Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Religion in the Public Sphere

There's been much uproar lately about purported attempts by both Left and Right to shape public policy in an idiosyncratic and undemocratic way. The Right says this about what they call 'activist' judges. The left says this about the religious Right and their attempt to outlaw abortion and stem cell research.

Of course examples could be multiplied, but I'll not take the time to do so. My intent is not to weigh in on this or that issue but rather to say something about the place of religious belief in the public sphere. Some say that when one enters into public debate about public policy, one must leave one's religious beliefs behind. (I've heard this said both by the Right and the Left, but the charge seems more often to originate from the Left.) Others says that religious belief must be the prime if not the sole source of one's political views.

These two opinions about the place of religion in the public sphere are the extremes, and is so often the case with extremes, both must be rejected. The secular extreme requires the impossible. Religious folk can't simply shed their religious beliefs when they enter into political debate. The religious beliefs of religious folk penetrate to the very core of their being. They can no more shed them than they can shed their skin.

But this is not reason to embrace the religious extreme. Much that religious folk here in the U.S. believe should not be written into law. Christians hold that they must attend church, and yet I expect all will agree that church attendance should not be mandated by the law. (Christians are often adamant about this and other related matters. The expression of belief, they say, must be free.)

Thus in political debate we cannot ask religious folk to pretend that they are not religious. But we cannot allow them to simply impose their religious views upon others. What then are we to do? What is the place of religion in the public sphere?

My suggestion is this. It is quite legitimate to bring one's religious beliefs to bear in political debate, but when one does so, one must search for arguments that do not presuppose membership in one or another sect. Rather one's reasons must be, insofar as this is possible, universal in the sense that they have the potential to sway all who hear. If one has no universal reasons to give, one must no longer attempt to write one's views into policy. Consider the example of abortion. For many, their opposition to abortion has its foundation in their religious world-view. Ought opposition to abortion that has a religious source have a place in political debate? Of course it ought. (We should say as well that inevitably it will.) But how ought opposition to abortion be justified in political debate? Is it legitimate for religious folk to say that it ought to be outlawed because it's contrary to God's will as revealed in Scripture? It most certainly is not, for that justification appeals only to a certain sect and its idiosyncratic views. A legitimate justification is one that makes appeal to some universal moral principle on which all can be expected to agree. Perhaps that principle is that it's wrong for anyone anywhere to intentionally kill an innocent human being. But no matter what we think about this matter (and even if we think that abortion should not be illegal) still we must say that in the public sphere, reasons must be universal.

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