The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every sector of life around the globe. The contagion not only exacts a costly physical toll on those who contract the virus, but it also infects every sphere of society, undermining the economy, education, social structures, etc. The coronavirus, like a pressure cooker, exerts enormous strain on institutions and structures naively believed to be unshakeable—or, at the very least, far more stable.
No doubt, national security implications abound during this crisis. Indeed, Time and CBS have recently run stories analyzing what national security will look like in a post-coronavirus world. This contagion, as with most unprecedented crises, has the potential to redefine and reshape policies, procedures, and how the nation approaches its security and defense.
The coronavirus has exposed areas of weakness—many of them internal—and it is our duty to think carefully and respond to these fault lines.
The erosion of civility is perhaps one of the more domestic national security threats that the virus magnified in recent weeks. Certainly, civility was already corroding in American public life before the pandemic. Since the 2016 presidential election, many lamented the lack of civility in American public discourse, with outlets like The Federalist, Huff Post, and The New York Times arguing that diminishing civility represented a serious threat to national security. In recent weeks, as the nation lurches toward recovery, the virus exposes the fragility of civility in America with protests erupting in city after city. An ice cream parlor became the scene of a riot, and a disgruntled woman opened fire in a McDonald’s lobby after being denied service inside the restaurant. One paper specifically called for civility during these turbulent times—no doubt, as November approaches, the clarion summons for civility will fall on deaf ears.
How could the eclipse of civility present a legitimate threat to national security? Is the loss of this virtue truly something to fret given the escalating calamities facing America and the nations of the world?
In a word, yes, and not because other issues like the economic recovery are any less important. The loss of civility as a public virtue, however, portends larger societal ills that threaten the very constitutional order of American society—the loss of civility undermines the pre-political values upon which our cherished liberties rely. Religious freedom and the freedom of speech, for example, stand or fall upon the strength of civility and our capaciousness in practicing it with others. In short, if civility flounders, the liberties that uphold our security will inevitably crumble.
Civility is far more than manners or rules that govern public discourse and conversation, which is why there is a direct connection between the health of civility and a nation’s national security. Civility certainly connotes politeness and respect in a debate, but that is a thin notion of civility, which will fail to sustain the necessary societal structures that this virtue supports. Thick civility, however, represents the mutual commitment of citizens to protect the freedom of the conscience and the free expression of ideas. No matter how repugnant we may find one another’s’ views, the virtue of civility demands our unwavering pledge to ensure the public expression of ideas, philosophies, and especially religious convictions, so long as those expressions in no way cause physical harm to other people.
There is a long, historical heritage of advocates for civility—voices who understood the centrality of this virtue for any ordered society. One such voice predated the formation of the United States by 150 years.
Roger Williams was born in 1603 but moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. By 1634, Williams incensed the civil and religious authorities by spreading what they believed were seditious political principles and eternally perilous theological doctrines. The church excommunicated Williams, and the General Court banished him from its jurisdiction. They intended to put Williams on a ship back to England, which would have likely ended in his imprisonment or execution given the religious and political climate of the nation under Charles I and his archbishop, William Laud. Williams, therefore, in the middle of a New England winter, fled into the wilderness. He later founded Providence Plantation and eventually secured the charter for the Rhode Island colony.
Williams enjoys copious scholarly and popular attention due to his views on religious liberty. In 1644, he published The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience and then a follow-up work in 1652 with the creative title The Bloody Tenet Yet More Bloody. These two books contained Williams’ political-theology and his robust defense of religious liberty. He asserted ideas well ahead of his time, even contending for the religious freedom of Catholics, Muslims, and Jews.
Williams understood religious liberty as a pre-political freedom. The natural law, moreover, testified to the necessity of the unconstrained conscience as part of the created order. Indeed, Williams believed that, by virtue of the imago Dei, God intended men and women to be free in their religious choices. No government or political society possessed the right over the conscience. Williams argued that coercing men and women into religious belief at best created a nation of hypocrites—at worst, it generated unrest and violent civil war. Indeed, throughout his writing, Williams pointed to the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War as evidence of what happened when nations suppressed the conscience and violated the natural law.
In this way, Williams posited a direct connection between a nation’s security and religious freedom. The suppression of the conscience, Williams argued, far from promoting security through a veiled sense of unity, brought all the world into combustion.
In contrast, the predominant political philosophy of his day asserted an indissoluble union between church and state as two distinct institutions bound together in the mutual pursuit of a pure religion and society—national unity and solidarity were contingent upon religious conformity. Williams rejected this political theology, arguing both from the scriptures and the natural law that coerced conformity never accomplished its stated purposes: it corrupted true religion with hypocrites who merely verbally assented to the demands of the state, and it threatened the internal security of a nation with unrest, civil disobedience, and eventually civil war. Indeed, as Williams writes, “Hence then I affirme, that there is no Doctrine, no Tenent so directly tending to breake the Cities peace, as this Doctrine of persecuting or punishing each other for the cause of conscience or Religion.”[i]
Profound and novel for his day, Williams, moreover, understood that for religious liberty and the freedom of the conscience to function, a society needed civility. Civility was for Roger Williams the necessary foundation of freedom. Williams asserted that civility was far more than being nice or promising not to raise one’s voice during a debate. Indeed, to the modern mind, Roger Williams used language that we might deem highly uncivil—he had no qualms with publicly stating that Native Americans worshiped the devil, nor did he temper his language when he levied a full polemical broadside against Quakers in his book George Fox Digged out of His Burrowes—but that was the point. Williams was far less concerned with niceness as he was with the ability to freely express ideas, to publicly proclaim disdain, and to boldly declare convictions.
In our contemporary moment, this ought to have implications on our own debates over crucial cultural issues. Though Williams used strong language, he did not try to shut down discourse by labeling his opponents as a bunch of bigots unworthy of his time. Indeed, his notion of civility pressed disparate groups together. Where others met Quakers with banishment or the hangman’s noose, Williams opened up theological dialogue. He went so far as to travel to Quaker settlements and debate with them on their terms.
Modern debates, however, are often over before they begin because disagreement is viewed as intolerance; divergence understood as signs of bigotry or racism. The refusal to have a conversation, even a heated and meaningful debate, does not arise out of a sense of conviction to not fraternize with those deemed culturally backward, but intellectual cowardice of the highest order.
Civility was the mutual commitment to protect the freedom of conscience, which was why Williams set up a colony in the seventeenth century that enabled diverse people to dwell together as neighbors. Niceness and a kind tone in debate were certainly amiable qualities, but these were, for Williams, far too thin a notion of civility. Thick civility—the civility upon which all liberty stood—was that fundamental pursuit by each individual to defend the rights of all people in the community. Every citizen bore the duty to ensure that each person could worship and speak freely, and to do so without fear of retribution.
Roger Williams, moreover, connected his notion of civility with the security of any community or nation. Without this commitment to civility, internal fissures undermined the foundation of a society, threatening its existence from within.
If Williams was right, it raises the stakes for any nation that progresses toward suppression of the conscience. Indeed, the erosion of religious liberty and freedom of speech point to far graver societal ills—they indicate a malnourished civility; they reveal a citizenry abdicating an essential responsibility to their neighbor and community.
As the United States moves toward the election of 2020—and as the political climate will, no doubt, assume a new level of volatility—we must see any threat against religious freedom and free speech as the national security threat that it is. We must press the case that the liberty upon which this nation was founded assumes a commitment to civility—to the free expression of ideas, beliefs, and religious convictions by all people. These are fundamental, pre-political liberties that require the virtue of civility to flourish.
[i] Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent yet More Bloody: By Mr Cottons Endevour to Wash It White in the Blood of the Lambe (London, 1652), 15.