Saturday, July 14, 2007

Religion in the Public Sphere, Rev. 1

(I've resurrected a prior post and given it a substantial rewrite. I hope to get it published as an opinion piece in a local newspaper. Any suggestions would be welcome.)

There's been much uproar lately about purported attempts by both Left and Right to shape public policy in ways that critics charge are undemocratic. James Dobson of Focus on the Family condemns so-called “activist” judges who he says put personal ideology over loyalty to the Constitution. The so-called “New Atheists” – men like Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – decry religion and argue that it has a corrosive effect on the democratic ideals of society. The Left accuses the religious Right of a conspiracy to impose a Christian world-view on non-Christians and cite the efforts to outlaw abortion and stem-cell research as evidence of this. The religious Right accuses the secular Left of conspiracy too, a conspiracy to wipe out all trace of Christianity from the public sphere.

Examples could be multiplied. We live in a society where a secular Left and a religious Right hurl accusations across what might seem an unbridgeable political divide. My intent is not to weigh in on this or that particular issue but rather to say something about the place of religion in the public sphere. Some say that when we enter into public debate about public policy, we must leave our religion 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 say that religious belief must be the primary 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 as 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 no 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 everyone will agree that church attendance should not be mandated by law. I don’t mean to suggest that Christians hold that any purely religious duty should be written into law. Indeed most say precisely the opposite. No Christian of whom I know hopes for the emergence of a Christian body of law – a kind of Christian correlate of Muslim sharia - that will control behavior in minute detail. My point is only that we must reject both the secular and the religious extremes. Religion can’t be forbidden a place in the public sphere, but neither can it be allowed to dictate the practices of non-religious folk.

So then we must seek for an intermediate view – a view that lies between the secular and religious extremes. But where is that mean between the two extremes? What is the reasonable compromise, the compromise to which all parties can agree?

My suggestion is this. It is quite legitimate to bring your religious beliefs to bear in political debate. But if you do so, you must give arguments that do not presuppose loyalty to your religious world-view. Rather your reasons must be, insofar as this is possible, universal in the sense that they have the potential to sway everyone who hears. If you have no universal reasons to give, you must no longer attempt to write your views into law. We live in a democratic society. When issues to do with the common good arise, no one group may simply impose its views on another. Rather each group must enter into the realm of public debate and there give reasons that have at least the potential to sway its opponents. But reasons like that – reasons that have the potential to sway one’s opponents – must be universal. They must be reasonable in themselves and not presuppose commitment to one or another religious world-view.

Consider the example of abortion. For many, their opposition to abortion has its foundation in their religious world-view. Should opposition to abortion that has a religious source have a place in political debate? Of course it should. (We might say as well that it will inevitably have a place there. As said, no one can simply shed a deeply held belief.) 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 presupposes a Christian commitment to the truth of the Bible, and that commitment is not universally held. A legitimate justification is one that makes appeal to some universal moral principle to which everyone 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), we must say that in the public sphere, reasons must be universal.


C Grace said...

Good post. I think the problem is that people confuse universal moral principles for religious principles and then defend them as such. We call such things as defending life a "Christain" morality when in reality it is simply part of the universal moral law inbuilt into our very nature.

In reality this is a symptom of the poor grasp of our own religion that Christians have. We are called to a higher law then simply universal morality but many Christains never move out of the merely human into the truly Christain experience.

II Peter 1 says therefore add to your faith goodness, (which I interpret here as the universal morality), to goodness, knowledge; to knowledge, self control; to self control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love.

Very many Christains never get past goodness and knowledge because they fail to really enagage in the battle with our sinful passions and self-will in order to attain true godliness, brotherly kindness and love.

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks. I always do learn from you.

I'm in the middle of Peter Brown's biography of Augustine. He (Augustine) has quite a bit to say about the passions and their distortion. (Much of it comes in the Confessions.) We are born, he says, with an innate propensity to desire what we ought not desire. We then act upon those desires, and those sinful acts soon become habit. When we reach adulthood, those habits hold us so tightly that by ourselves we cannot break their bond. Only with the help of the Spirit can the bonds be broken. But Augustine is not optimist here. Both in himself and in others, he saw that the Christian must often struggle with these evil habits, and indeed will take them to the grave. He sees no final release until after death.

Perhaps the point is to drive home to us - make us realize in the very core of our being - our complete and continual dependence on God for whatever good we do. If our sinful habits were simply lifted from us, we would no doubt be tempted to congratulate ourselves on our fine moral character and lord it over others who are still mired in sin. Perhaps there is compassion in God's decision not to simply "fix" us.

jdavidb said...

This might help some folks' developing thinking: I consider this to be the foundation of the universal morality. It is built on the axiom of self-ownership. (And if we do not agree that others own themselves, we truly cannot agree on anything.) Given that one premise, we should be able, I think, to agree on everything explained in this presentation.

It makes no reference to religion and requires no belief in religion. It certainly doesn't teach all the lessons of religion: it teaches nothing about man's relationship to God, nor does it require altruism and benevolence. It completely condemns practically everything done in the political sphere, though. :)