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.” The term comes, as you might remember, from District of Columbia Court of Appeals Judge Robert Bork, who President Ronald Reagan nominated for Supreme Court in 1987. As his wife, Mary Ellen Bork, recalls it, “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, Bork wrote best-selling books, including “Slouching Toward Gomorrah,” which was published 20 years ago.
I’ve been walking around with the book in my purse on and off for the past few months, rereading it. As Mrs. Bork puts it, her husband’s “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.”
When you wonder how President-elect Donald Trump happened, that is, a reality TV star winning the highest office in the land, you should consult Bork. A whole lot stopped making sense in America, and it has been a long road — that slippery slope you’ve no doubt heard of.
One of the paragraphs I found most searing when it 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 if it invades your work, your civic life, and certainly not the law. Unless, that is, your religion is liberal secularism.
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.” He went on to say that “references to bigotry” and “demagoguery” seem to mean little more than that the author would like to impose a very different set of values.”
Fast-forward two decades, and Mary Eberstadt has written a book titled “It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies.” In it, 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 offers a way to live that is challenging and even beneficial to society — from the public square.
In “Slouching Toward Gomorrah,” 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: People 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 figurative, 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 intolerance. It’s dangerous to believe because it changes your life and challenges you 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.