Religion in the Public Square

Debates about religion in the public square traditionally go something like this:

Secularists argue: “We live in a democracy based on the separation of church and state. No religious group has the right to impose its morals on others. Rather, we must base our policies in universal — hence, secular — principles. This requires us to leave behind our particularist, subjective religious views when we enter the public sphere.”

Religious politicos argue: “Our moral values are based in our religious beliefs. We cannot separate our identities and our values from our religion. If you try to exclude religion from the public square, then you will be excluding us.”

I’ll offer my own heterodox take, which doesn’t really fit into either side: At the most abstract plane, I think the secularist position is philosophically problematic. Can we really draw a clear demarcating line between secular moral beliefs and religious moral beliefs? Does a person who is now secular, but whose moral intuitions were initially informed by the hymns she heard on her mother’s lap as a child, have religious values? What about Jews who are secular, but who have taken their ethical views from Jewish intellectual traditions that draw their inspiration from the Talmud? Are these people bringing religion into the public sphere when they advocate policies that are grounded in these values? On the spectrum from, on one end, a Catholic who accepts all church Doctrine, to, on the other end, a now-atheist whose moral intuitions were formed by flirtations with Christianity and Buddhism, where is the dividing line between secular and religious value? The line between religious and non-religious moral beliefs, it seems to me, is fuzzy. Stepping back even further: Is this distinction even a valid one? From a logical positivist perspective, all moral values are subjective — i.e., they are not physical things in the world that we can discover through scientific methods, hence they are products of human subjectivity. For the logical positivist, then, secular ethics are no more universal than religious ethics.

Given this, don’t the religious have a valid philosophical point? If their identities, and the whole bases of their ethics, are grounded in religion, then can we really expect them to give these up when entering the public sphere? Aren’t they right that barring their values from the public sphere would in fact bar their selves? And isn’t this unacceptable in a Democracy? It seems reasonable for secularists to say to religious believers, “We do not think your religion is true.” But it does not seem reasonable to say, “To participate in our Democracy, you must leave behind what you believe to be truth.”

So I see the expectation that religious believers undergo a sort of secular hygiene before entering the public sphere as seriously problematic on a theoretical, philosophical level.

HOWEVER, in practice — on the more practical plane — I think the actual manifestations of religious belief in the public sphere are often problematic and unhelpful. And this is, very simply, because I doubt that ancient religions (I do not use the term derisively) really have much to say about setting policy in our incredibly socially, technologically, and politically complex and interconnected 21st century. The core of the Abrahamic faiths, it seems to me, is the idea that man is made in the image of God, and that we must thus love and respect and value every human being as an end in and of herself. This is an enormously important, serious, good, wonderful belief, and we would all do well to better heed it in our daily lives. But in the 21st century, we almost all agree on the surefire applications of this moral dictum — i.e, we all agree that brutal oppression and hatreds are bad and that we’ should to promote general welfare and opportunity. The things we’re still debating are the issues where it is not clear how best to achieve the goal of lovingly providing for all human beings, or how to trade off  conflicting obligations to different people. For example, advocates of greater social welfare policies want to help the poor, but so do detractors of these programs, who fret that the programs could have perverse, unintended consequences. Proponents of school choice hope to give better opportunities to talented and ambitious, but underprivileged students; opponents of school choice worry that such a policy will make the worst schools and students even worse. The best advocates of both sides believe they are defending human dignity. So I’m not sure any rabbi or priest or imam can actually claim authority on these issues, even among her/his own followers. The Abrahamic faiths can remind us to take our moral obligations here seriously — but they can’t actually tell us what are the best policy tools with which to meet those ethical goals.

So how should we deal with religion in the public sphere?  The answer is that we should all, as ever, just be more democratic and inclusive and tolerant and conversant, and less prickly and chauvinistic and closed and assertive. Religious leaders shouldn’t presume to think that their faith, however deeply felt, gives them a special insight into policy — they shouldn’t try to claim religious authority for questions that hinge on open social-scientific questions. Nor can they, I think, claim religious authority to, for example, oppose same-sex marriage on the basis of their religions’ traditional sexual morality — because this is clearly an issue in which traditional religious sexual morality is coming into conflict with the religious goal of acknowledging every person as an image of God, and it’s not clear that religion itself compels choosing the former value in that tradeoff. And secularists shouldn’t feel threatened or get hot and bothered. Instead of saying, essentially, “Take your religious hat off while you are here,” they should say things like, “But are you sure that this policy is the right application of your ethics? I think it’s quite complicated,” and, “Can you really claim the authority of your religion for this? But some of your co-religionists, over there, disagree.” And both sides should say, “We’re married together, in this democracy, so we’ll both give and take to make this marriage work.”

My readers and peers presumably think mostly of the religious Right when they read this. But I also think of the nuns and the Georgetown faculty who, for example, protested recent Republican budget proposals because they cut programs that had been intended to help the poor. I trust the nuns and faculty are excellent people, who understand Catholic moral theology better than I do. But I doubt they can claim its authority. After all, Paul Ryan proposed his budget in the belief that smaller, less onerous government, and a more secure fiscal future,  would promote economic growth that would expand employment opportunities for the poor. Now, that idea is certainly debatable — and that’s just the point. Given that we continue to debate how the best policy tools to help the poor, the nuns can’t claim that Catholic moral theology itself gives us the right answer.


The priming for this post, by the way, is that I was reading up on Turkey for a new research project. Prime Minister Erdogan has definitely made mistakes in his term. But I think some of his efforts to give more space for the public representation of the Turkish population’s Islamic character have not been entirely misguided. Indeed, that space could actually protect against backlashes that could nurture dangerous radicalism. I hope to have more thoughts on this in the future…


2 thoughts on “Religion in the Public Square

  1. You have said – ‘But in the 21st century, we almost all agree on the surefire applications of this moral dictum — i.e, we all agree that brutal oppression and hatreds are bad and that we’ should to promote general welfare and opportunity. The things we’re still debating are the issues where it is not clear how best to achieve the goal of lovingly providing for all human beings, or how to trade off conflicting obligations to different people.’ I think that is only half of the story!
    I think that just as John Hayden points out (I just read it momentarily and thought what a valid point), in his comment on ‘The Debt Bias’ that human nature often uses excuses, so do those claiming to have religious authority or any other knowledge. This means we not only have warring sides both claiming to know what is best, we also have many on each side who are claiming to ‘agree on the surefire applications of this moral dictum’ but actually do not even understand its meaning, let alone how to achieve it. In fact, this is no doubt causing the warring! So many ‘ sheep in wolve’s clothing’. Little wonder the waters are so muddy! (I’m not claiming to have the purifier though!).

    • Sorry, I wrote the above while half asleep and realised I meant to type ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’. I’ve clearly got my mind on the wolves when it ought to be on getting to bed! Night night, Pleasant dreams!

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