Politics and Salt

By John E. Hare

Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the previous administration, came to Yale Divnity School on 30 March, 2004, and talked to us on the topic “The Mighty and the Almighty: God and United States Foreign Policy.” I want to focus on one part of what she said. She quoted from Vice President Cheney’s Christmas greeting card, which bore the inscription, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

Then she said, “I must tell you that when a politician starts preaching I tend to react the same way as when a preacher starts talking politics. I become very, very wary.” And she justifies this in the following terms: “I believe we can unite the world in opposition to the murder of innocent people. But we will never unite the world in support of the idea that Americans have a unique relationship with God or a better understanding of God’s will than worshippers from other cultures and lands.” 

There is a strategic rationale here, and it has a long history in political thought. What we want to be able to do is to form a coalition around a policy, and it is counterproductive to state the policy in such a way as to alienate potential coalition partners. To illustrate the history we could co back to Hugo Grotius, a Dutchman of the seventeenth century who grew up Calvinist. He was moved by the urgency of finding a basis for morality that could appeal across national and confessional boundaries. He found such a basis in the need for humans to live together even though their natural inclinations put them at odds with each other. And he thought that morality was the empirically discoverable set of laws that could accomplish this purpose without having to appeal to some contested notion of the highest good for human beings. The audience Grotius had in mind was uniformly Christian, and the problem he wanted to finesse was the difference between Catholic and Protestant. But in a time when many people in traditionally Christian countries do not identify themselves any longer as Christian or even theist, and when foreign policy has to be stated with an audience that includes many countries that are not traditionally Christian, this Grotian strategy ends up not using religious language at all. Language about God and faith drops out of public policy discussion. Richard Rorty used to put the point (though he has changed his mind about this) by saying that religious language is a “conversation stopper”; religious believers can believe what they want in private, but they should not introduce these beliefs into public discourse.

There is a problem with this. In the American political context, over ninety-five percent of the population identifies itself as believing in God in one way or another, and this is not a marginal belief to them. Their belief in God is something around which they organize their lives. Conservatives know this, and conservative political rhetoric, like Vice President Cheney’s Christmas card, is full of language about God and faith. Non-conservatives (it is hard to find the right label, now that “liberal” tends to mean “loony left”) have usually been “very, very wary” like Secretary Albright. But they are changing, and the Democratic Convention in Boston was an interesting picture of this. Religion is playing a larger role in the election of 2004 than it has for decades. Barack Obama, in the opening address, identified John Kerry as a man of faith. “We worship an awesome God in the blue states,” he said, not just in the red Republican states. “In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation: the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead.” Here he was tying belief in God to a politics of hope, and he contrasted this with those who used faith to divide people from one another. John Kerry himself echoed the same theme. He stressed his own faith, but he quoted Lincoln, who did not claim that God was on his side, but prayed, rather, that he would be on God’s side.

There is historical grounding for a Non-Conservative strategy of this type as well. My main example is going to be Immanuel Kant, and I will come back to him at the end. But another example is the famous nineteenth-century liberal John Stuart Mill. Mill believed strongly in the rational agenda of establishing rights and maximizing happiness, counting each person as one and no person as more than one, but he came to see (from personal experience) that this did not engage with some of the deepest springs of human motivation, especially with the need for hope. He quoted from Coleridge, “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, and hope without an object cannot live.” And he returned to this topic in his Three Essays on Religion (published posthumously in 1874). He suggested a justification for publicly encouraging religion because of the power of the religious object of hope in helping people to feel their own lives worthwhile and to feel more strongly the value of others. Religious hope and liberalism in this older sense can be and have been allies and not opposites.

Jesus says in Mathew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled.” We know what it means for food to be insufficiently salty. A dish without enough saltiness is bland, boring, fit to be thrown away. But we also know what it means for a dish to have too much salt. When a dish is too salty, all you taste is salt. Sometimes religious people try to talk about policy using the language of their faith too directly. About twenty years ago I worked for Lee Hamilton, first on his personal staff and then on the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, which he ran. I remember people coming, as Christians, to tell us that the Bible taught what U.S. policy should be towards Israel, and they used especially the apocalyptic portions of the Scriptures. On the other side of the political spectrum, people would come, as Christians, to tell us that the Bible taught that even possessing nuclear weapons was a kind of sacrilege and offensive to God, because splitting the atom was reversing the order of creation. I remember getting irritated with both these kinds of people. The problem was not the prophetic voice, which brings a vital challenge to the political process. But these people had not understood either what kind of book the Bible is or the complexities of the situations to which they were trying to prescribe. A certain kind of translation has to be done if the Christian gospel is to speak in the language appropriate to the situation; otherwise it sounds forced, or stilted, or quaint. This is what I mean by the analogy of a dish tasting overwhelmingly of salt.

On the other hand there is the danger of religious people using too little salt, and I want to give three types of this. First, they can conform so closely to the culture in which they live that all the leverage of the faith gets lost. Sometimes I look at the racks of Christian magazines in the library, for Christian business leaders, or Christian musicians, or Christian wedding planners, and some of it seems merely a second-rate endorsement of prevailing norms, with a veneer of Christian language pasted over the top of it. If it really is like this, then it is not merely useless, but also a way to cheapen the gospel.

A second way to lose saltiness is the opposite of too much assimilation; religious people can also make too little engagement with public life. I used to meet every week, when I was in Washington, with a group of Christian congressional staff from offices all over the Hill. We would try to talk about our work and our faith. But I noticed one group who took the view that politics is itself a domain under the power of the devil, and therefore not a part of Christian life. It is true that they were themselves engaged in politics, but they held their Christian lives separate from it; their Christianity was a matter of personal devotion and fellowship at church. They thought it was wrong, for example, to pray for the passage of any piece of legislation, because as legislation it was already corrupt. The politics they practiced was, so to speak, salt-free, except to the extent that they preserved personal honesty and integrity in their professional lives. 

The third way to have too little salt is to adopt the Grotian strategy I mentioned at the beginning. By a self-denying ordinance, religious people censor themselves in the name of good citizenship, and in this way deprive the public domain of the benefits of their faith. Secretary Albright herself mentions with admiration Archbishop Tutu, Archbishop Romero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II. But how is her evident admiration for the political effectiveness of these men consistent with her extreme wariness? She has the same kind of ambivalence as Reinhold Niebuhr, who says, in Moral Man and Immoral Society that the statesman should be “under the influence of the foolishness of the moral seer,” but also that “whenever religious idealism brings forth its purest fruits and places the strongest check upon selfish desire, it results in policies which, from the political perspective, are quite impossible.” Niebuhr ends up recommending a “frank dualism” between the religious ideal and politics, but it is not clear how such a dualism can succeed in holding political life “under the influence” of the gospel. A better solution is to allow the religious language to have its full effect, but to hold to certain guidelines, which I will come to next.

What is it like when a dish has just the right amount of salt? The key is that what you taste is not salt, but mushroom or rice or shrimp. The right amount of salt allows the other flavors of the dish to taste the way they are supposed to taste, with full and distinct vividness and clarity. By analogy, then, the political use of the language of faith needs to have its focus on the policies being proposed and not on the religious language itself. One figure who put this point clearly was, arguably, the most important founder of classical liberalism, Immanuel Kant. A century of secondary literature on Kant by non-religious scholars has disguised from us the centrality of belief in God to Kant’s ethics. His view was that the moral life, and so the political life that takes its justification from morality, is unstable without this belief, and he insisted on the interest of the state in biblical preaching. But we can also find in his work some guidelines for how belief in God should relate to ethical and political judgment. First, it is important that the appeal to God should not come too soon, because it can provide an illegitimate shortcut, avoiding ethical deliberation. Kant was allergic to people who use the sufficiency of God’s grace as a way to escape having to justify what they do in terms of respecting the equal and infinite dignity of every human being. Second, he was modest about how much we can know about God’s will, given the tendency of the human heart to confuse God with our own interests. Secretary Albright makes this point in talking about the “axis of evil” in the form of poverty, ignorance and disease, and the fact that America ranks dead last among industrialized nations in the proportion of our wealth that we share with the developing world. Modesty is praying that we are on God’s side. Third, God is, for Kant, the king of the kingdom of ends. This is male language, but there is a non-gendered moral point here. All moral agents are members of the moral realm, and are to be treated as ends in themselves and never merely as means; but only one member (God) is sovereign, and has, by analogy, legislative and executive and judicial roles. Because God is coordinating what is best for all these members, we may not use God’s name to privilege ourselves or our own patron.

Kant is writing from a Christian background, and it is important to study whether Jews and Muslims, for example, can observe the same guidelines in good faith. This is work that is now being done in earnest.

Non-conservatives who belong to these and other faiths can and should allow themselves to use the language of faith in public discourse, especially in domestic political discussion, being alert to both the similarities and the differences between their traditions. We need to do more work to determine what these similarities and differences amount to. To the extent that we are justifying foreign policy to an international audience, the strategic concerns that Secretary Albright alludes to are valid. But even here, if the guidelines I have mentioned can indeed be accepted outside Christianity, there need be no offense in holding ourselves publicly accountable to the religious traditions of the overwhelming majority of our people. 

John E. Hare is Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. His book The Moral Gap develops an account of the need for God’s assistance in meeting the moral demand of which God is the source. In God’s Call he discusses the divine command theory of morality, analyzing texts in Duns Scotus, Kant, and contemporary moral theory. In Why Bother Being Good? he gives a non-technical treatment of the questions “Can we be morally good?” and “Why should we be morally good?” He has also written a commentary on Plato’s Euthyhphro in the Bryn Mawr series, and Ethics and International Affairs with Carey B. Joynt. His interests extend to ancient philosophy, medieval Franciscan philosophy, Kant, Kierkegaard, contemporary ethical theory, the theory of the atonement, medical ethics, international relations (he has worked in a teaching hospital and, as mentioned above, for the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives), and aesthetics (he is a published composer of church music).