’s life is, in part, to celebrate the overcoming of legally enforced racial segregation as a great national achievement. Doing so celebrates the dignity of racial minorities formerly excluded from the rights of citizenship and symbolically incorporates them into the citizenry. But unless we stop celebrating national heroes and their accomplishments, we are bound to have disputes over which heroes, and thus which accomplishments, to celebrate.

The controversy over whether gay couples should be allowed to marry is a current example of the politics of celebration. To apply the concept of marriage to a couple implies that one holds the couple’s bond sacred. The dispute over gay marriage may appear to be merely verbal, but it is not. When it is resolved, as it eventually will be, society will have given its blessing, through public recognition of a status conferred in a ritual, to a kind of coupling that had long been abominated. This is not something that can be decided in abstraction from commitments concerning sacred value. It is about sacred value.

Still, our deepest divisions have less to do with celebration and commemoration than with which actions and practices are so horrendous as to warrant being outlawed. The recent culture wars revolve around the questions of whether sodomy, early abortions, and all instances of euthanasia are actually horrendous. Some people are sincerely horrified by sodomy, while others aren’t bothered by it at all. Some people find early abortion and consensual euthanasia horrendous, while others find them merely sad. The debates over torture and war are also about the linkage between the sacred and the horrendous. Which ways of treating prisoners of war and suspected terrorists shall we classify as horrendous, as violations of sacred value, and thus as worthy of being banned absolutely? Must we be pacifists, as the Mennonites say, or should we count some conceivable wars as required by justice? And if the latter, then which actions in war, if any, are to be ruled out absolutely? It is no accident that religious communities weigh in heavily in all these disputes. As long as many of our fellow citizens are concerned with the sacred and the horrendous, and interpret these aspects of life in theistic terms, our political disputes are bound to have something to do with theology.

Because the sacred and the horrendous are conceptually linked to what we deem highly important, our differences over these matters can threaten our ability to have a polity at all. If I consider something worthy of reverent protection, and you do not, our debate over whether lethal attacks on it must be outlawed might be hard to settle through compromise.

Centrist party politics prefers the language of preferences and interests to the language of concerns and passions. The contrast between interests and passions goes back to the early modern period, when some people, including some of this country’s founders, became suspicious of passions in general, and religious passions in particular, as sources of political faction. Interests are thought to be milder than passions and therefore less likely to cause social strife. Interests can also be used to tame passions if set against them in the right way. A paradigmatic instance of an interest, according to this way of thinking, is the desire for financial gain. A paradigmatic instance of a passion is religious enthusiasm. Yet setting our concepts up in this way made it difficult for societies with burgeoning capitalist economies to rein in the economic interests that now dominate our politics. There were good reasons for early modern Europeans to view commerce as civilizing. It gave people an incentive to have peaceable relations with trading partners. Increasing productivity appeared to enhance the wealth of nations. Urban blight, industrial pollution, robber barons, and hedge-fund managers were yet to arrive on the scene. There were also good reasons for early modern Europeans to view religious enthusiasm with suspicion, given the role it played in the wars that followed the Protestant Reformation. Interests, paradigmatically financial self-interest, appeared socially beneficial, whereas passions, paradigmatically religious passion, appeared socially corrosive. The twin results of this sort of thinking are, first, that the unruly passion of greed has gone unnamed for the most part, and, second, that the continuing relevance of sacred causes to our politics continues to take us by surprise or even leave us aghast.

It can be hard work to cultivate a broader sense of what interests are and how they can converge in the common good of the community as a whole. Grassroots democratic organizers—such as Ella Baker and Bob Moses during the heyday of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s, and Ernesto Cortés Jr. and Sr. Christine Stephens of the Industrial Areas Foundation today—have resisted the reduction of politics to the negotiation of preferences and the coordination of interest groups in the narrow sense of the term “interest.” The concerns that such organizers elicit in one-on-one conversations and small-group meetings include passions of considerable vehemence. That is why democracy, according to this strand of our political tradition, is often said to have a spirit. Grassroots democracy insists that a republic can be democratic only if its citizens infuse a democratic spirit into their shared political life. A democratic republic cannot do without expression of passions such as grief at catastrophic loss and anger at particular instances of domination, injustice, and indifference. Grassroots democratic activism is therefore fundamentally at odds with the view that interests rather than passions—and financial interests above all—are all that ought to be adjudicated in politics.

Citizens and legislators cast votes. Presidents and governors sign bills into law or veto them. Judges issue verdicts. All of these acts express preferences for one possible candidate, policy, judgment, or outcome over another. Like the practice of voting, the activity of buying commodities on the market tends to reduce the results of our practical reasoning to an expression of preferences. In the end, we purchase this but not that, and we are prepared to pay this much but no more. The money we are willing to spend to acquire a certain product, rent someone’s services, or produce a certain outcome assigns a quantifiable public value to it. There is much talk these days among grassroots democratic organizers about the dangers of commodification. To commodify something, in the primary sense, is to treat it as something to be bought and sold and then perhaps discarded when it no longer has much usefulness. In the extended sense, I commodify something if I treat its value to me (or to others) as quantifiable in terms of how much I (or others) would be willing to spend for it.

The anxiety about commodification has to do with a perceived tendency for the culture surrounding a capitalist market to be corrupted by the attitudes and forms of reasoning appropriate to monetary transactions. The worry is that the capitalist market is encroaching on practices in which our deepest concerns are expressed and cultivated. To attribute sacred value to something is to imply that its value can neither be measured exhaustively in quantitative terms, nor reduced to utility, nor subjected at someone’s whim to trade-offs of the sort that markets are designed to facilitate. So here we have another area in which attitudes toward the sacred impinge on politics.

There are many political controversies that have to do with where the limits of commodification should be set. Chattel slavery commodifies human beings by treating them as mere property to be bought and sold. Prostitution commodifies sexual activity by exchanging it directly for money. Pornography adds to this the element of spectatorship. Bribery commodifies political decision making. Treating the natural environment merely as a standing reserve of industrial resources commodifies such goods as a forest or a prairie. The distribution of orphans for a fee commodifies adoption. We need to decide whether these things take the mentality of cost-benefit calculation too far. Our sense of what the limits should be is intertwined with what strikes us as horrendous, profane, or unjust—the destruction of a redwood grove being an instance of the horrendous, the placement of a sexually provocative billboard next to an elementary school being an instance of the profane, and bribery being an instance of the unjust.

The churches involved in broad-based citizens’ organizations are committed to hammering out a relatively determinate conception of sacred value for their own members and to using their institutional power, in light of that conception, to fight against the commodification of human beings. Roman Catholic churches are internally conflicted over just what their applications of the concept of sacred value should be taken to imply politically. (The narrowing of Catholic social teaching in some parishes appears to treat the fetus as a symbol of the purity of a society under threat and the resident alien and the terrorist as symbols of unwelcome permeation of the societal boundary.) Similar divisions run through many American denominations. The sacred is contested not only across the boundaries of religious groups and lifestyle enclaves in the broader political culture, but also within most religious traditions. The contestation bears, as one would expect, on both the positive and negative faces of sacred concern: on what is deemed worthy of being celebrated or commemorated; on the symbolic register in which the rituals should be conducted; on what, if anything, should be absolutely prohibited; and on how, and by whom, the agreed-on prohibitions should be enforced.

We are bound to misrepresent the relation of religion to politics if we ignore either the presence of sacred concerns outside of organized religions or the contestation over sacred concerns within particular organized religions. People who claim that religion as such is bad for politics and should therefore be minimized have not had an easy time defining what they want to minimize, or explaining how the elimination of religion from politics is to be carried out by means that are both realistic and democratic.

If a polity counts as secularized only if the people participating in its deliberations are no longer concerned with sacred value, then our polity is not secularized. It is, however, secularized in the sense that the people participating in it cannot reasonably take for granted a single conception of sacred value, or even a broadly theistic conception of sacred value, when conversing or debating with one another. Debates do not proceed from a consensus on sacred value, but they do give expression to multiple, contested conceptions of it. These conceptions matter enormously, but none of them functions as a canopy under which we all take shelter. One citizen’s political behavior expresses a more or less well-defined conception of sacred value; another citizen’s behavior expresses a rejection of sacred value. In a religiously diverse democratic republic, these differences are going to matter, and they do not seem to be going away. Such is the cultural result of combining the two religion clauses in the First Amendment, the prohibition of an officially established religion and the freedom of religious expression.

Some people explicitly reject the sacred and argue that the country would be better off if all reference to sacred value were eliminated from public discussion. All absolute prohibitions are declared superstitious. Cost-benefit reasoning, according to one influential version of this view, is the only appropriate basis for public discussion. What the separation of church and state ultimately points toward, according to this view, is a day when all citizens will substitute calculation of utility for the conception of sacred value they now accept.

This sort of utilitarianism hopes to modify the unfortunate effects of a market-centered culture not by attributing a qualitatively distinct kind of value to human beings, ecosystems, great works of art, and so forth, but rather by insisting that citizens should adopt the disinterested perspective of someone concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number, rather than the perspective of one concerned only with per-sonal profit, when engaging in cost-benefit calculation. From the vantage of grassroots democracy, one might say that utilitarianism and egoism are the two forms that commodity fetishism takes in public philosophy. These two forms differ on what perspective one should adopt when calculating costs and benefits, but both focus strictly on maximizing the utility of consequences, rather than on other forms and bearers of value—focusing on utility for everybody, in the one case, and utility for the calculator, in the other. Both reflect the current prestige of economic practices that reduce practical reasoning to cost-benefit calculation, rather than providing a radical critique of them. Grassroots democrats, in contrast, speak as if there are kinds of value that are distinct from utility and as if there are bearers of intrinsic value (such as persons and some acts and things) that are distinct from consequences (resulting states of affairs).

The deepest cultural division present in modern democracies might well be between people who take cost-benefit calculation to be definitive of practical rationality and people who use the concepts of sacred value and human dignity to defend some aspects of culture from commodification. On one side of this line, there is a debate between utilitarian moralists and unabashed defenders of the profit motive over whether an impersonal or an egoistic perspective should be adopted when calculating the costs and benefits of one’s actions. On the other side of the same line, there are myriad disputes over how to restrict the scope of cost-benefit calculation and why—between, for example, people who are not horrified by very early abortions and people who are and so propose to ban them. On the other hand, some members of the former group find the prospect of drilling for oil in a national park horrendous, a violation of sacred value worthy of absolute prohibition, whereas their opponents, who find such drilling merely a sad necessity, argue that drilling is tolerable under conditions like ours. Both of these disputes are about where the limits of cost-benefit calculation should be placed. It is very important to see that the line between the champions of instrumental reason and its critics does not coincide with the line between the people who are committed to organized religion and the people who aren’t. The politics of sacred value is a complicated affair, as well as one fraught with much conflict.

Grassroots democracy is neither theocratic in spirit nor unwelcoming to religious communities committed to nondomination. What grassroots democracy proposes is an open-ended discussion among citizens who hold differing conceptions of the sacred, the excellent, the good, the mediocre, the bad, and the horrendous, as well as somewhat differing conceptions of the constraints that ought to be placed on our means and ends. Obviously, there are moments in which an exchange of this sort feels like a friendly conversation and others in which it feels like a civil war. The debate over slavery degenerated into actual warfare. Our deepest concerns can be politically explosive. But why suppose that we could ever succeed in filtering them out? If people care enough about something that has evident political relevance, they are going to express their concern publicly. What they care about most is bound to motivate them.

Grassroots democracy responds to the dangers of passionate excess in several ways. People of different kinds are drawn into settings—such as one another’s churches or synagogues—where they are expected to say what they care about and listen respectfully while others say what they care about. Because some of the settings are sacred spaces, and prayer is permitted, religious identifications are made evident, but the boundaries separating religious communities are also crossed. Small-group meetings transform initially inchoate concerns, expressed in the first-person language of desire and passion, into evaluative claims, expressed in the second-person language of reasons. The broader the coalition’s base, the clearer it becomes that no single religious outlook can be taken for granted as a framework for discussion.

Moreover, one of the primary tasks of a broad-based grassroots organization is developmental. Grassroots organizers such as Cortés and Stephens are trying not only to identify potential leaders, but also to cultivate them. The ethical transformation of citizens includes the transformation of grief and rage into tempered anger and courageous practical wisdom. Finally, leaders discuss the need for self-discipline. To earn the trust of the broader community, the group must place constraints on its own ends and means. If the members of a citizens’ organization can make clear that they seek neither to dominate the polity nor to mistreat their opponents, they can contribute to building up an atmosphere of trust and mutual recognition in the community as a whole. This gives others reason to conclude that it is not necessary, in this community, to choose between dominating and being dominated.

By choosing to act in a certain way, the members of a citizens’ organization can demonstrate their commitment to the common good. There is a way of sharing the benefits and burdens of common life from which everyone seeking not to be dominated would benefit. Citizens of good will are trying to find that way. By trying to find it, they are already bringing it into being. To be self-consistent, we must offer the same liberty to all citizens, and do so in a way they can recognize as well motivated. Tolerating others who are evidently committed to the common good is widely recognized as a central democratic virtue. Equally important, I would say, is the virtue of appropriate yielding, of visibly pulling back at those moments when others could reasonably take us to be imposing our concerns on them.

Both of these virtues appear to be missing in people who cannot resist making public their wish that the rest of us did not exist. Theocrats at the fringes of the religious Right resemble Islamic militants insofar as they look forward with too much relish to the arrival of a kingdom in which everyone but the true believers burns in hell. The content of this hope is every bit as clear as the prideful self-assurance. Theocrats think they know who will be among the elect. Similarly, in utopian fantasies of secularization, such as those articulated by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, religion miraculously disappears, or at least recedes into private life, as the light of reason dawns. In real life, the religious characters stubbornly refuse to exit the stage at the end of Act Three. Understood as a strategy, the attempt to eliminate religion from politics oscillates between merely wishing religion away and trying to crush it. The former version is ineffectual, the latter vicious. But even merely wishing religion away has an important short-term negative consequence, because it divides people who might otherwise collaborate in an attempt to tame large-scale corporate and governmental power. Why cooperate with people who wish that your deepest concerns are either going to die off or be excluded from the discussion?

The problem is not that the culture warriors in our midst have failed to exercise sufficient care in policing the reasons they express in the public forum. The problem is that their behavior reveals what they are hoping for, which is to dominate, if not eliminate, the rest of us, if given the chance. If our mirror neurons are functioning properly, we can tell at a glance who intends to dominate whom. As the saying goes, even a dog knows the difference between a trip and a kick. Canine society is a regime of domination, the only questions being who will grovel and who will stand tall. Democratic republics are supposed to inaugurate another, more humane, possibility for coordinating our common life.


This article is adapted from the book Blessed Are the Organized, which Princeton University Press will publish in December. Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Printed by permission.

Related: Robert Westbrook's review of Blessed Are the Organized
Liberty for All, by Jeffrey Stout
Humanitarian Intervention, by David Hollenbach
Model Atheist, by Cathleen Kaveny

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Jeffrey Stout is professor of religion at Princeton University. His most recent book is Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America  (Princeton University Press).

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