Between Anarchy and Fanaticism: Religious Freedom’s Challenge

by Eugene B. Borowitz

Dr. Borowitz is professor of education and Jewish religious thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, and editor of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish responsibility.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 15-22, 1987, p. 619. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The resurgence of religious orthodoxies has brought to the fore the issue of the religious ground of democracy and its role in social policy. The critical tasks of our time: teaching us how, while loving freedom, to mandate high standards of behavior; and how, while maintaining God’s truth, to accommodate variety and dissent.

Today’s American religious community is beset with tension. On the left, religious liberals fear that the various spiritual orthodoxies Will lead to extremism. Every act of spiritual zealotry -- such as the bombing of abortion clinics -- awakens in them the specter of religious fanatics controlling America. They believe that the slightest hint of an infringement upon the separation of church and state must be resisted to save our country from an impending obscurantist theocracy.

That paranoid fantasy has an equally corrosive counterpart on the right. If Americans are not educated, industrious and sober; if our streets are violent and our sexuality pagan; if our family life is unstable and our personalities unsound -- in short, if America has lost its moral stature and thus its national self-respect, then, for religious conservatives, it is the fault of those who prate of freedom and sow anarchy -- not the least cause being liberal religionist loss of proper faith.

These ghostly figures -- religious fanatics on the one hand, and spiritual ethical nihilists, on the other -- haunt our discussions of religious freedom. I have no illusion that by raising them from the pit of our unconscious I shall thereby exorcise them. I only hope that by encouraging us to face our wild imaginings I may make it somewhat easier for us to distinguish the ghosts from reality.

My approach to this conflict begins with an assertion of religious self-respect, namely, that religion ought not look to secular disciplines to assign it its role in helping determine our social policy, and it ought vigorously to resist the frequent efforts to tell it to stand at the distant sidelines. Like many religionists of both the left and the right, I believe that religion must play a far more significant role in the life of our culture than it has recently if our democracy is to regain its strong moral tone.

But beyond this initial statement of unity, the two religious perspectives radically and disturbingly divide. To begin with the camp in which I may be found, religious liberals appreciate pluralism and tolerate divergent lifestyles because they know that theirs is a limited truth. Indeed, they see all religion deriving as much from human spiritual striving and creativity as from God’s instructive presence. They know enough of God’s truth to devote their lives to it, perhaps even to seek to share its benefits with others who could benefit from its truth. But since they regard that truth as refracted through human finitude, they cannot insist that their version of it must now become the one way for everyone -- and been forced by the government. Self and soul and conscience may lead others to different forms of God’s service. This openness to the diversity of religious insight this willingness to appreciate and even learn from others, is the glory of religious liberalism, keeping it forever fresh.

Traditional religion speaks in more certain terms. Its holy books are God’s own words, not merely inspired literature. In them God has given humankind specific, clear instructions for individual and social conduct. True, every religion has experienced discord, and its forms have changed over time. But pluralism and diversity must stay within the discipline of God’s word or be deemed heretical. True, There are limits on the demands that can be made of sinners, and every person’s conscience deserves some respect. But to cultivate a social neutrality toward God’s fundamental teachings adds to the sinfulness of our time. This certainty in knowing God’s one, true way generates the courage to stand against the majority and endure any suffering. It is the glory of traditional religion.

There is no theological way of reconciling these different understandings of the human and divine aspects of religion. No tactical procedures, like getting to know one another or conducting dialogue in good will -- for all the intrinsic worth and moral significance of that effort -- will overcome so fundamental a disagreement. Realistically, then, we must expect to continue living with considerable religious tension.

I do not consider this lack of religious serenity a major threat to our democratic future. It should, rather, give us greater insight into the moral daring our founders displayed by separating religion and government. They did not erect their symbolic "wall" between the two because they disparaged religion. They considered it self evident that a reality transcending nature validated democracy by mandating concern for the common welfare and respect for every individual. Because belief empowered and shaped political life, they granted all religions the right of free exercise, and knowing the human desire to dominate, they courageously insisted that government not infringe upon religious life. They even made it possible for some uncommon believers to be exceptions to the nation’s laws -- a breathtaking acknowledgment of the significance of religious belief. The price of such benign disinterest by the state was that the religious faiths must refrain from intruding creedal matters into political affairs.

Jefferson and his co-workers displayed creative genius by not seeking to resolve this problem. They gave us no rule by which to mediate the conflicts arising from the state’s positive need for religion and its legal distance from it. They surely had no model for the place of religion in their ideal republic, for they were convinced that the previous arrangements had been disastrous for the commonweal. They simply left it to the democratic process to resolve future conflicts between religion and government. I assume that they could accept so indeterminate a structure because they had confidence in democracy.

What the Constitution or the Bill of Rights could not specify, or could indicate only ambiguously, the ongoing give-and-take of an engaged citizenry would slowly clarify. Politically they were pragmatists, though morally they remained idealists. It is an unphilosophic combination of standards, but one which, I am convinced, can scarcely be improved on for those who would govern both democratically and humanely.

Our generation is less sanguine about the practice of democracy than were the Jeffersonians, and the high emotions of our politics of confrontation testify to our security. How, then, shall we idealists who are also determined to be realists find the courage to walk the open, uncertain way they marked out for us? Seeking to serve God, where can we find the compelling reason to treat with civility the arguments and the people we know to be profoundly wrong?

To begin with, though we have had to give up Jefferson’s moral confidence in a rationally enlightened humankind, we have good reason to share his other motive for separating government from religion, mainly, humankind’s tragic experience with melding the state’s unlimited power and religion’s absolute truth. Though we no longer see classic wars of religion, most Americans are repelled by the way religion exacerbates the conflicts between Irish Protestants and Catholics, Lebanese Christians and Muslims, Israeli right-wing Orthodox and Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and Indian Hindus and Sikhs and Pakistani Muslims. (The pseudo-religions of our time, communism and Nazism, have acted with equal if not greater inhumanity; but they, at least, made no claim of fealty to a God whose supreme concern is peace.) When religious leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini or Meir Kahane propose to run a country strictly by what they understand to be God’s revealed word, and hence to do so undemocratically, most American believers become deeply troubled.

Moreover, we can draw on an experience unavailable to the authors of our religious liberty, namely 200 years of American history. The bold experiment in separation has, on the whole, succeeded remarkably well. It has kept America free of religious wars, persecution and established intolerance. It has enabled us, with spasms of regression, to overcome prejudices entrenched for centuries and to be increasingly humane to those whose faiths seem to us odd or even offensive. It has fostered an ethos according to which most Americans see religion as a beneficent contributor to our nation’s social welfare. And it has largely benefited the life of the faiths themselves.

Forced to rely on persuasion and example rather than on government support, American religions exhibit a vitality and personal significance unmatched in most other societies. American religion, in my estimation, has weathered Western civilization’s turn to secularity comparatively well, and that, I think, is largely because it has needed to stand on its own.

I have had my own experience with the swing of the religious-secular pendulum. Growing up in the 1930s in Columbus, Ohio -- no home then of aggressive religious orthodoxy -- I regularly felt the coercion of the dominant Protestant mentality. I realized one day that the song we were expected to sing as we marched into assembly at Heyl Avenue Elementary School was "Onward, Christian Soldiers." In high school, the principal did not hesitate, when chiding me for my immaturity, to call me to fulfill the injunction of Scripture -- that is, of Paul -- to give up childish things and act like an adult. Were America a Christian country, as the administrators I encountered took for granted, then we non-Christian patriots might well have had to find a way to participate in a religion we did not share. But we were also being taught that all citizens, regardless of religion, had equal rights in this country. To all of us who did not share the dominant -- though unevangelical -- Protestantism, the secular side of public education and of all civic life was liberating.

After World War II, secularity seized the cultural sway from Protestantism, and to some extent carried its revolution so far that it destroyed its own moral foundations. We are now seeking through our democratic disputes to determine just where the line between civic secularity and religious practice should be drawn. In trying to do so, the evils of the present ought not erase from memory -- it certainly cannot erase from mine -- the evils of the prior stage. American secularity came to power because of religion’s failure to respect the simple human tights Americans have long felt everyone has. If secularity itself now requires reining in, this movement ought not to undermine human freedom. Indeed, with American religion and secularity becoming increasingly diverse, no single religious position can hope to speak for us all. Any practice so bland as to be unobjectionable will surely be too empty to rectify our lack of spirituality.

Religious liberals, who claim to find God in human experience, should view as significant the two centuries of this American experiment with religious openness. They should see democracy as revelatory of how religious institutions can be combined with quite different institutions to build a moral social life. For the classic faiths, however, history dare not usurp the authority of God’s given word. Yet human experience does have an important, though subsidiary, role in religious orthodoxies. On the simplest level, they have achieved much of their recent success by learning the current fashions for successful communication. Their content, too, has not been unaffected by sociocultural developments, as their present celebration of the joy of marital sexuality indicates. More important, they know that Americans will judge the value of their faith largely by its fruits in human relations. (When, to give a recent example, his superiors removed the Roman Catholic archbishop of Seattle from areas of leadership where his soul had led him to gentle yet prophetic dissent from them, many pious Americans were appalled.)

Thomas Jefferson may well have been America’s greatest political thinker and draftsman, but Abraham Lincoln, I suggest, remains our model believer. By the conservative standards of his day, he seemed almost an infidel, refusing to attend a church or even to avow Christian faith. But no one then doubted -- and no one now, in a far less religious age, doubts -- the utter depth of his devotion to humankind and the awesome responsibilities that can lay upon us. Something like Lincoln’s faith runs strongly through the American psyche. Its persistence goes far to explain why, though institutional affiliation remains low, public-opinion surveys consistently show Americans as overwhelmingly affirming religious belief. Most traditional religious groups in the country can, I think, find ways of learning from this elemental American commitment to humaneness.

Liberals have already valuably explored the spiritual virtues of human freedom and creativity. They now need to make plain why their demythologization of sin and commandment does not eventually lead to a destructive anarchy. In a time when freedom is regularly abused, what limits do they place on the exercise of the individual will? What do they consider an irresponsible, irreligious exercise of personal autonomy, and how do they propose to teach and exemplify their doctrine of religious constraint?

Conservatives have tellingly demonstrated the spiritual fruits of faithfulness to God’s expressed will. They now need to explain, why a doctrine of inerrancy is not likely to lead to the sinfulness and profanation of fanaticism. What value does their understanding of God’s revelation place upon democracy? What sort of freedom is appropriate in their midst and how able are they to grant full dignity to people who hold different beliefs?

Few theological tasks could be as critical for our time as these: teaching us how, while loving freedom, to mandate high standards of behavior; and how, while maintaining God’s truth, to accommodate variety and dissent. Freedom of religion is not a condition achieved once and for all by a statute composed in Virginia, or by-statements recorded in the Constitution. It is today what it has always been: an incomparable American adventure, a courageous effort to solve in life what cannot be reconciled in theory.