HOW RICHARD RORTY FOUND RELIGION
Richard Rorty’s aversion to traditional religion and religious belief is well known. In 2000, for example, he told a packed house of students and former colleagues at the University of Virginia that he was a “militant secularist” and that the Enlightenment was “right to suggest that religion is something that the human species would be better if it could outgrow.” It was Diderot, Rorty reminded them, who said that “the last king should be strangled with the entrails of the last priest” and “even though some of my best friends are priests, I feel some sympathy with all these critics of religious institutions.”
But in recent books and essays Rorty has expressed the hope that “romantic polytheism” will come to serve as America’s new religious center. Rorty says that he now agrees with his sometime critic, Michael Sandel, who wrote in Democracy’s Discontents that it may never be possible to separate morality and religion entirely, since doing so often “generates its own disenchantment.” Rather, liberal societies must admit that, according to Rorty’s reading of John Rawls, they create “new moralities and new religions.” Despite predicting in his earlier writings that religion would one day wither away, Rorty now proposes a new public religious faith.
His religious turn became an open possibility as far back as the 1970s, when he forsook rationalistic analytic philosophy for neopragmatism. Rorty has come to realize that what pragmatists like himself and John Dewey offer is a vision for public life in which democracy itself serves as “a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature.” By so defining democracy, pragmatists offer something that satisfies Paul Tillich’s definition of a religion as that which we designate as our “symbol of ultimate concern.” And Rorty admits that his own philosophical purposes are “ultimately spiritual,” since “the adoption of my view would be a real change in people’s self-image.”
Following his pragmatist mentor John Dewey, Rorty believes that we might usefully substitute faith in human potential for retrograde faith in a benevolent God. In the essay “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,” Rorty criticizes the other American pragmatist luminary, William James, for getting stuck in what Dewey called the “second stage” of religious consciousness. James still believed that aligning ourselves with “a power that is not ourselves will do unimaginably vast good.” Rorty wishes that James had reached the “third stage” of religious consciousness, in which humans put their “faith in the future possibilities of moral humans, a faith which is hard to distinguish from love for, and hope for, the human community. I shall call this fuzzy overlap of faith, hope, and love ‘romance.’” (He also calls it “social hope,” “solidarity,” and “a religion of democracy.”)
Neopragmatists of a Rortian stripe (not to be confused with the Jamesian sort) offer what amounts to an alternative picture of man and his place in the universe—one that, as Rorty has lately begun to acknowledge, does resemble religious faith, as it fills the void of meaning that relation with “God” or “Truth” once filled. Rorty has known the call of intense and ultimately spiritual yearnings. From his teenage years on, Rorty has sought a way to reconcile a yearning for the transcendent and sublime with a desire for human solidarity. With his recent discovery of romantic polytheism, he has finally found a way to satisfy this longing.
At many stages of his life, Rorty has toyed with the idea that belief in a transcendent God might serve to bring one’s private loves and public virtues into harmony. Most of Rorty’s reflections on his early disenchantment with and rejection of both traditional philosophy and religion appear in his 1992 essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.”
His parents, he writes, were journalists who worked for the Worker’s Defense League and who raised him to believe that all “decent people” were socialists and that “the point of being human was to spend one’s life fighting social injustice.” He was taught to regard the two red-bound volumes of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials, The Case of Leon Trotsky, and Not Guilty, “in the way which other children thought of their family’s Bible: they were books that radiated redemptive truth and moral splendor.”
But Rorty harbored boyish, “private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests” that he felt were at odds with his parents’ concern with this-worldly social justice. He was fascinated by North American wild orchids, which he deemed “morally superior to the showy, hybridized, tropical orchids displayed in florists’ shops”; he considered them “noble,” “pure,” and “chaste,” but he always felt slightly uneasy about his interest in these “socially useless flowers.” His love for the wild orchid serves as a symbol for his lifelong desire for intellectual purity and singular devotion to something transcendent.
In his college years, Rorty devoted himself to finding a “single vision” that would bring his yearnings for social justice and his private, idiosyncratic loves together. “I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me—in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats—‘hold reality and justice in a single vision.’” He aspired to be “an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity—nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice.”
Rorty broke from his parent’s conscientious Leninism (they denounced Stalin’s Russia) after he matriculated as a precocious fifteen-year-old at the University of Chicago and immediately fell under the tutelage of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. They taught him that the only way to refute both a Nazi and a Stalinist was to defend democracy as “something eternal, absolute, and good.” He was immediately seduced by their Platonic promises, not least because he thought their approach to philosophy seemed to leave room for the love of pure beauty.
Still, Rorty felt that there was at least one unexplored option: religious faith rather than philosophical knowledge. He describes this decision as choosing between Dostoevsky’s Karamazov brothers: Would he become a pious Alyosha (whom Rorty says he alternately envied and despised) or a rational Ivan? Having read T. S. Eliot, he was attracted by the idea that “only committed Christians (and perhaps only Anglo-Catholics) could overcome their unhealthy preoccupations with their private obsessions, and so serve their fellow humans with proper humility.” But in the end, he could not become an Alyosha, Rorty writes, because of a “prideful inability to believe what I was saying when I recited the General Confession.” Platonism appealed to Rorty because it “had all the advantages of religion, without requiring the humility which Christianity demanded, and of which I was apparently incapable.”
But Platonism proved just as unsatisfying. Rorty could not decide whether Platonism was aimed at “private bliss” or at “irrefutable argument.” As a potential Ivan, Rorty knew that he had a knack for disputation that allowed him to wriggle out of circular arguments and dialectical corners, but he could not help fearing that, although he was learning the skills of argument, he was not becoming “either wise or virtuous.” In fact, he had yet to find anything like an irrefutable truth (or even a coherent one for that matter). He began to suspect, to his distress, that there was no ground of rational certainty for his Platonic faith to rest on. Philosophy seemed to do nothing but help one get out of linguistic dead ends; it could not set one entirely free. Becoming an Ivan seemed to offer no long-term payoff.
By the time he left the University of Chicago to attend Yale for his doctoral studies, Rorty had begun a forty-year period of disillusionment, “looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy was good for.” For most of those forty years, no one knew that he was disillusioned; he was a well-regarded analytic philosopher, employable and widely published.
When he wrote the introductory essay to his book The Linguistic Turn (1967), he still had some small hope that the right approach might resolve the perennial philosophical questions. The promise of analytic philosophy and its linguistic turn was that “philosophical problems . . . may be solved (or dissolved) either by reforming language, or by understanding more about the language we presently use.” If we can create an ideal and logical language for philosophy, one without the confused concepts embedded in much philosophical language, philosophy might be put on surer footing.
But even before The Linguistic Turn was published, Rorty saw that no foundation was less problematic than any other. Around 1970, Rorty went into a deep “clinical depression” and found himself unable to write for more than a year. Although he has not written openly about his dark night of the soul, it led to his very public break with mainstream analytic philosophy and his subsequent conversion to American pragmatism.
During a five-year period following his breakdown, Rorty devoured the works of the great pragmatists—James, Dewey, and Sydney Hook. Their work led him to conclude that both analytic philosophy and the linguistic turn were nothing more than the “last refuge” of representationalism. What was needed was a “cosmological” turn, much like the transition from a “Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmology to a Copernican-Newtonian one.” The pragmatists—a philosophical school that Rorty believes includes not only Dewey and James, but also the “proto-pragmatist” Friedrich Nietzsche—had already effected that cosmological turn, but few had noticed. Philosophy’s most vexing problems, they taught, can never be solved; they can only be dissolved. Pragmatism would serve for him as an antidote to both the hubris of analytic philosophy and, ultimately, the circularity of postmodernism.
His pragmatic formation can best be understood as an alternative to religious conversion. Rorty reports that at the age of twenty, “I desperately wanted to be a Platonist—to become one with the One, to fuse myself with Christ or God or the Platonic form of the Good or something like that. Pragmatism was a reaction formation.” Pragmatism would have to fill the hole left by religion and his quest for certainty. Analytic philosophy had been his last-ditch effort at realizing a single vision. Through it, Rorty had hoped to find convincing arguments for a unified account of the universe. But he came to realize that his earliest quest to hold reality and justice in a single vision “had been a mistake—that the pursuit of such a vision had been precisely what led Plato astray.”
Jürgen Habermas describes Rorty’s pragmatic turn as the behavior of a “spurned lover”; his desire to “do away with all philosophy seems to spring more from the melancholy of a disappointed metaphysician, driven on by nominalist spurs, than from the self-criticism of an enlightened analytic philosopher who wishes to complete the linguistic turn in a pragmatic way.” Fellow pragmatist Richard Bernstein concurs: “So much of his recent writing [as of 1987] falls into a genre of the ‘God that failed’ discourse. There seems to be something almost oedipal—a form of patricide—in Rorty’s obsessive attacks on father figures in philosophy and metaphysics. It is the discourse of a one-time ‘true believer’ who has lost his faith.”
Having abandoned his first quest, Rorty devoted himself to becoming another kind of crusader, one who would work—as a professor, a prolific writer, and even the president of the American Philosophical Association—to redirect the philosophy profession away from the search for a single vision that could orient his life and his philosophy.
In the 1980s, Rorty recognized that the way of theistic faith was still open to him but concluded, once again, that religious conversion was out of the question because only religion with a
nonargumentative faith in a surrogate parent who, unlike any real parent, embodied love, power, and justice in equal measure—could do the trick Plato wanted done. Since I couldn’t imagine becoming religious, and indeed had gotten more and more raucously secularist, I decided that the hope of getting a single vision by becoming a philosopher had been a self-deceptive atheist’s way out. So I decided to write a book about what intellectual life might be like if one could manage to give up the Platonic attempt to hold reality and justice in a single vision.
That book was Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989). It was Rorty’s attempt to show that, unless we are “lucky Christians” who effortlessly join love of God with love of neighbor, or are revolutionaries passionately devoted to social justice, our moral responsibility to others and our private and idiosyncratic loves “need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so.” If, unable to accept our finitude, we try to combine them, we will tend, once persuasion fails, to force our idiosyncratic loves on others.
Rorty would make one last fateful choice for the future direction of his political philosophy. He would follow Dewey and the American pragmatists in defending liberal democracy, rather than joining what Rorty calls the “bad side” of Nietzsche and of contemporary postmodernists who attacked it. But in his zeal to embrace American pragmatism and democracy, Rorty has adopted—perhaps inadvertently at first, but now more intentionally—a new religious faith that gives him the unified picture of the universe he has always longed for. Rorty has come to accept that all competing worldviews are ultimately competing commitments to some orienting faith, and that no conflict between worldviews can be resolved by an appeal to reason or objective standards of truth. At their core, all worldviews require faith and hope.
The culmination of this line of thinking occurred only last year in the pages of the Journal of Religious Ethics. Rorty issued a long overdue mea culpa for past diatribes against Stephen Carter’s frequent defense of the religious voice in the public square. Having read an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff, as well as Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition (2003), Rorty admits that his early response to Carter was “hasty and insufficiently thoughtful.” Since his own worldview is simply one of many competing faith-systems, none of which have any better claim on objectivity than another, Rorty’s chief dispute with Carter now is that he wants Carter and his Christian coreligionists to lose and his own religious faith to win out as the culturally and politically dominant worldview.
The broad outlines of Rorty’s return to religious faith can be found in the 1999 book Achieving Our Country, as well as in the essays “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” and “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance.”
In these works, Rorty describes a uniquely American faith, whose adherents, he writes, have included Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes Rorty calls this American faith a “religion of democracy” and at other times “romantic polytheism.” But both concepts bring together into a single vision his strong sense of “social justice” and an appreciation for the sublime and the mystical.
This idea of romantic polytheism is not a wholesale rejection of his arguments in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, in which he claimed that one’s private projects of self-creation cannot harmonize and should not be made to harmonize with common public purposes. But romantic polytheism holds out the promise that this supposedly unacceptable fusion between public and private projects might be carried out without negative social consequences.
Rorty offers social solidarity that can take the place of a “communion of saints” in the form of a democratic community, “a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters. The actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species.” In exchange for giving up religion’s promise of reconciliation with Truth or God, pragmatists-as-romantic-polytheists are energized toward social action in their existing, temporal, human community.
Rorty believes that we in the West are all polytheists now because we think that there are various goods and no overarching good. He chooses this term “polytheism” carefully—and not altogether ironically—because he believes that the idea can bring together John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William James in the belief that “there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs.” If gods and goods are plural and serve different people in different ways, why should we feel the need to rank them? In fact, it may be the pursuit of such divergent human ends that benefits us all in the long run. Hence “romantic utilitarians” and pragmatists like Rorty “will probably drop the idea of diverse immortal persons, such as Olympian deities, but . . . will retain the idea that there are diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of life.” The term “romantic,” then, serves for Rorty as a more evocative term than “secular,” since it suggests that atheists might speak just as inspirationally about their faith in human potentiality as theists speak about the movement of God in history.
Rorty denies that a culture of romantic polytheism has no room for conscientious monotheists. It’s just that a “pragmatic theist”—whom Rorty defines as a theist who wants to make his private religious beliefs publicly relevant—must be willing to “get along without personal immortality, providential interventions, the efficacy of sacraments, the Virgin Birth, the Risen Christ, the Covenant of Abraham, the authority of the Koran, and a lot of other things which many theists are loath to do without.” The price for public relevance comes, for Rorty anyway, at the cost of monotheism’s most miraculous, particularistic, and, in Rorty’s view, implausible beliefs.
Of course, Rorty admits that someone like an Alasdair McIntyre would deplore the idea of a “demythologized Christianity” because it would “drain all of the point out of religion.” But Rorty believes that the advantages of a vague theism outweigh the losses. Furthermore, viable examples of this vague and pragmatist sort of theism already exist. Rorty writes that “a pragmatist philosophy of religion must follow [Paul] Tillich. . . . Liberal Protestants, to whom Tillich sounds plausible, are quite willing to talk about their faith in God, but demur at spelling out just what beliefs that faith includes.” They must learn to “get along without creeds” but instead hold the kinds of beliefs that “make the sort of difference to a human life which is made by the presence or absence of love.” If the doctrines of Rorty’s own “romantic polytheism” seem equally fuzzy, his sources for spiritual inspiration are far more concrete.
In addition to this non-creedal creed, Rorty suggests for his new religion a nonscriptural canon, arguing that poetry and literature might adequately serve as sacred texts for pragmatists, atheists, polytheists, and secularists. In Philosophy as Social Hope, Rorty quotes approvingly from Dorothy Allison, who writes in “Believing in Literature” that literature “has shaped my own system of belief—a kind of atheist’s religion. . . . [T]he backbone of my conviction has been a belief in the progress of human society demonstrated in its fiction.” Like Allison, Rorty claims that literature sustains his “atheist’s faith.”
But poetry and literature do more than provide consolation for the atheist’s soul; they transform it, reshaping beliefs and motivations. In “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature,” the last chapter of Achieving Our Country, Rorty writes that literature “must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew.” But he finds that in this post-Nietzschean, post-philosophical culture, many of the older literary texts are simply obsolete (Plato’s dialogues and sacred Scripture, for example) because they no longer serve to transform us; we are a different sort of people in the twenty-first century than the ones those texts appealed to. Claiming as allies thinkers such as Dorothy Allison, Harold Bloom, and Matthew Arnold, Rorty writes that we should “hope for a religion of literature, in which works of the secular imagination replace Scripture as the principal source of inspiration and hope for each new generation. We should cheerfully admit that canons are temporary, and touchstones replaceable.”
The novels of Marcel Proust and Henry James are strong candidates for inclusion in Rorty’s canon. James’ novels, for instance, teach us to appreciate “the other” and thus to build social solidarity that can substitute for a traditional religious text. Rorty writes that the term “‘spiritual development’ is usually used only in reference to the attempt to get in touch with the divine. But it is occasionally used in the broader sense, one in which it covers any attempt to transform oneself into a better sort of person by changing one’s sense of what matters most. In the broader sense of the term, I would urge that the novels of Proust and James help us achieve spiritual growth.”
It is clear that this secular, poetic, and novelistic canon is part of what makes Rorty’s own polytheism romantic instead of literal. He writes in “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” that “the substitution of poetry for religion as a source of useful ideals . . . seems to me usefully described as a return to polytheism.” And in modern secular democracies “poetry should take over the role that religion has played in the formation of individual human lives.”
But Rorty goes even further in replacing sacred texts with literature and poetry. Poets will serve to fill the vacancy left by priests. Although at one point Rorty writes that romantic polytheism has no need of priests or “priest-substitutes . . . who purport to tell you how things really are,” he writes at another point that poets will be “to a secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism.”
This idea of “poet as priest” squares with the many laudatory things that Rorty has to say throughout his writing about the role of Bloom’s “strong poets.” Since Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty has written that poets have always played and will continue to play a powerful role in contemporary society, because in shaping the languages we speak, the questions we ask, and the kinds of problems we think are worth solving, they determine the kind of people we become.
If we see history as the triumph of “successive metaphors,” then, Rorty writes, we should see “the poet, in the generic sense of the maker of the new words, the shaper of new languages, as the vanguard of the species.” Just as Rorty cannot ultimately dispense with either canon or priestcraft, so he cannot quite bring himself to do away with churches either. While insisting that he is profoundly anticlerical and anti-ecclesiastical, Rorty envisions a future America with quasi-churches serving a national religion of romantic polytheism. Rorty recommends at least three kinds of denominations that may serve to propagate romantic polytheism and form a temporal communion of saints: churches committed to the social gospel; the university; and the fraternal community of American democracy itself.
Rorty has devised something like a test of orthodoxy for churches in his postphilosophical and pragmatic America: “If a religious community has gay clergy and solemnizes gay marriage, it belongs to the constructive minority. If it preaches the social gospel, if the preachers remind the congregation that the richest country in the world at the richest point in its economic history still doesn’t feed its poor, then it also qualifies.” But the vast majority of Christian churches fail the test because they have kept “sex prominent in discussions of morality. It is hard to forgive them for this.” Rorty thinks that churches should teach that the greatest source of suffering is still, as always, economic inequality, not spiritual or bodily impurity.
Rorty evidently has a soft spot for the late nineteenth-century liberal Christianity that included the Social Gospel of his maternal grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch. Rorty believes that the Social Gospel teaches that “we should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debates concerning the existence or nature of another world.” So confident is Rorty of liberal Christianity’s ultimate revival that he predicts in his essay “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096”—a short work of speculative fiction—that social gospel churches will cooperate with the “Democratic Vistas Party” to topple a military dictatorship and restore to American political life its focus on fraternity and economic equality.
In Rorty’s utopian future America, there will be “church” options for cynics, atheists, and realists. While Rorty writes less directly on this point, it would be in keeping with much of what he writes about American higher education if academia itself was a kind of surrogate church for those not theistically inclined. In the 1960s, the American left began to transform the academy into the kind of social institution that does the work once done by churches: they instill social-cooperative values, tell stories that provide meaning to life, and even grant a kind of citizenship status (not unlike what baptism confers on Christians) through that increasingly obligatory rite of passage, the four-year college experience.
In several of his writings, Rorty describes the role of college professors in almost fundamentalist terms: professors should see their work in the classroom as nothing less than an exercise in conversion. They ought “to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” With no hint of his usual irony, Rorty writes that “students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.” Parents, he writes, ought to be forewarned that “we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” Although Rorty is on record as agreeing with Judith Shklar that liberalism means that “cruelty is the worst thing we do” and that the “redescription” of another’s most central beliefs is about the worst form of cruelty imaginable, he seems willing enough to visit such cruelty on college students who happen to wander into his classroom.
If American colleges and universities are catechism classes for young Americans, then American democracy itself serves as a kind of substitute church (albeit a large and diverse one) for Rorty, who claims to long for some human community and an opportunity for solidarity in the absence of transcendent and mystical communion, and who offers us such solidarity in a return to civil religion in the tradition of Rousseau but in the language of Whitman and Lincoln.
Although most contemporary leftists believe that “American civil religion is narrow-minded and obsolete nationalism,” Rorty admits in Achieving Our Country that his favorite American writers—John Dewey and Walt Whitman—embrace it. Rorty is their willing disciple because he recognizes that an American civil religion can tie American history to his liberal hopes and hallowed democratic institutions.
He calls its “thoroughgoing secularism” the “most striking” feature of American civil religion, dispensing with theism altogether and replacing devotion to God with devotion to one’s fellow man. At its best, American civil religion enshrines solidarity as its defining public virtue rather than holiness. Dewey and Whitman thought we could “take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America’s obedience to any authority—even the authority of God.” Rather than being curious about God, we should be curious about one another. And Dewey and Whitman
dreamed that Americans would break the traditional link between the religious impulse, the impulse to stand in awe of something greater than oneself, and the infantile need for security, the childish hope of escaping from time and chance. . . . They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul.
Rorty writes that a civil religion of democracy, if we take Dewey and Whitman as guides, emphasizes the relations among men and not between ourselves and God (or the gods). Dewey and Whitman thus “hoped to separate the fraternity and loving kindness urged by the Christian Scriptures from the idea of supernatural parentage, immorality, providence, and—most important—sin.” Moreover, this civil religion is centered on this world rather than oriented to heaven. Whitman, for example, hoped that each American would learn to “substitute his own nation-state for the Kingdom of God.” American democracy is an experiment in “national self-creation: the first nation-state with nobody but itself to please—not even God. We are the greatest poem because we put ourselves in the place of God: our essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future. Other nations thought of themselves as hymns to the glory of God. We redefine God as our future selves.”
As Dewey writes, “Democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature.” Democracy corrects for the mistakes of Plato and the Christians who tried to identify “the ultimate object of eros with something unique, atemporal, and nonhuman rather than with an indefinitely expansible pantheon of transitory temporal accomplishments, both natural and cultural.” The deeper meaning of democracy is that we are alone in the universe and have only one another as reference points for truth and meaning.
Rorty is convinced that such an inexorable transition from traditional monotheism to this secular civil religion is already under way: “I think that the religion of love has gradually moved out of the churches and into the political arena. That religion is in the process of being transfigured into democratic politics. What is left in the churches is the fear that human beings may not be able to save themselves without help—that social cooperation is not enough.” Rorty hopes that the American civil religion of democracy will be enough for most people, so that those left over will be an inconsequential minority.
So there is Rorty’s romantic polytheism, the long-sought joining of his youthful spiritual yearnings and his later philosophical refinements. For all of its profound optimism about the human future, Rorty’s religious turn has a dark side, at least at the level of political philosophy. In his earlier writings, especially Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty was careful to keep the spheres of public and private separate. For example, in the 1984 essay “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” Rorty praises the genius of democratic liberalism because it insists that we keep our metaphysics to ourselves. In so doing, we are left with a public square free from the irresolvable conflict of worldviews that can make political agreement impossible at the level of premises and foundations. And official religion, no less than civil religion, is out of bounds because government simply has no reason or capacity to take sides on such matters of conscience.
Whether or not one agrees with the earlier Rorty that metaphysics can be dispensed with entirely in the political sphere, the later Rorty has clearly brought metaphysics back into public discussion. He insists on a “fact of the matter” about the nature of our universe and our place in it—that there is no God and that all we have is one another—and he seeks to establish, in patently religious terms, a public-spiritedness that comports with this “fact.”
In short, Rorty proposes to unify the public and private spheres under a metaphysical notion. The clear implication of Rorty’s religious turn is that when orthodox theism conflicts with the American civil religion of democracy, traditional religious belief must yield or risk public disapproval and a range of possible, though as yet unnamed, threats.
Of course, this attempt at civil religion will not prevail without a fight from its nearest competitors. Orthodox monotheists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) are unlikely to become champions of public polytheism. Nor will they be eager to strip their beliefs down to the most “pragmatic portions” in order to gain the pragmatist seal of approval.
It is disconcerting to find that one of the country’s most prominent academic critics of fundamentalism has invented for himself a new kind of quasi-religious zealotry. Haunted for his entire career by faiths he could not bring himself to accept, Rorty has finally managed to become the true believer he has always longed to be. It remains to be seen whether those who do not share his newfound faith will eventually suffer at the hands of his most enthusiastic coreligionists.
Jason Boffetti is a Civitas Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and teaches politics at the Catholic University of America.