Good Neighbors Make Good Fences

A free and pluralistic society is strengthened, not weakened, by religious belief and love of neighbor.

“Flowers Through a Fence”
“Flowers Through a Fence” (photo: Klimkin / Pixabay/CC0)

Over the last few years there has been an acceleration of a trend dating back at least to the late 1700s: a liberal concern with a perceived illiberal tendency in religion. From Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published 1776–1789) to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea that religion is peculiarly likely to promote oppression has remained a regular contributor to debates about the nature of a good society.

Certainly religion has colored many a military conflict; there are also myriad conflicts involving people fervently devoted to the same religion. Which of these two facts is the more scandalous to religion itself is a fair question. Yet even without religion, the world has consistently managed to upset itself, as the 20th century proved.

Nevertheless, the specter of fundamentalist government haunts some opinion makers. Recently Katherine Stewart explored Josh Hawley’s religiosity in a New York Times article, “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage.” Stewart, who has made an extensive study of the religious right, worries that “Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.” She draws this conclusion from Hawley’s critique of Pelagius, who held (in her characterization of Hawley’s analysis) “that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.” This Pelagianism redux is found (Stewart reports Hawley as arguing) in Anthony Kennedy’s suggestion that “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” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992).

According to Hawley, the idea that human beings have complete power of choice over their own lives is dangerous; according to Stewart, Hawley’s is the truly dangerous idea.

Both ideas are dangerous, of course. But of the two, it is Hawley’s which (whatever its latent link to fundamentalist tyranny) has more purchase in reality.

Every society restricts how people can live their lives. Asserting a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is one such restriction — when the Declaration of Independence claims these rights for my neighbor, they deny me the right to define my own concept of ideal existence as piratical. Now of course, laws against murder, slavery and theft do seem at first blush to be reasonable exceptions to the absolute freedom desired by Pelagius, Kennedy and Stewart — after all, it is only fair that my freedom to choose how to live my life should not infringe upon my neighbor’s equivalent freedom.

But we hardly stop at this libertarian ideal. Depending on where in America you live, you may find yourself in a neighborhood that bans smoking, littering, public drunkenness, public indecency, threatening language, driving on the wrong side of the road, jaywalking, making too much noise, having a house of the wrong colors, certain types of yard displays (political, seasonal or religious) and failing to wear a mask. In fact, as a society we are constantly infringing upon each other’s liberties.

These laws restricting absolute freedom inevitably come about because we share spaces with one another. My apartment may be mine, but it abuts my neighbor’s, and he may rightly complain about how much noise I make, or the strange smell coming from my door. (Salmon, I promise — nothing but day-old salmon.) My front lawn may be mine; but the three-ring circus display that I put up to honor my membership in the Church of Clown is an eyesore, one at which my neighbors may be justly distressed.

These disagreements among neighbors are apt to worsen as a society becomes yet more (as Stewart puts it) “modern, liberal, [and] pluralistic.” The more differently my neighbor and I see the world, the more differently we define our meaningful existences, the more likely it is that her idea of a good front yard and mine may differ.

Two theoretical solutions are frequently proposed, both of which ought to be rejected by Catholics. One is simply to keep all defining marks private. Within the four walls of one’s home, one may be as eccentric as cheese (provided that all noisome odors and odious noises are tamped down). One’s yard should be immaculately inoffensive. Conversation with the neighbors should be kept to a bland minimum on suitably neutral topics like the weather and the perdition of the Yankees.

The other alternative is to ensure that everyone who lives nearby agrees about everything, either by forming an HOA or locating a suitable commune. This idea is less unpalatable than the former, but only marginally more practical, and may have a number of unintended and undesirable effects.

The third alternative I dub the Halloween Option. And the Halloween Option is, I think, such a seed as might actually root a truly liberal, truly catholic (and thus Catholic-friendly) society.

My family lives in a diverse suburb. Not many people in this area know each other; many are here because of jobs. The one day when everyone in the neighborhood feels comfortable going door to door and talking with their otherwise stranger neighbors — is Halloween. That’s right: Halloween. Because America has a weird cultural thing about knocking on strangers’ doors in frightful costumes with cute kids in tow, and asking for candy.

But Halloween comes but once a year; civic concord is hardly built on so small a foundation. What if we all went door to door, say, some time in December, and sang songs from our own faith traditions (or lack thereof)? I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and am rewarded by songs about latkes, luck and prosperity, and Frosty the Snowman. I could live with this. (They used to call it “caroling,” I believe.)

Or what if we decided on July 4th to close off the block to cars after 9 p.m. and invite all our neighbors out for sparklers and conversation about the first Independence Day? (Debates about whether 1776 or Hamilton is more historically incorrect will be welcome.)

What if we did the same on Easter Sunday for an egg hunt?

What if we had a Halloween-style walk around on Veterans or Memorial Day? Instead of Halloween décor signaling the houses to approach, you could have patriotic colors; and the homeowners could talk about their own experience or a relative’s, sharing stories and photos. Presidents’ Day could be the same, except that the experiences shared could be of anything related to government or civic service. Valentine’s Day could be for teenagers to walk around and ask the old folks for their “here’s how I met my spouse” stories.

The bottom line is simply this: a modern, pluralistic society can remain truly liberal only if, rather than trying to paper over its pluralism, we actually form bonds with our neighbors: learn about them, talk to them, even become friends with them. Only once we have the easy conversations can we have the hard ones — the ones that make Stewart and Hawley enemies — about abortion, fighting poverty, family structure, education and every other culture war issue bedeviling the divided republic.