Could Peter Berger’s “Formula of Peace” work in America regarding religion, culture, and issues like gay marriage?

10 Apr

The esteemed sociologist of religion Peter Berger has written a thoughtful piece at The American Interest suggesting that a “formula of peace” be reached in the West ending the non-violent wars of religion and cultural conflict.  His goal is to find a way to foster peaceful coexistence and compromise policy solutions between religious and non-religious worldview adherents without relegating religious folk and religious perspectives to the private sphere (producing a “naked” public square).  As a kind of test case, his solution to the same-sex marriage debate is essentially to privatize marriage as far as the state is concerned but have the state recognize any two-person cohabitation arrangements regardless of the race or gender of the civil union contract holders (sexual orientation).  Churches would be free to recognize and promote and grant marital status (“marriage” as a sacred institution) only to those civil unions that fit within the church’s or religion’s system of doctrine as determined by ecclesiastical, not civil, authorities and law.  Here’s his basic argument:

Wars of religion, unless they result in the total victory of one side, typically end with a formula of peace. In the modern history of the West the most important such formula was the one of the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which almost a century later (in 1648) ended the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants, which had decimated the population of central Europe—cuius regio eius religio, roughly translated, “he who rules decides the religion”. This meant that the ruler decided whether his realm would be Catholic or Protestant; those who didn’t like the decision would be allowed to leave. This was certainly an improvement over earlier practices of massacring or forcibly converting the losing party, but it is a territorial formula of peace very hard to realize under more recent pluralistic conditions.

There have been other formulas of peace: One in which the state was based on Islam, but where various (not all) religious minorities were accorded certain rights (a more modern incarnation was the Ottoman millet system). An ingenious formula from India, by which every ethnic or religious group became a caste, retaining its distinctive characteristics while becoming somehow integrated into the Hindu system. A formula curiously shared by the late Roman Empire and Confucian China, nicely summarized by Edward Gibbon (he referred to Rome but could have put this in Confucian language): “The people believed all religions to be equally true, the philosophers to be equally false, and the magistrates to be equally useful.” It seems to me that, under modern conditions, it is difficult to beat some form of the separation of religion and the state as a formula. There are different versions of this, but they share the assumption of a common political space, with a secular discourse within which public debates must be conducted. This does not mean the “naked public square”, which my old friend Richard John Neuhaus deplored—a space from which all religious language must be barred. Nor does it obviate the need of some common values, foremost among which must be the core democratic value of the inviolate dignity and rights of every human individual. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) coined an interesting phrase in this connection: One of the founders of modern international law, Grotius proposed that this law be developed etsi Deus non daretur—“as if God did not exist”. It should be emphasized that Grotius was anything but an atheist; he was theologically committed to Arminianism (the more humane version of the Dutch Reformation).

What would be a “formula of peace” for the topic under discussion here? For policy considerations, marriage would be moved from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane. The state would get out of the business of defining marriage altogether, leaving it to individual citizens or communities to define and solemnize it in any way they choose. In other words, the state accepts the empirical reality of pluralism in this area of life. The state simply registers contracts of cohabitation by a limited number of individuals (if nothing else, polygamy or polyandry would make the welfare state unaffordable), but would only become much more intrusive if or when children are involved in such an arrangement. In other words, civil union would be the only legal category, available to everybody, regardless of sexual orientation—while “marriage” would be a religious or philosophical category not defined in secular law.

Such a formula might work in some European democracies. It is very unlikely to be realizable in the United States, where the debate has been absolutized to a degree that would be hard to reverse. Justin Welby, if he intends to go in this direction, would have a better chance in Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, I would think, it would be good advice to lower the temperature of the debate.

So Berger thinks this will not likely work in America because Americans are so much more religious than their European counterparts. Perhaps.  But there is another reason why it would probably fail to work here, and even ultimately there.  Berger recognizes that when the interest of children are at stake, the state must step in and essentially legislate what will be deemed “right” or ideal or best in terms of family and sexual arrangements.  I agree, the state must, since we are no longer talking about the privacy of one’s bedroom but the public, community, next generation, and so on.  But when it does, the “formula of peace” will be revisited all over again because the question will be essentially the same regarding children and the family as it has been regarding the nature of marriage.  The question becomes for the family what it has always been regarding marriage.  Is there a right, ideal, or best family arrangement for children?  Does gender matter in that regard?  Do children need a father and mother?  Can fathers mother and can mothers father?  What impact will this have on children and society?  In other words, when the state steps in and legislates the preferences of some worldview on behalf of children, how will it avoid legislating morality?  What will the formula do for us then?   He says that “civil union would be the only legal category,” but that would be true only when it comes to marriage law, not family law, where Berger admits the state must step in and presumably recognize (and rank-order) a variety of different categories of family.  After all, a public official awarding custody of orphans must determine which family arrangement is “ideal” or “right” or “best” between cohabiting couples, serial divorcees, single parents, gay couples, or faithful heterosexual married couples.  And if legal preferences for one marriage arrangement or definition over others is considered a violation of human rights, the constitution,  basic fairness and morality, then I hardly see how the same wouldn’t be said when it comes to legal preferences regarding family arrangements and definitions.  And so the debate would just move to the next step regarding the nature of the family.

Now if — and that’s a big IF, and a very unlikely IF, from my observations of the gay marriage debate in the U.S. — but IF gay marriage advocates could or would make it clear that they are seeking only and narrowly a legal recognition of their unions and not the eradication of the privileged or preferred treatment of the natural family in society, law, schools, etc., then perhaps his formula could indeed “lower the temperature of the debate” for a season.  Surprisingly, many supporting same-sex marriage in the French debate over gay marriage have explicitly taken such a position (a more limited demand in scope).  It’s possible, even quite sensible and rational, but quite unlikely in my view, for folks to support gay marriage (or civil unions, as Berger would have it) without insisting that the natural family lose its cultural, political, & legally preferred position.  That is what it would take, I think, for Berger’s “formula of peace” to work.  Sadly, I hear little of that more nuanced but sensible language being spoken in the American context, where both sides insist that it must be all or nothing… and so the “culture wars” will likely remain until one side goes down in bitter defeat.

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