University of Chicago professor Jean Bethke Elshtain and Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel discuss the role of religion in public life. Does religion deserve a place in the public square? Is it fair to exclude what many people consider the basis of their ethical framework? Should we study our religious texts together?

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Note: There is only an audio recording for this event.  A full transcript of the Forum is available below:


Moderator: Please join me in giving a warm, Harvard welcome to Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Jean Bethke Elshtain: Well, thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here this evening, and joining my good friend Michael Sandel on this stage. I would like you to imagine, if you could, an echo from long ago. It’s from my childhood, and I can assure you that was long ago. The voices of children piping clear voices, singing the words to a beloved children’s hymn of the day. Some of you may recall it. I don’t know if you’d admit to recalling it, but you might recall it: Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Be they yellow, black, or white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. As sometimes, if it is very quiet, I can hear that song again, and I see once more the felt ___ that was our visual aid device featuring a felt – it’s a type of cloth. Some of you surely recall what that was. This is very much pre-technological. A felt Jesus figure standing before the children, holding forth his shepherd’s crook, and beckoning to them to join him. Where Jesus is represented, seated on a stump of what was once a mighty tree, children crowd around him as he rebukes his own disciples. Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for if such, is the kingdom of God. Now, let’s fast forward some decades. I was in college by then, and I had slowly but surely inched over to join the company of those who chided those who believed. I decided I was not gullible like those folks, and if they wanted to cling to wishful thinking, they could certainly do that. But, I was at university after all, where I had learned skepticism. And indeed, I had decided I had become a skeptic myself, joining most of my professors in that designation. But my residency as a skeptic didn’t work out so well. Perhaps skepticism wasn’t quite it. No, I said to myself, I am instead a deist. We were in the final weeks of my history honors course, and studying the Enlightenment. I’m a deist. I’m an Enlightenment type. So, that was that. I’d finally settled it. Well, not quiet, as it turned out. I learned that arguably, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, no one could accuse him of being deficient intellectually, had responded to a query from a critic. The questioner asked the great man: what is required? What does God expect from a Christian by the way of belief? And Karl Barth said: just take the first line from the hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.” Jesus loves me. This I know. For the bible tells me so. And God , presumably, will take it from there. Now, my reaction to this news was befuddlement. You mean all the tumult, all the sleepless nights, all the anguish over core beliefs and truth bars and so on, that it was really rather beside the point? Surely that cannot be. I thought of the wonderful line the playwright Robert Bolt puts into the mouth of St. Thomas More before More’s martyrdom. We are made to serve God wittily in the tangle of our minds. So, perhaps those who anguish over these issues are serving god in the same way as someone who says: Jesus loves me. This I know. Barth, a formidable scholar, however, seems to suggest that all the learned tomes stacked up are less in the overall scheme of things than the simple Jesus loves me. Well, I cannot rehearse the entire tale for you. That would border on self-indulgence. Suffice to say that much of what I thought I had rejected, had lived on and burst forth in manifold ways. Some not so friendly critics of my first book, Public Man, Private Woman, subtitled Women in Social and Political Thought, had hinted or flat out stated that they suspected the author just might be a Christian. I know. [Laughter] It is quite serious. To be sure, religious references, allusions, parables, historical developments, together with great religious thinkers as they’ve been categorized, are prominent throughout the book. And, I realized, that in the concluding chapter, I had used terms and phrases like “bury witness,” and “where two or three are gathered together.” Surely these understandings, though, are part of a shared patrimony, as children of the West, but people should not make unwarranted assumptions. And any good or wise political thinker should consider and incorporate modes of thought that help to shape the world of which he or she is a part. In the West, one of those formative movements and ways of being in the world is, of course, Christianity. We omit or forget this at our peril. In other words, we become more stupid. We lose contact with the sources and the forces that have, for better or worse, made us who we are as persons, and as a complex, diverse, culture.

Now, let’s turn, as you know, we don’t have a whole lot of time, let’s turn to contemporary debates, if you will, about the self and where religious belief enters into it. For philosophers like Charles Taylor, the self cannot exist – cannot function aside his or her immersion in an inescapable framework. It is within such a framework that we establish our orientation to the good , that our moral intuitions are engaged and formed to become solid habits, and that those moral instincts go on to become our mode of access to a world in which certain ontological claims serve as a background picture against which our understandings and intuitions are articulated. We can never escape such orientations. We can never step outside them, or shed them. Now, one great feature of the orienting framework for citizens of liberal societies is a political ethic of toleration. Selves oriented to this framework learn to live and let live, if not approve of commitments different from their own. Now, in its classical form, this liberal dictum, live and let live, provided enormous latitude for judgment and discernment. In other words, the regime of toleration did not require spending judgment as between contrasting beliefs, identities, and ways of being. Rather, it required restraint, not coercing those whose orientations one might find unintelligible, even distasteful, so long as those orientations pose no threat to public safety. The classic liberal regime of toleration speaks of dangers that are assumed to exist, should selves locate themselves within orientations, frameworks, that make it impossible to speak across frameworks. They can’t speak to one another. There are, of course, some very difficult passages that we would have to study and to parse if we were to strip this orientation or that down to its bare essentials. That’s certainly not a task we can undertake here. But we do have time to note that liberalism, over time, paid a pretty heavy price as the regime of toleration evolved. They gave up the public promotion and presence of their faith in the public square, as part of the deal, so to speak. So, we will have public or civic peace, so long as that which we care about and believe most deeply, does not enter into our civic conversations in a robust way. One doesn’t go marching into the public square brandishing the truth of one’s faith. Rather, religion is privatized and its meaning reduced to the private, spiritual wellbeing of religious practitioners. If you do bring your deepest core beliefs into the public square, you are inviting civic strife. This can only be a recipe for civic strife and other horrible outcomes, especially so if faith has first been privatized, and second, subjectivized. The upshot is that, should I, as a person of belief, raise those beliefs in a public forum, or bringing forward warrants for the policy I am endorsing, my actions can only be construed as a kind of hostile takeover. You are trying to turn me away, I think, from my deepest core beliefs. Somehow, this is hostile to democracy, by definition. Ergo, proselytization – trying to persuade others of your point of view – is suspect, perhaps even forbidden. No one should be forced to reexamine his or her core beliefs. Now, it is the coercive feature we object to – says the critic. The respondent could say: force has nothing to do with it. In turn, his interlocutor might opine that the entire exchange could be exquisitely polite, but coercive nonetheless. Again, we’ll not settle that matter here tonight. But perhaps you may take it with you, so to speak, and raise these questions with your friends and fellows. Perhaps the best thing I can offer you here is a splendid example of what it is I have in mind. Again, as a moment of persuasion, as an essential constitutive feature for proselytization – doing away with shedding coercion and manipulation. So, we require some way to distinguish between blunt coercion, sly manipulation, and authentic persuasion. Distinctions between and among these alternatives have been hopelessly blurred, given our vaunted view of our own privatization. I got a _______ inarticulacy when it comes to parsing the goods of civic life. In instances of intimidation, coercion, there is an implied threat of harm, unless you convert to my point of view. In the case of manipulation, I sneakily get you on my side. Neither of these approaches respects you as a moral agent who can freely weigh alternatives and make up your own mind about something. Persuasion, by contrast, begins with a presupposition that you are a moral agent – a being whose dignity no one is permitted to deny, or to strip from you. And from that stance of mutual respect, from that stance alone, one offers arguments or invites your participation, your sharing in a community, and its rhythms. You do not lose something by agreeing. Even among persons religious, however, proselytizing has come to have an unpleasant ring to it. The upshot of all this would seem to be that both toleration and proselytizing is a clumsy word, isn’t it? It doesn’t come sort of – you know, ringing off the tongue – sort of grates. But proselytizing are badly battered as concepts, and as practices. Is there any way to redeem one or the other, or both? I think there is. My example of an attempt, at least, along these lines, comes from Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Kazakhstan in September 2001. Something struck me in a report I read of that visit in which the Pontiff, speaking to thousands and thousands of young people, in his greeting to dear young people in the capital city Astana, said: “Allow me to profess before you with humility and pride the faith of Christians: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God made man two thousand years ago, came to reveal to us this truth through his person and his teaching. Only in the encounter with him, the Word made flesh, do we find the fullness of self-realization and happiness. Religion itself, without the experience of wondrous discovery of the Son of God and communion with him who became our brother, becomes a mere set of principles which are increasingly difficult to understand, and rules which are increasingly hard to accept.”

I found this moving. I wanted to explore why, in conclusion. Certainly, the combination of pride and humility is a part of it. One places before another in all humility one’s most profound beliefs – beliefs one holds with pride, not boastful self-pride of the kind of St. Augustus or rightly condemned, but pride with a kind of dignity, or as part of a kind of dignity, knowing that these beliefs may well be repudiated, or scorned, or ignored. Also powerful is John Paul’s recognition that turning god into a metaphysical first principle is not only increasingly difficult to understand, but increasingly hard to accept. John Paul’s words on this pastoral visit constituted an eloquent defense of toleration, another of his homilies in Kazakhstan. “When in a society,” these are his words, “citizens accept one another and notice that what is being accepted is one another as a citizen, in one’s civic status, and in their respective religious beliefs, it is easier to foster among them the effective recognition of other human rights and an understanding of the values on which a peaceful and productive coexistence is based. In fact, they feel a common bond in the awareness that they are brothers and sisters, because they are children of the one God.” He reminds his listeners that in Kazakhstan today, there are, and I’m quoting, “citizens belonging to over a hundred nationalities and ethnic groups.” And they live, they have no choice but to live side by side. Coexistence is a necessity, by quote, “bridges of solidarity and cooperation with other people, nations and cultures,” is an imminent possibility that should be realized, even as the gospel in all its fullness is preached, and all humility and pride. Well, there’s much more to say, but my time is up, and I realize peering into the fog of the past, that that was precisely what those lessons in Sunday school with the felt Jesus – what those were all about. We must be sisters and brothers. We must learn to live with one another. We must be wise. We must be brave. But we know that holding together, humility and pride is no easy thing. But, as my grandmother always preached, “If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Go grandma.


Moderator: Please welcome Professor Michael Sandel.


Michael Sandel: Thank you. Well, thank you, and what a pleasure it is to be reunited with my friend Jean Elshtain. I was reminded just listening to that talk of what a great pleasure and privilege it is. And I’m afraid, Chris, we’re not gonna have a debate on our hands. That’s the only problem. But, I would like to take up the question: what should be the role of moral and religious argument in public life? There is a certain answer to that question that says: we disagree. We in _____ societies disagree about moral and religious questions. So, we should try insofar as possible to keep them out of public discourse. We should try to engage in a form of public reason that brackets or sets aside, or leaves at the door of the public square, our moral and religious convictions. I think that view’s a mistake. But it is a powerful view, and an influential one, and it’s worth recognizing the source of its appeal. One source of the appeal is, as Professor Elshtain just mentioned: we worry about conflict and disagreement, and coercion, and wars of religion. This worry runs very deep. Understandably so. And, there’s the fear of coercion, that if moral and religious arguments are brought to bear in public discourse in a democracy, and if people argue on that basis and vote on that basis, then the effect will be to have laws that impose on some the moral or religious views of others. Views with which they may disagree. So, there’s a worry about disagreement and a worry about coercion. And yet, I think that view of toleration or of public reason, leaving our moral and religious convictions outside the public square is a mistake for two reasons. First, many of the questions that we have to decide together, public questions, political questions, policies, laws, unavoidably presuppose some answer or other to questions that are informed by people’s substantive moral and religious convictions. We can’t decide what the law should be about abortion or about stem cell research, or about same-sex marriage without engaging directly with contested conceptions of the good life, and of virtue, and the meaning of life. These are big questions. They’re moral, they’re spiritual, they’re religious, theological questions. And many decisions we need to make to govern ourselves together presuppose some answer or other to those questions. That’s one reason. It’s not always possible to bracket or set aside these views. But I think there’s a further reason. Even in those aspects of our public life where we could bracket – we could set aside our moral and spiritual convictions, doing so would cut ourselves off and cut our civic life off from a range of considerations that ought to matter in the way we govern our lives together. Now, there’s often a confusion. People say – people like Jean and me make this argument. People say, well, don’t you believe in the separation of church and state? But that’s the wrong question. That’s a question based on a confusion that there’s a difference between the separation of church and state on the one hand, and the separation of religion and politics on the other. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for the separation of church and state is precisely to allow free scope for pluralist argument and engagement from all traditions, secular and faith traditions in politics. Now, what about toleration? If we bring to bear, if welcome all voices – secular voices, voices informed by various faith traditions in the public square, won’t that be a clamorous, contentious kind of public discourse? Yes. Yes, but ideally, it will be a morally more robust one that the one we’ve become accustomed to, and it might actually elevate the terms of public discourse. After all, we’re not doing all that well these days. If you look at the terms of political discourse, what passes for political argument often consists of shouting matches on talk radio and cable television, ideological food fights on the floor of Congress. Some people say: that’s because too many people believe too deeply in their moral convictions and they’re bringing them to bringing them to bear, and it’s creating this cacophony. I think something closer to the opposite is the case. I think the reason our public discourse is so impoverished is that it is largely empty of big questions of meaning – big questions that people care about. And so, I think what we need is not less moral argument in politics, but more. And, what does this mean for toleration? It means then, rather than aspire to a toleration of avoidance, we should aspire to a pluralism of engagement about hard, moral, and spiritual, and religious questions. But it’s – many people are made uneasy about this – about the cacophony, of a morally more robust kind of public discourse. I saw a small signal of this. My wife and I were traveling recently in India, and we were staying in a hotel, an upscale hotel in the north of India. The hotel was spread out, and adjacent to the grounds were local communities. And often, at night, you could hear the voices of people praying and chanting. And in the morning, you could hear calls to prayer. And, we found this enchanting. But apparently, not all of the guests did, because we discovered when we went – when we came back in the evening, and the turndown service had come. You know they sometimes leave a mint on your pillow? Here, they also left another amenity. It was a small wooden box. We wondered what was in it. On the box, there was a little pendant that described the amenity contained in the box. And I brought it along. It said: “Dear Guest, as you may hear the sounds of evening celebrations or early morning prayers from the local community, we provide you here earplugs with our compliments.” And then it said: “Wishing you a restful sleep.” Well, we didn’t avail ourselves to that rather strange amenity, but in a way, this is symbolic of a certain widely held view about the place of – well, of the sounds, and the voices of moral and spiritual argument in public life. Now, I think one of the ways that we can make progress in challenging the toleration of avoidance that I’ve described is to notice that what counts as religious argument in politics is not so clearly distinguishable from other kinds of moral argument. In fact, I think it’s worth noticing an emphasizing that there’s a rather blurry distinction among moral, spiritual, and religious voices and arguments and contributions to public discourse. Let me give you one example. Most of the time, when we debate questions of public policy and law, we debate them from the standpoint of two considerations: utility on the one hand – will it promote the general welfare? Will it produce more happiness on balance? And fairness. And, part of the appeal of utility and fairness is that each, in its way, seems not to get us entangled in questions about virtue or the right attitudes and dispositions to encourage in our fellow citizens, to try to cultivate and promote. And yet, reasoning about public things, only from the standpoint of utility and fairness misses a lot that matters. And what it misses are considerations precisely having to do with the proper way to value goods, and to cultivate our character. The proper attitudes and dispositions to take toward the questions we have to consider. When we debate the environment, and whether we should try to prevent global warming and pollution, we often say, well, we need to do that why? Because it creates a drag on the economy and various health risks. That’s utility. Or, it’s unfair to future generations. That’s justice. But, what about the attitudes and dispositions – the habits of mind that incline us, increasingly, to treat nature as entirely resource at our disposal that we can treat however wantonly, provided we don’t diminish the overall utility, and don’t do unfairness. Or, take the debate about genetic engineering to choose the sex of our children – to choose a boy or a girl. Or, to enhance their strength or choose their eye color. Or make them smarter, conceivably, one day. Now, you might say: we don’t want to have sex election because it’ll throw off the sex ration and the demography, and that’ll create instability. That’s a utilitarian argument. And it’s a serious one. Others say it’s objectionable because it’s unfair to the child who isn’t really free, then, to choose for himself or herself how to live. That’s not such a great argument because otherwise, children don’t choose whether to be boys or girls in the first place. But really, what’s objectionable is the third consideration, I think, having to do with an attitude of mastery and dominion are kind of hubris that casts the parent as the maker of the child, and casts the child as the object of the parent’s will, as a kind of product or achievement, which is a misplaced way of conceiving our drive to mastery and dominion, which drive is familiar and useful in many parts of life. So, it’s a bad attitude. It’s the wrong way. It disfigures the relation of parents to children, and that’s a kind of loss that can’t quite be captured by the language of utility and fairness. Consider a final example: success. And especially unequal success and a growing gap between rich and poor. We’re familiar with arguments that too much inequality lowers utility by creating crime, and unhappiness, and dissatisfaction, and insecurity. And we’re familiar with the arguments that say too great a gap between rich and poor is unfair – unfair to those at the bottom. But maybe there’s a further, deeper reason to worry about the growing inequality of our society that has to do with a certain attitude toward our own success – those of us who may land on top. And, the attitude, like the attitude of the overbearing parent who’s using biotechnology to choose the genetic traits of the child – the attitude, I think, has to do with a certain kind of hubris. Only in this case, it’s the hubris of assuming that we are the soul possessors and proprietors of the talents and gifts that our society happens to heap rewards upon, and therefore we, as the owners of these talents and gifts, have a privileged right to the fruits of their exercise. And that leads to a kind of attitude and disposition towards one’s own success – never mind those on the bottom – toward the rest of us, that is corrosive – a kind of overreaching. An inhaling too deeply. It’s the idea that merit, success, money and wealth, is the crown of virtue. That I earned it, and therefore it’s mine, rather than being alive to the sense in which – I’m the bearer of gifts that are not my own doing, and much of my good fortune may be thanks to that. And that gives rise to a notion of solidarity or can support a notion of solidarity that’s harder and harder to come by if we cultivate, as I’m afraid our society has in recent decades cultivated a sense, that we are responsible for what we do and what we get, and what we accumulate. So, these are three very different kinds of public questions that would benefit, I think, from a livelier sense of the contingency or the giftedness of the circumstance in which we find ourselves, which is just one example of habits and attitudes and virtues that often find articulation and expression in various faith traditions, but that can’t quite be translated into the language of utility and fairness. And why do we insist on translating them? Well, because we think that utility and fairness alone enable us to ask people to leave their moral and religious convictions at the door. Their views about virtue, their views about character, their views about the proper way to value goods. I don’t think going back to the cacophony, we would – I don’t think we should have a morally more robust kind of public discourse because we will agree: we don’t know on what we will agree until we try. But, I do think it would make for a better kind of public discourse, and I do think it would also make for a richer, democratic, citizenship. Thank you.


Moderator: All right, well, it’s really intimidating to be the next voice that you’ll all hear. What we’re gonna do from here is I’ll ask a couple of questions. I’ll ask the professors to each ask each other a question, then we’ll turn to you. So, do be thinking of – I know in your programs you have space for notes, so please feel free to use that. So, my first question is for Professor Elshtain. I’m hearing you give a lot of space to religion in the public square, saying that the liberal idea of live and let live should not lead to subjectivization. We need to distinguish between coercion and manipulation on the one hand, and persuasion on the other. And because of that, we should be open to people sharing their deepest commitments, and being open to changing our minds. And you also said what I thought was a key phrase: so long as we pose no threat to public safety. So, one question that I wondered is whether that’s enough. I know some people who might worry that public safety is a kind of cap, gets too much space for certain kinds of theocracy. So I’m wondering how you might fill in the middle, so to speak, and give some guidelines for the kind of civil discourse, and prevent against the disagreement and coercion that Professor Sandel mentioned.


Jean Elshtain: Well, the phrase that I used about threats to public safety was a part of the description of the position I was opposing, not the position I was affirming. It was the part of the regime of toleration that said, you know, we can engage one another only up to the point where our core beliefs threaten to come into play. At that point, we have to quash things precisely because there may be a threat to public safety. So, the threat that – I absolutely agree with your conclusion that saying, uh-oh, this will lead to chaos in the streets, that that’s an argument that people rush to when they think they’re something really deep is going to be engaged in a public forum. So, I think there sort of a slight sort of misstatement of my position – not a big one, but a slight one. So –


Moderator: So, let me ask – I think – so someone who is worried that to be persuaded is a serious threat, I hear you saying that that should not be seen as a threat.


Jean Elshtain: Well, it does mean – let me tie in some things from Michael’s talk. If your view of the self is that you are the center of the universe, that you are a master of – that you have a kind of dominion, even if it’s the little state of the self, then any engagement with another person may pose a threat to your territory. So, that view of the self will always perceive some kind of threat, and will not, therefore, be open to persuasion because being open to persuasion makes you vulnerable. It means that you don’t have – you’re not surrounded by a wall, that the borders are rather more porous than that, and you accept the possibility that something might happen that would change you. If you expect that you might change someone else’s point of view, it works the other way as well. So, I think that’s just part of the deal. If you’re going to go beyond the positions that I criticized, and that Michael criticized.


Moderator: Okay, and then just as a follow-up. So, so say for example, in the Christian tradition, you have a sort of Theodosian – the fourth century where Christianity is put as the – Nicene Christianity as the official religion of the roman empire, is there a moment where some liberal ideal, such as live and let live, puts a check on religion’s ability to move forward into the public square and shape it according to their own –


Jean Elshtain: Well, I have a hard time putting Theodosian settlement and 19th century liberalism in a –


Moderator: Fair enough.


Jean Elshtain: Facing one another. I just don’t know how to do that. But, if your question at base has to do with what tendencies – what are some of the worst – tell me if I’m getting it – if someone of the worst tendencies of what human beings are capable of come out in religion as they do in other spheres of human activity, but as religion is not exempt from folly, and not exempt from sin and so forth. So, are there other forces – you suggested the liberal ideal of toleration might be one such. Other forces that could check certain tendencies to excess on the part of religion, or some other movement presumably, or powerful view. If that was ever the case, I don’t think it’s the case now. It seems to me that, in fact, a certain kind of desiccated liberal toleration was unable to come to grips with some of the greatest forces moving in our world today, which are religious forces, for better or for worse, because religion just wasn’t supposed to be doing these things. It was supposed to be on the way out when Michael and I were – he’s of course a young whippersnapper by compared to me, but I think we read some of the same books. And, you know, we were told that modernization meant, inevitably, that religion was going to weaken and finally disappear altogether. Well, that doesn’t seem to have happened. So, I think that threw all sorts of social scientists into disarray because the kinds of things they had rather confidently predicted were not coming to fruition. And some of the things they said would never happen were happening. So, at least now, I think religion is recognized as this great force that has to be studied. And as a force, because we see it every day, for ill or for good. Could I ask Michael a question, or are you going to –


Moderator: Can I ask him one first? No, you go –


Jean Elshtain: We can arm wrestle.


Moderator: You go ahead.


Jean Elshtain: All right. Well, it’s – if all is right on what I just said to you, so I won’t lead us astray. Michael, I was wondering where religion fit in with – you know the alternatives you were describing at the conclusion of your talk? Does religion play any role in the background – the deep background of any of those positions?


Michael Sandel: By the background of the positions, you mean the emphasis on attitudes having virtuous dispositions?


Jean Elshtain: Exactly, yes.


Michael Sandel: So, a register that’s often missing or crowded out of discourse.


Jean Elshtain: Right, right.


Michael Sandel: Yes. Do you mean it’s a general matter? Yes. I think this is the space where this is the part of our public discourse that’s withered now, but that traditionally has been informed and inspired – I think – by various spiritual traditions, faith traditions. Would you agree with –


Jean Elshtain: Yes, I would.


Michael Sandel: And I think part of the reason that we shrink from bringing questions about how properly to value goods or what virtue should we try to cultivate – the one reason we shrink from that, I think is connected to this discussion about toleration or what maybe we should call thin toleration, just to describe the view that you were criticizing. The thin toleration view, or the toleration of avoidance or bracketing is very wary of bringing talk of virtue or character formation, or attitudes, or dispositions into public discourse because it seems to traffic in those spiritual and often faith-derived considerations. Because what they have in common, those considerations, is that they touch on the meaning of the good – on the nature of the good life. And, bringing considerations of the good life to bear in public discourse is what this – we can call it thin toleration – wants to avoid.


Jean Elshtain: Precisely wants to avoid. Yeah. Okay. Thank you.


Moderator: So, Professor Sandel, can I ask: I’m wondering, if you look for a kind of alignment, if you like, between what you called this register and utility and fairness. And what I have in mind is the sort of thought process that John Rawls went through, where he thought about the civil rights movement and how infused the language was with religious language, and ultimately ended up allowing for that religious language because it – he thought it ultimately aligned with another kind of moral reasoning. So, I’m wondering if you look for an alignment or if you think that a religious way of thinking, if you like, can stand as a free-standing counterbalance to some of these other –


Michael Sandel: Well, I think it can be a free-standing contribution. I don’t know whether it’s a counterbalance, but a free-standing independent contribution, I would say – I would not insist that people whose moral and civic convictions are informed by faith traditions. I would not insist that they translate those arguments into a form of reason that washes away their source. Because often what’s most interesting about the contribution is inseparable from the source, even if not everyone in the society shares that faith tradition. Learning about the source, and hearing the line of reasoning that flows from the source is part of what makes it, or can make a distinctive contribution. When evangelical Protestants led the abolitionist movement in the 1830s and 1840s. They argued that slavery was a sin. Now, there are other arguments to be made against slavery, other moral arguments that are entirely legitimate and important, and weighty, but I wouldn’t insist that evangelical abolitionists translate their conviction about slavery as sin into slavery as some other kind of injustice detached from sin, because that misses an important part of the contribution. Likewise, if you washed away all of the Christian strands of Martin Luther King’s argument against segregation, it wouldn’t be Martin Luther King. I would be something else. It would be something else, and it would be a lesser thing. And, so, that’s why I think it’s a mistake to try to insist on a translation – now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make ourselves understandable to one another, and try to persuade one another, and reason together. But, the reason I don’t think that means we have to neglect, or cut off, or bracket the source is I don’t think these sources of faith traditions are hermetically sealed, and so inaccessible to people outside them. I think that’s a great mistake. And so, that’s why I would not insist on translating it to some other more neutral moral vocabulary.


Moderator: Thank you. Would you like to ask Professor Elshtain a question?


Jean Elshtain: Oh, that’s right. I jumped the gun of asking him.


Moderator: I have another one if you’d like.


Jean Elshtain: All right.


Michael Sandel: Well, one question that occurred to me, Jean, was about the language of toleration. Now, in some ways, toleration means putting up with something that you’re not too happy about –


Jean Elshtain: You’re not happy about it.


Michael Sandel: Yeah.


Jean Elshtain: What the heck, yeah.


Michael Sandel: And, does that suggest that toleration may not be the best way of arriving at a pluralist vision of social and moral and civic life? Should we – is all toleration what we were calling a moment ago “thin toleration,” or is there a more robust kind, or maybe a non-judgmental – sorry, a judgmental toleration that allows for the possibility that yes, I accept what you have to say. Doesn’t mean I agree with it. I may think it’s completely bonkers, but I’m curious to learn more about it. Maybe I hadn’t seen it. So, what about tolerate? It’s a mixed bag, isn’t it?


Jean Elshtain: Yes, it is, and I do think there is another form of toleration which I couldn’t develop, that I called deep toleration. And I won’t even start spelling it out right now, but it’s rather like Michael Walzer’s thick and thin moralities, when he talks about the international or the universal sphere. Because it’s a thicker notion of toleration. It demands more from us than just saying, well, you know, I guess I have to tolerate them. They’re here, and all. But, it demands more from us, but it also calls upon us in ways that thin toleration never does. It calls upon us, for example, to recognize – to really recognize many of those who we would assume not even look at. I’m thinking of an occasion in my Gifford Lectures with this little story told me by a Jesuit priest who was – had been working in Guatemala. But this story is about a fellow named Jean Vanier who started some – a home for people with profound mental disabilities, and he realized – Vanier did – and part of the impetus to create these homes was the fact that one day, he noticed the same man sort of wandering up and down – up and down a street, a little village in France, and he tried to become acquainted with him, and slowly it happened, and he realized one day with a start, that this fellow had no keys. His pockets were always empty. No change, no identity card, no key to – didn’t have a car, didn’t have a home. So, he said that image of empty pockets just haunted him, and how easy it is for us to ignore those with empty pockets. And deep toleration would not permit that. You’d have to pay some attention, and pay some mind. And thin toleration, we can just let them wander about with their empty pockets.


Michael Sandel: This discussion of toleration reminds me of a passage that puzzled me at the end of a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, who in many ways, was a great political theorist and essayist. At the end of one of his famous essays, he says: “A wise man once wrote: to realize the relative validity – the relative validity of one’s convictions, and yet to stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” Now, I was very puzzled by that. I thought that was puzzling because, and the wise man was quoting Joseph Jean-Pierre who says this. And in a way, now, this was in the 19 – Berlin was writing this probably in the 1950s – and that was at the high tide of thin toleration in a way, which – but what puzzled me about that idea was that if everybody really did believe that his or her convictions were merely relative, why stand for them unflinchingly?


Jean Elshtain: Yeah. Indeed. I’d ask the same question. Why stand for them unflinchingly? Yeah.


Michael Sandel: And in many ways, liberalism transformed itself from an idea based – a toleration based on relativism, to a much more philosophically sophisticated and compelling version – Chris – the kind you asked about in John Rawls – a generation later, which was not based on the idea of moral relativism because Rawls was not a relativist, and certainly not about justice. And, he maintained that his view didn’t even depend on relativism about the good. He just wanted to separate considerations of justice from considerations of the good. So, in many ways, the liberalism that we wrestled with today on this question of toleration is subtler and more sophisticated than the kind of 1950s version, which was based on a kind of implausible – kind of relativism. And yet, it still raises the kinds of questions of translation that you rightly raised, and whether we should insist on that translation – translation into terms that everyone can, in principle –


Jean Elshtain: And a begrudging kind of acceptance of Luther King into public speech, you know.


Michael Sandel: Right. If you could translate that argument in a way that would be consistent, and therefore it’s in line with public –


Jean Elshtain: It’s very strange. People can talk about King and forget that he was a Baptist preacher, for heaven’s sakes. It will sort of clean him up and make him look like your average – what liberal politicians – I don’t know, but it certainly isn’t Martin Luther King.


Moderator: Let’s get some questions from the audience. We have ushers going around with mics, and I’ll look, and you’ll wave, and I’ll point.


Question: May I ask a question?


Moderator: We’ve got a question? Where is that?


Jean Elshtain: I don’t see.


Question: I think we have to make a very strong distinction between a society like our own, which has many, many minorities, and societies that have absolute majorities dealing with minorities. Here, the cacophony is a plus because we have so many different voices. Let’s say in a society where the – it is a theocratic authoritarian society, and there’s a small minority, and it might be tolerated to a certain degree. That toleration can be taken away. Certainly, someone who grew up in the Jewish tradition, we know that toleration is not enough. There has to be a level of enfranchisement, and the capacity to participate in civil society, which is guaranteed by something else than tolerance. That’s one thing. Second, I want to say, is – I’ve been involved in interfaith dialog for about 30 years – Jewish-Buddhist, Jewish-Muslim, Jewish-Catholic, and that’s the word I want to use. Dialog is different than disputation. What I think has come up in discussion is a sense that there’s gonna be a disputation. Disputation is someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. Effective dialog, I have found, as you go to the partner, to the interlocutor, and you present the best stuff about your own tradition that you have, and you put it on the table, and your interlocutor does the same thing – this is the best values we have that we want to contribute to our society. And if you’re doing it well, you come back loving your own tradition more, rather than having to feel you’re being persuaded by another tradition. So, I think this is a really – a very important idea, that dialog doesn’t necessarily mean anybody comes out a winner or a loser, but dialog needs the capacity to say: this is what I hold dear, and I believe that what I hold dear can make a contribution not only to myself, because ultimately, the goal of all of our traditions, I hope, is to create compassionate human beings. And if it’s not creating compassionate human beings, there’s a lot of room for self-examination of what’s wrong with that tradition.


Moderator: So, do you want to comment –


Michael Sandel: I agree with most of that, but not all of it. Certainly, I agree with the part about not aiming at identifying winners and losers, and the idea of dialog, of course, is very important. Just a few weeks ago, the figure in modern Jewish life who I think was perhaps the most significant figure in – well, bringing Judaism into contact with modern philosophy, and also with other traditions, David Hartman, who ran an institute – a center in Jerusalem – he died just a few weeks ago, and I learned a tremendous amount of attending over the years – conferences that he held. He – the first – on the question of disputation, I think one of the most effective vehicles for dialog among different fate traditions is not only to put forward the best version of one’s own tradition and inhibit what the other side has to say, or the other side, but to actually sit and study the texts of the respective traditions together, which can be a disputatious activity, even within a given tradition. Of course, the Talmudic tradition is nothing if not disputatious. And, he would gather people from different faith traditions – some would be conferences for people studying the Jewish tradition. Others, bringing different traditions together – Jewish, Christian, and Islamic, he emphasized. Studying one another’s texts and arguing about them, not as representatives of those traditions – trying to put the best face on one’s own tradition, but engaging together in the hard task of trying to interpret and argue through: what does this passage of Talmud mean? Or of the Quran? Or of a Christian text? What does it mean? And there would be plenty of dispute, though the disputes would not necessary break down on sectarian lines, and so I think disputation and mutual learning can be a very valuable vehicle, and the representational approach to dialog can lead to a kind of hardening of positions, representing the best face – one thing that I learned from David Hartman is: whether he was talking to other Jews, or to members of other faiths, he would always be very explicit about the dark side – of what he took to be the dark side of his own tradition, and where it was to be found in the text, and how he had to wrestle with it. So, it wasn’t – and so he was able to go deeper and further as a religious thinker but also as an interlocutor. By not only presenting what he took to be the strengths of his tradition, but also by being very explicit – almost sharing – as his burden with others – what he took to be the dark and difficult parts of the tradition.


Jean Elshtain: Well, you won’t be surprised that I basically agree with what Michael just said. But let me add a few things. I don’t think you can draw a bright line between what we call dialog and what we call disputation. Disputation is part of – or can be part of dialog. And, we think of dialog in a number of ways. For example, if you read the moral philosopher Charles Taylor, his primary focus where a dialog is concerned, is on the creation of the self. That we are dialogical beings, that is that we mutually constitute one another throughout our lives, and that continues – we often fail to recognize it. Certainly, the person who claims himself or herself a master doesn’t recognize the ways in which he or she has been constituted by others, can’t acknowledge that. So, there’s that understanding of dialog as essential to who we are and what we are as human beings. And then of course, there’s the sense that you were using – about people getting together and exchanging views – sometimes in a way that’s head-butting. I mean, it can be rough, and sometimes in a way that’s a bit gentler, I suppose. But, good things can come out of all sorts of encounters. And sometimes, I know I’ve had the experience – certainly this was true in the sort of early days of feminism. I don’t mean 19th century. I’m not that old. And in the 1970s and so on where somehow, the view was that women who call themselves feminists did not disagree with one another. I mean, we – there was solidarity, and to question things meant you were breaking the solidarity. So, I was in this feminist consciousness raising group, and we get together, and we’d be about to approach something that was important, and where you knew there’d be some differences, and tempers might flare, and at t that point, the discussion would stop. Then, you know, you knew as soon as you got home – it took me about 40 minutes to get home. The phone would ring, and it would be one of the women from the group saying: “Can you believe it? The thing that was most interesting, we didn’t target,” and so, we – I have finally said, you know, what’s the point of our getting together if what it winds up doing is inviting overheated private discussions? We’ve got to find some way to bring these into the picture. So, I think we did not such a great job, but a passable one.


Moderator: Another question? I’ve got someone over here, someone with a mic.


Question: Thank you for speaking both tonight. First, I have a little sort of – wanna question the distinction you made between – or not question, but ask a little more about your thoughts on the distinction between church and the state being separated and religion and politics, and where exactly the separation is drawn. And, I know you’re gonna say coercion – it’s not manipulative, but I want to sort of maybe think about a concrete example. It’s been termed radical Islamism in the Middle East, and new democracies there, and how do you deal within a society when there are people who will hold beliefs that are coercive or that want to coerce others into holding their beliefs. How do you set up rules practically to deal with that, one; secondly, even if you do, it seems like your ethic is inevitably coercive, because those people are gonna feel coerced. They’re gonna be excluded from civil society. Or, if they’re not, how are they not excluded from civil society? And how can they engage in productive, deep dialog if their deep dialog means being coercive? So, I just want to know how you deal with those issues.


Michael Sandel: Well, it is a – it’s a challenge always where there’s a dominant majority of any kind exercising its will on minorities. I don’t think that there is any one formula for contending with that. I think it’s a mistake to have an established church or an established religion because that typically has the effect, at least, of heightening the dangers that you described – the dangers of coercion. And also, of cutting off the robust morally engaged pluralism that we’ve been calling for, really. In the case of Islam, I think this is one of the great challenges that Islam is facing today, and I think there are – I don’t think there’s any single model or set of rules that can resolve this question. Turkey, now, is trying to work out a version of this – in an Islamic democracy, it’s halting, it’s fraught with challenges. But, of the places in the world today where we see Islam trying to govern in a way consistent with democratic principles, Turkey is an important example and test case, and it’ll be very interesting to see not only how it develops, but also how it’s theorized and explained, and used, if it is used as a model for other Islamic societies. In Christianity and the west, there were wars of religion, as this was being sorted out. And then there came to be a kind of settlement, but not a fixed settlement, because we’re still not debating the terms of the settlement, when we’re discussing thin toleration versus a more robust pluralism and so on. So, I think that majoritarianism of any kind, whether it’s religiously powered or not, is a dangerous thing. But how exactly to negotiate the Islamic character, the Christian character, the Jewish character of a society while respecting minorities and holding open the possibility of debating argument – that’s one of the great challenges of our time and the Islamic world right now is struggling with this, and we don’t know what the result will be.


Jean Elshtain: I’d like to add that it seems to be we’re not doing – we here – are not doing a very good job of dealing with the developments in Islam, in part because we revert to the thin toleration model, which means that things that should be criticized and condemned, practices, acts – we’re hesitant to do it because people are afraid they’ll be accused of being bigots of some sort. And then, we have others ho of course go off the rails the other way and think that anyone who is a – who professes to be a Muslim is a threat. So you get these – you know, these pictures – both of which are troubling and inadequate to the task of really trying to sort out the different positions within Islam right now. I mean, it’s very vibrant and active in thinking about – for example, the compatibility of Islam with democracy and what version of democracy – what would it look like? And so forth. The literature is available if we would take advantage of it, and try to understand it. But again, I think the fallback position is this thin toleration, and our elites have not done our – news media have not done a very good job of being public educators on this issue.


Moderator: We’ve got one here. Someone with a mic?


Question: At the risk of sounding simplistic, I’d love to know what you think about this. Is there a law of human nature? Is it testable? Are we naturally good? Are we selfish, or fallen, or broken? How does that prime the pump for dialog – certainly interfaith dialog or social dialog, and is that – it seems to be largely missing in the dialog, and I’d just like to know how you’d respond.


Michael Sandel: The problem with the question is not that it’s simplistic, but that it’s rather difficult.


Jean Elshtain: Yes. Well –


Michael Sandel: Well, that’s for you, Jean.


Jean Elshtain: It is? Okay. Well, I think naturally, we’re a mess. I mean, it’s – I think that human beings are neither naturally good, nor naturally evil all the way through, but we’re born with certain propensities that are drawn out over the course of a lifetime. And what gets emphasized, what we do – it depends in part on our own willing – as St. Augustine argued so brilliant. But, it also turns on what the culture tells us is good, and rewards, and what the culture says is not so good, and steers us away from. So, human nature is not fixed, I would say, but nor are we silly putty, you know? You can’t just mold us into anything you want. We’re made of different stuff. But anyone who’s a parent knows that the child is not a blank slate. Kids come into the world with all sorts of predispositions, and they’re so different. I mean, within one family, you see these differences that emerge, so you know that there’s something going on – that we bring with us when we’re born as unique human beings. But, there’s an old model, and that’s great, that will guarantee that we can mold everybody in a society so they conform to this type of person – it doesn’t work like that.


Moderator: Great. Well, I’m sorry to say we’re coming to the end of our time. If this has whetted your appetite, I know there are going to be opportunities to continue discussing. Maybe some of our cosponsors will set up some of those textual dialogs that Professor Sandel mentioned. So, I’ll just ask one last question, and then we’ll invite Terrence back up to tell us about some of those opportunities. And so, the question is this: here we are at Harvard, a university, and the university has to be considered part of public life. So, what does this look like in our classrooms, in our dorm rooms? Leave us with a vision for the academy. Maybe Professor Sandel, and then –


Michael Sandel: Well, I would say two things should happen in a university, and not only in a university. I think one of the greatest obstacles to successful dialog among and across faith traditions is that we don’t know our own traditions that well – very few of us do. And so, I think a necessary condition of effective learning across traditions is that the interlocutors need to deepen their knowledge to the extent they can – of their own. Not with the aim of digging in and being hermetically sealed, but so that they will have some rich basis for engagement with students and fellow citizens who come from different places. So, that’s number one. Number two, I would say – to study together – to study and argue together about the foundational texts of our respective traditions. Not only within our faith communities, but across those communities, and including and welcoming students who don’t identify with any faith tradition or community. So, I think that the model of mutual learning with open argument, where it’s not one group representing: here’s what my people think, but where there is a kind of – well, in Talmudic studies, it’s called Chavruta study, which begins with two people sitting across a table with a text, arguing about what it means. And, the root of Chavruta study is chaver, which means friend. It’s an activity among friends, though sometimes it can be pretty sharply pitched. But there’s no reason why the circle of that friendship needs to be restricted to two or to people who share the same faith tradition. I think in a university, it’s a great opportunity to include students with secular traditions and convictions, and various faith traditions, to sit down and actually try to learn the key texts. Because only then will we have something to talk about, and to engage in dialog, it really helps to have something to say.


Jean Elshtain: Well, of course the University of Chicago is associated with the study of texts, and almost obsessive study of texts in some cases. So, I absolutely agree with what my friend and colleague has said. Let me add one other thing, and that is that I think universities should provide, and some do, a kind of civic space, especially on occasions of great importance. Occasions when we’ve been shaken or we’re disturbed, or we want to pursue some controversial issue. Universities should help to provide, again, literally a space for those discussions to go forward with professors and students so that, perhaps, out of the sort of tangle of views that are going around, so to speak, you can at least clarify what certain alternatives are. I was thinking, I am thinking of, of course, post-9/11, when I think some very important things happened on some college campuses. And on other campuses, there was a dearth – I mean, nothing – because people were afraid to have the discussion, they were afraid that intolerance might erupt and so forth. There has to be some courage shown by college administrators and so on in order to defend a kind of civic space at certain times in our shared civic life.


Moderator: Well, it’s been an honor. Please join me in welcoming our speakers again.


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