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The Future of Civil Society   

Michael Novak

After the fall of the evil collectivist regime that insisted on “the scientific study of atheism,” and that so dominated world history in the twentieth century, what is to be said about the construction of a normal, decent, human society? This question is of vital importance for the young democracies of Eastern and Central Europe; it is also crucial for more “seasoned” experiments in democracy, including our own.

The foundational error of communism — the error that led Leo XIII to predict in 1891 that communism could not and would not work, that it was not only evil but futile — was its atheism. More exactly perhaps, its dialectical materialist atheism. For one can imagine an atheist who is not a materialist but a humanist. Such atheists have a sense of irony and tragedy, and an instinct for community and compassion; and they grasp and defend the rules of right reason.

Still, atheism is a fundamental error about the possibilities open to humankind. Like a guillotine, it cuts off horizons that are in fact open. It foreshortens the human perspective. The religious impulse is as universal and deep in humans as the love for music — even deeper. At the same time, it is possible for humans, even those who love music, not to have an ear for it, not to be able, on their own, to carry a tune accurately. Similarly, it is possible for those who respect religion, and know its power and its rightful place, not to have an ear for it, as Friedrich Hayek confessed in The Fatal Conceit that he, alas, did not.

For reasons such as this, it is important for believers not to pass judgment on the state of soul of professed atheists. Some of them may in the depths of their consciences be as faithful to the light of honesty, compassion, and courage as it is given to them to be. With such light as they have, they may be in God’s eyes more pleasing in their fidelity than those to whom religious faith is given, but whose actual fidelity is less concrete.

In trying to force humans to believe that they are no more than random and temporary unities of matter, destined for oblivion, communism was obliged to deny far too many daily experiences. All around us, as the sociologist Peter Berger has put it, are “rumors of angels.” To be on constant guard against these in-breaking intimations of the infinite requires a fierce discipline — and, in the end, one that is as self-mutilating as that imposed upon youthful Spartan militants of old or, in our own century, on the Nazi extermination units inured to the cruelty commanded of them.

Let me put this in another way. Among many of those confined to the prisons and torture chambers of the twentieth century, who entered prison as atheists or agnostics, there were not a few who decided at a certain moment not under any circumstances to continue cooperating with the lie. Such persons learned through terror the difference between the lie and truth, and no matter the consequences entrusted themselves to truth. In such truth, they found shelter against injustice, cruelty, and brutal power. And many came to believe, in Solzhenitsyn’s words, that one word of truth is more powerful than all the arms of the world.

In 1989, that miracle year, so truth proved to be. And in this agonized way many came to the threshold of hope. In the experience of many, no God appeared to them in the darkness. And yet they knew, at last, what it is like to believe in God — to trust in the light, against the lie.

Thus, in trying to cut humans off by force from the transcendent origin of their own knowing and loving, Communism undid itself. Its project was futile from the first. In its very prisons and torture cells, it turned itself inside out. Its official materialism forced into evidence a nonmaterial love for truth, as opposed to the enforced official lies. And this, in turn, awakened silent reflection on the human significance of the indestructible instinct for truth in the human heart, no matter the material consequences. Why would anyone do something so lacking in pragmatism as to remain faithful to that instinct? What does that instinct say about the nature and existence of man? Despite itself, communism awakened wonder.

After establishing beyond the shadow of a doubt that atheism is like a snake’s skin, unable to contain the bursting dynamism of the human mind, communism made one other thing clear: that a city organized solely as a state is bound to be tyrannical, airless, suffocating, and doomed to debility. Thus there was awakened at the heart of Europe a spontaneous outcry for the air and oxygen of “the civic forum.”

Civil society

As has been recognized since the time of Adam Ferguson in Scotland (1723 - 1816), civil society is a larger, more supple social reality than the iron rods and stiff, formal structures designated by the term “state.” Civil society is constituted by conversations among free persons, associating themselves in a thousand inventive ways to accomplish their own social purposes, either with or entirely independent of the state. Civil society is the Internet that self-governing citizens construct for themselves over time, sometimes tacitly and unself-consciously, at times with full explicit purpose and deliberate voluntary choice.

But civil society is not an unambiguous term. Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, it sometimes connoted an informal network of aristocratic and other hereditary powers, who exercised considerable political authority behind the veils of state power. In other words, civil society was a euphemism for informal power parallel to, undergirding, and sometimes actually directing, the exercise of an often weaker state power. Civil society in this sense was a cover for real power. To it and to its hereditary and often tacit laws, the emperor himself frequently bowed.

The Habsburg talent, it has often been said, lay in forging informal consent among the disparate parts of the empire, chiefly through leaders whose authority derived from tradition. These the emperors did not so much command as gently herd toward tacit consensus, for their own mutual self-interest, and in the name of the practical common good of their subjects. That there was good faith and practical wisdom in these arrangements is evidenced by their longevity, and also by the relative loyalty they evoked in their subjects over many generations.

Nonetheless, such a regime was necessarily less meritocratic than suits modern ideas of liberty; less permeable by upward mobility than satisfies subjects longing to become citizens; and less open to the ideals of a new sort of city, the democratic city, which Tocqueville observed Providence bringing about in America. These new democratic ideals, Tocqueville predicted, would later move the souls of Europeans and others around the world. He was at least partly right. From the ashes of the ancien regime left by World Wars I and II, a regime more in tune with “the system of natural liberty” has everywhere been struggling to be born. Accurate emphasis falls upon “struggling.”

Thus, we must be careful to point out that what we mean by civil society today is not the civil society of the old Habsburg era, the civil society of the ancien regime, but a civil society conceived of after the American model. The ideal we seek need not be (should not be) exactly like the American model, but should certainly be closer to it than to the past of the ancien regime.

But what is the American model? Many commentators, especially those on the continent but also those Americans infected with continental ideas of a socialist, Rousseauian, collectivist cast, think that what dominates the American imagination is the individual, the lonely cowboy riding carefree on the prairie, the free and unconnected atomic self, the do-as-he-pleases outlaw on the frontier beyond the laws of the city. By contrast, Europeans, a visitor observes, tend to fear the independent individual; they visibly prefer people tied down by a thousand gossamer Gulliver’s threads of tradition, custom, and unquestioning willingness to do things as they have always been done.

A specter haunts Europe still — the specter of the free individual questioning the rationality of custom, tradition, and habit; the individual who is communitarian, but not wholly defined by his community.

Nonetheless, despite its reputation, the American character is not the exact opposite of the European character — is not purely individualistic — but communitarian without being intensely communal. The true inner heart of America, as Tocqueville grasped right at the beginning, is the art of association. In America, fifty years after the ratification of the Constitution of 1787, Tocqueville observed thousands of associations, societies, clubs, organizations, and fraternities invented by a self-governing people unaccustomed to being told by the state (or even by custom) what to do and when to do it. At the time of the revolution in France, he wrote, there were not ten men in all of France who were capable of practicing the art of association as most Americans practiced it.

In the new science of politics, Tocqueville added, the art of association is the first law of democracy. This art does not belong to Americans only. It is rooted in the social nature of man. Its source does not lie in the authority of the state (as in France) or of the aristocracy (as in Britain), but in the capacity of all citizens to originate cooperative activities with their fellows, without being commanded from above. The American is not the individual par excellence, but the practitioner of association par excellence. The American is through and through a social being. Virtually nothing significant gets done in America apart from free associations, of a virtually infinite number of kinds. In this view, the primary agency of the common good is civil society; the state is secondary.

In America, even the churches come to be conceived of as associations, formed out of the decisions of individuals either to associate themselves with historical communities or to form new sects never seen before. In practice, this conception of churches as associations has gained considerable plausibility, even for Catholics and Jews, who did not historically think of their communions in so individualistic a way. After all, when immigrants arrived in America, they could choose whether or not to continue in the faith they brought with them in the habits of their hearts. A great many chose not to. Nonetheless, probably a majority of both Christians and Jews elected to recreate communities of faith in the New World, in continuity with their fellows in Europe.

Four characteristics of civil society

The American conception of civil society, meanwhile, may be outlined swiftly in four propositions:

1. Civil society is a larger and deeper concept than state. Civil society is a moral reality conceptually prior to the state. To devolve power from the state to civil society is at the heart of the experiment in self-government. Self-governing citizens try to meet their social needs first through creating their own social organizations, and only as a last resort, when all else fails, through turning to the state. Turning to the state is considered a morally inferior, although sometimes necessary, way of proceeding — a falling away from the project of self-reliance and self-government.

2. The primary social institution of democracy is religion. “The first political institution of democracy,” Tocqueville wrote, is the churches and synagogues. The reason for this is twofold:

First, as Vatican Council II stressed, freedom of conscience is the first of all freedoms; it lies deeper than, and beyond the reach of, political institutions. The inner forum of conscience is beyond the reach of the political power, and morally prior to it. That is the meaning of the two American maxims: “One nation under God” and “In God we trust.” Even for atheists, the term “God” in these public maxims is intended as a sentinel protecting the realm of conscience (including the consciences of atheists) from the power of the state.

Second, as the historian of liberty Lord Acton noted, the concept and practice of liberty are in historical fact coincident with the history of Judaism and, even more so, Christianity. The decision of the Council of Jerusalem to baptize the Gentiles, without demanding that they first be circumcised, cut the link between birth as a son of a Jewish mother and faith, therefore invoking liberty of spirit as the primary condition of faith. The ideal of liberty in its full range, from liberty of conscience to liberty of speech, and including civil and political liberties, does not appear in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Shinto, or animist cultures.

Thus, to weaken the churches and synagogues is to dilute the source of convictions about personal liberty from which the concept and practice of civil society flow. Here, surely, is one reason why the communists were determined to destroy the churches and synagogues. Judaism and Christianity depend on, and defend like tigers, liberty of conscience.

Another reason why church and synagogue are central institutions of civil society is that they encourage their members to take up their social responsibilities in other civic institutions.

3. The separation of church and state, yes, but also the inseparability of politics and religion. As the twenty-first century approaches, after the experience of communism, one urgent need is as clear as Bohemian crystal: the need for a limited state, under the rule of law, with multiple checks and balances, and also other protections to rein in the power of the state. Among these protections is the disestablishment of the churches. The power of the state should not be enhanced by its identification with religion. Churches need to be free from state power.

Nonetheless, the separation of the coercive power of the state and the spiritual/moral power of the churches, as institutions does not mean that the concrete human being should become schizophrenic. It would be a violation of integrity for a human person to be split between being a political animal on one side and, in a separate compartment, a privatized spiritual/moral animal. The separation of church and state does not entail sealing off, in the minds of individuals, watertight compartments between religion and politics. On the contrary, the deepest motives for loving liberty, respecting the dignity of the person, and feeling identification with the life of the earthly city are religious. Psychologists find that religion is rooted more deeply in the psyche than politics; most people change their religion much more reluctantly than their politics. Religion is a matter of conviction; politics, a matter of practical judgment. On its many levels of consciousness, the human soul ought not to be divided against itself.

Therefore, public policies that affect both the polity and religion stir the souls of individuals in complex ways. Whether the issue is abortion, euthanasia, sex education, family life, or a host of other difficult questions, the intelligent person is likely to struggle with two different sets of criteria — moral and religious, on the one side, and political or social, on the other side.

It is wise, of course, not to confuse political reasoning with religious reasoning; even in the same person, these two modes are not the same. But the person of integrity cannot abandon either one. There are cases in which practical wisdom demands that one or the other must be given precedence. It is always a mistake, however, to simplify one’s decision-making simply by cutting one side of one’s mind out of the discussion and ramming through a partially considered decision.

4. Religion has a rightful place in the public square. Religion and politics do not meet only in the privacy of the heart; they also meet — and sometimes clash — in the public square. Here both the Protestant and the secular (libertarian) points of view sometimes fail to do justice to the realities involved. In many cases, it is imagined that religion is a mostly private matter, best confined within the closet of the individual’s soul. In this view, the liberal society depends upon a bargain: Religion will be tolerated, even respected, but only so long as it agrees never to enter the public square.

For Jews, Catholics, and others, this type of liberalism is oppressive, for in their understanding religion has a social and public dimension, just as each human being has. True religion does not consist solely in prayers conducted in private, but also in helping the widow, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor — and building up the city of man. Religion requires action in the world. Religion requires vitality, civil argument, and cooperative action in the public square. The individualistic and privatizing understanding of religion, whether of certain Protestants or of some libertarians, is too cramped and narrow. Religion ought not to be established; but neither ought it to be confined in merely private places. Religious persons must be free to express their arguments in the public square, and to take part in public actions. They ought to do so with conspicuous civility, but they ought to do so.

The public square should not be naked or empty. It should ring with civil argument about how a free people ought to order its life together. In that argument, religious people ought to have a voice — in practice, many voices.

The great reversal

One of the weaknesses in recent church-state relations is the assumption that religion belongs in the closet of privatized sentiment — not of conviction, but only sentiment; not a fruit of the critical mind, but only of the feelings. Actually, in this formulation, two mistakes are intertwined: first, that religion is a merely private internal matter; second, that religion is relativized, has nothing to do with mind or truth, but only expresses a preference or a feeling, without grounding in a judgment about reality.

At the founding of the democratic experiment, toward the end of the Enlightenment, democracy seemed strong and religion weak. Democracy commanded that religion accept certain demands: Religion would be tolerated if it agreed to be individualized, privatized, and relativized. Not only on pragmatic grounds, but for serious reasons of its own (having to do with the dignity of persons and an ideal of charity — caritas — as the form of human community), the Jewish and Christian communities agreed to play by the rules democrats prescribed.

But what has happened? Within two centuries, as the French philosopher Pierre Manent has argued, democracy has been diminished into a contest among special interests and a formalism of correct procedure. Democracy says little or nothing about man. It lacks a vision or even a clear statement of the criteria that any vision of a good society for free women and free men would have to meet. By affirming that it is sovereign over human nature and that it is, little by little, its own creator, with no plan laid down in advance, democratic humanity basically declares that it wills itself, without knowing itself. As Manent has observed, however, religion has conformed itself to all of democracy’s demands; democracy can make no complaints against it. But democracy’s silence on the question of man’s destiny has left the Jewish and Christian religions with a decisive advantage in that they offer such a teaching. In Manent’s words, “the relation unleashed by the Enlightenment is today reversed. No one knows what will happen when democracy and the Church become aware of this reversal.”

Finding the proper relation between state and civil society, and especially between the state and the church, is still a work in progress. No country seems to have gotten it quite right, just yet. But there is no question, compared with the youthful pride of two hundred years ago, that the arrogance of the democratic state has been curbed. Cynicism regarding politicians grows. The social assistance state and its budgetary resources are in crisis. Public and private morals tumble into decline.

The free society is a noble cause, but it is maintained only through constant vigilance. And such vigilance depends upon a firm idea of the possibilities and duties of humankind, the conditions demanded by natural liberty, and a commitment to distinguishing lies from truth. No one may “possess” the truth, but all must be committed to pursuing evidence wherever it leads; in that sense, all must remain open to truth. Truth is as necessary to liberty as air to fire.

In one of history’s sweetest ironies, it is today a pope, Pope John Paul II, who publicly defends reason and the idea of truth in the face of deconstructionists, postmodernists, and other children of the Enlightenment, who are nowadays renouncing both reason and truth and basing themselves on a metaphysic that recognizes only raw interests and disguised power. The pope defends reason, which the enlightened scorn. The pope speaks for truth discernible by reason, while the enlightened deny the possibility of truth, and clothe themselves in the interests of class, race, gender, and power. Speaking for reason and truth, John Paul II writes:

If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others.

In summary, it appears that Tocqueville was right in saying that without belief in a Creator to Whom everything that is is intelligible, because He understood it before He created it, and everything is graced and good because He loves it, the foundations of democracy are weak and likely to fail. It has not yet dawned on democratic humanists that the ecology of liberty rests upon a certain limited range of understandings both about human nature and about “the system of natural liberty.” Without a concept of truth, people cannot reason with each other or converse with each other in the light of evidence. Without a commitment to truth, reason is irrelevant, only power matters. Religions, certainly those that speak of the Creator and Final Judgment, keep alive in consciences standards of truth beyond personal preferences.


Novak, Michael. “The Future of Civil Society.” Crisis 14 no. 8 (September 1996).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit educational organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.


Michael Novak, the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize, has served as Ambassador of the U.S. Delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva (1981-82) and head of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1986). His essays and reviews have been published in numerous journals, including The New Republic, Commentary, Harper’s, First Things, and National Review. He has also written some 26 books, including, The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and, most recently, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Among his many honors are the International Prize by the Institution for World Capitalism (received with Milton Friedman and Va´clav Klaus) and the Antony Fisher Prize for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, presented by Margaret Thatcher.

Copyright © 1996 Crisis



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved