The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

Written by Stephen D. Smith Reviewed By Mark Ward

Steven D. Smith has a knack for understanding, retelling, and probing the grand stories that guide us. In The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity he does just this for one of the key “theological themes” of our Western grand narrative: conscience. The story Smith tells about conscience is complicated but also clear and compelling. It moves from Thomas More through James Madison to the present day, represented by the figure of William Brennan.

Once upon a time, Renaissance man and English political leader Thomas More chose conscience over life. His daughter Meg, his famous intellectual complement, begged him to reconsider. She appealed to his reputation; she informed him that (quoting Smith) “even his friends looked upon him (as his wife Alice openly did) not as some paragon of courage and integrity”—as he would later be portrayed in A Man for All Seasons—“but rather as a pig-headed fool” (p. 14).

More would not budge, however. He regarded both the individualist approach to conscience that led his theological enemy, Martin Luther, to prefer his private exegetical opinion over that of the church, and the individual preference King Henry VIII felt for the Leviticus passage that justified his divorce as acids threatening to disintegrate the body politic. More, therefore, would stick with the judgment of the Catholic Church. Smith expresses the contrast this way: “To Luther, conscience had an individualist or subjective (and hence, potentially, radical or socially disruptive) character. Whereas for More conscience had a primarily communal (and hence conservative) quality” (p. 32).

But there was a contradiction hiding inside More’s view of conscience: by standing against the king, he himself was standing against practically all England and threatening to disrupt its body politic. This reveals, as Smith adeptly shows, that the faculty of conscience almost unavoidably tends toward the individualistic. Conscience is not merely sensing what God wishes; it is sensing what the individual believes to be what God wishes.

This brings us to the middle figure of the three waypoints in Smith’s story: James Madison. Madison lived in a very different world from that of More. Indeed, the proliferation of opinions, even Christian ones, prevalent in Madison’s day, suggests the arrival of the very world that More feared Luther would bring about.

Madison was tasked with helping form a body of laws that would “hold a religiously pluralistic nation together” (p. 152). But in his efforts to do so, he not only produced rights language that would reverberate through American history, but he unwittingly furthered the Western disintegration of conscience. This is apparent in the Madison-amended version of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights (1776), which states:

Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience. (p. 62)

Smith shows that this apparently anodyne statement actually represents a significant disintegration of the Western Christian conscience, for it employs a non sequitur that many thoughtful people of the past, Thomas More prominent among them, would have rejected utterly. The premise is correct: true religion cannot be coerced. But it simply does not follow that “therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”

Christian thinkers had previously argued that maintaining an established Christian church taught unbelievers the truth, kept heretical and anti-Christian ideas from spreading, and maintained social order. But Smith argues that Madison’s approach to the role of religion in public life—despite his own repeated appeals to Christian theism—undercut Christianity and replaced it with a new religion, Madison’s religion, the Gospel of Conscience.

Madison took what for More was a sort of peripheral corollary of the Christian faith and made it the centerpiece of his credo. For More, it was Christianity that consecrated conscience. For Madison, it was conscience that consecrated Christianity—and that consecrated other sincerely held faiths as well. (p. 126)

In a lynchpin statement for his book’s argument, Smith incisively expands on the significance of this change:

Both More and Madison could affirm: “I must do what (I believe) God wants me to do.” But the emphasis is subtly shifting, from an accent on “God” to an accent on the “I.” “I must do what (I believe) God wants me to do” is becoming “I must do what I believe (God wants me to do).” Might someone complete the transformation by just lopping off the final clause—so that conscience means something like “I must do as I believe”? Get rid of the “God,” in other words, and save only the “I believe”? (p. 126, emphasis original)

This brings us to US Supreme Court Justice, William Brennan, who did just this. Brennan, a practicing Catholic, both elevated conscience and, as it were, etiolated it.

Brennan, like “Al Smith before him and John Kennedy shortly after him” (p. 140), had to explain to a still predominantly Protestant nation how he could perform his judicial duties faithfully given his allegiance to the pope. He reached directly for a compartmentalized, privatized view of his own religion, a religion (he insisted) that would not tell him what to do as a judge.

But what sense does it make for someone to say, “I believe in the normative criteria provided by my Christian faith, but only when it comes to religious matters”? What moral criteria can a Christian judge draw from apart from Christian ones? How could Brennan unite his now very much fragmented public and private personas? Smith shows that this union was made by an appeal to conscience.

A minor weakness in Smith’s argument may be that Brennan did not actually write the infamous words his “successor and admirer,” David Souter did: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (p. 181). But Smith shows that the “sovereign self” whom philosopher Charles Taylor describes, the self of expressive individualism, is very much recognizable in the thinking of William Brennan. In this view,

what matters is not whether a person’s beliefs are true but instead whether the person is acting sincerely. And, increasingly, this version of what conscience means and requires would come to be described in the vocabulary of—and would modulate into—a new concept: “authenticity.” (p. 174)

Conscience has traveled a long way, and down a broad road.

It is bracing and sobering as an American Christian to read Smith. One discovers that the stories and laws undergirding us are not as solid as many of us have assumed. Some are fictions, if necessary ones (see his book Fiction, Lies, and the Authority of Law [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021]). Some are running on the final fumes of Christendom.

But the whole road has not been traveled. There is yet more disintegration to be had. The reader feels a sense of impending doom at the end of Smith’s book, because the road away from God is both terrifying and unstable. Smith calls this instability, rather cleverly, “The Insolvency of the Sovereign Self” (p. 183).

The idea of personhood or self as chosen also poses an awkward conceptual question: If I get to choose my own self, who is the “I” that does the choosing? Doesn’t the proposition that every person does or should choose who he/she/they/it is contradict itself by (necessarily) positing a chooser (presumably with some sort of identity) to begin with? (p. 198)

To watch very intelligent Westerners, from More to Madison to Brennan, stumble further and further away from God is a painful experience for someone who knows where the conscience came from and to what it is supposed to point (Rom 2:14–15).

If I have a criticism of The Disintegrating Conscience of the Modern West, it is the same criticism I have of Smith’s other books: it seems odd for him to eviscerate false views (and then to efficiently and gleefully burn the viscera) but not to propose much in the way of solutions. In this, Smith is very much like Stanley Fish. My encouragement to him is to write a book telling us what he really thinks, positively speaking, or where we can find out.

Mark Ward

Logos Bible Software
Bellingham, Washington, USA

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