You may be familiar with the word “bork” — which one online dictionary defines as to “obstruct (someone, especially a candidate for public office) through systematic defamation or vilification.” That, as you might remember, happened to District of Columbia Court of Appeals judge Robert Bork back in 1987 after Ronald Reagan nominated him for the Supreme Court that summer. As his wife, Mary Ellen Bork, recalls, “after a monstrous political battle, he resigned from the court in 1988 so that he could write about his legal and cultural views and speak with more freedom than he could if he remained on the court.” And indeed liberated, Judge Bork wrote bestselling books, including Slouching toward Gomorrah, which was published 20 years ago this year.
I’ve been walking around with the book in my purse on and off for the past few months, rereading it in bits and pieces. As Mrs. Bork puts it, his “analysis of American culture has remained true and his analysis of how we got there is as accurate today as it was in 1996.” In a nutshell: “We are under assault and large chunks of our culture have disappeared.”
One of the paragraphs that resonated most when I read it when the book was first published talked about what religion was already looking like in America: something acceptable only if it is compartmentalized, done on your Sabbath — on your own time — but not to invade your work, your civic life, and certainly not law. Unless, that is, your religion is liberal secularism. Judge Bork wrote:
The fear of religion in the public arena is all too typical of Americans, and particularly the intellectual class, today. Religious conservatives cannot “impose” their ideas on society except by the usual democratic methods of trying to build majorities and passing legislation. In that they are no different from any other group of people with ideas of what morality requires. All legislation “imposes” a morality of one sort or another, and, therefore, on the reasoning offered, all law would seem to be antithetical to pluralism.
Fast-forward two decades and Mary Eberstadt writes It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies. (I can almost picture the late Judge Bork’s endorsement.) In this book, she chronicles some of the people who have been victims of this insistence on driving real religion — that is, religion that actually says something about life and law and our past and future and offers a way to live that is challenging and even of benefit to society — from the public square. And so we have florists having to go to court, giving lie to the “live and let live” mantra that “tolerance” purports to be about.
In Slouching toward Gomorrah, Judge Bork wrote:
Only religion can accomplish for a modern society what tradition, reason, and empirical observation cannot. Christianity and Judaism provide the major premises of moral reasoning by revelation and by the stories in the Bible. There is no need to attempt the impossible task of reasoning your way to first principles. Those principles are accepted as given by God.
During the Obama administration, there have been unprecedented encroachments on religious liberty in the United States. But they don’t resonate with the public, for two reasons as best I can tell: They don’t believe it’s really happening, and they don’t know what freedom of conscience means, and how deeply it affects us all — including the health of our politics.
As Bork put it:
Philosophers cannot agree on the proper end of man and hence cannot supply the necessary premises. Religion is by its nature authoritative and final as to first principles. It must be so or it would be valueless. Those principles are given on a stone tablet, either literally or figuratively, and, so long as you believe the religion, there is simply no possibility of arguing with what is on the tablet.
It is dangerous to believe, and not just because of the intolerance to its substantive practice in the public square. It’s dangerous to believe because it changes your life and challenges us to something better. And if we’re better, we’ll see again why it’s so necessary.
In the spirit of thanksgiving and justice, pick up a little wisdom from Judge Bork.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.