Repost from 2012. Seemed timely. I did not have time to edit it down, so sorry for the untidiness I am sure it contains.
The following reflection came as a result of a question my wife asked me the other day about the Democrats’ debate over the words “God-given.” I had taken a few moments to email her my response, but since then I have been thinking more and more about what’s at stake in this debate. My thoughts are a bit tangled and dense and partial, but it seems worthwhile to toss in my 2 cents as it becomes increasingly important to shed more light than heat in these pre-election days.
DNC and Secularism
The vigorous debate during the Democratic National Convention over whether or not to remove “God” from its platform is related to the Party’s more general adoption of a certain conception of what role religion should/should not play in a secular State. Their position, regardless of one’s judgment of its truth claims, is an attempt to intelligently respond to an unavoidable and complex question: How does a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy negotiate among seemingly irreconcilable differences while preserving social and political unity?
In highly simplified form, the liberal democratic view argues that creating a political context for religious pluralism to flourish requires faith-based reasoning (i.e. arguments drawn from the sacred texts or the worldview of a religious tradition) to be considered as a non-public form of reason which, therefore, cannot serve as the basis for the laws that govern public life. In this view, faith-based arguments are disqualified from possessing any publicly binding force by the very fact that they arise from a distinctive theological tradition. Within in a pluralistic society, they argue, this would allow the part to determine the whole.
This premise, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to a progressive excision within the socio-political order of all explicit forms of “religious reasoning” in defining rights and duties. What replaces such religious reasoning? A secular form of reason that is considered to be truly rational, critical and objective, freed from the irrational/supra-rational biases religion is said to bring. Here “secular” means a God-sanitized worldview devoid of any transcendent or theological meaning. Such a God-sanitized view of justice and human fulfillment is to be based, the argument goes, on a “reasonable consensus” funneled through a legislative or judicial process. Such prevailing consensuses are understood to be invested with the binding force of “public reason,”arrived at by a thoroughly secularized, and therefore reasonable people.
It is this last claim to a truly rationally grounded justice that really becomes for secularists the sticky wicket, as it begs the question (as Alasdair McIntyre phrased it), whose justice and which rationality gets to be considered the enforceable one, as there are many competing claimants to these titles. Do majority groups claiming reason on their side determine truth claims?
This version of the secular State attempts to solve the challenges found in a religiously pluralistic democracy by cleansing the temple of public life from all vestiges of religious reasoning and rhetoric and putting in religion’s place an alternative ideology that — it is argued — is capable of bearing a sufficient neutrality to allow for a peaceful and fair coexistence. Religion is privatized and hemmed in by the truth claims of “public reason,” punished when it transgresses its carefully traced out ghetto walls. Such secularists argue that their approach alone is capable of negotiating the seemingly irreconcilable differences among religious traditions by leaving, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called it, a Naked Public Square where all are welcome to engage in non-religious reasoning without distinction or judgment (sic). In the religion-free zone, tolerance, the Queen of the Virtues, allows religious people to be themselves in the privacy of their own heart and personal opinion.
In a culture dominated by this form of secularism, the social-psychological effects tend, as I said, toward the radical privatization of religion, cultivating a mindset among religious practitioners that religiously-based language and worldviews are to be seen as a strictly personal and private affair. Such a culture levies stiff social sanctions on anyone who attempts to proclaim or argue for truth-claims that arise from reason informed by faith. Evangelization becomes proselytizing, and faith-inspired arguments are deemed intrusive, aggressive and intolerant impositions of private and non-binding reasoning on the naked public square. Religious truth is seen as a threat to the inviolable integrity of pluralistic worldviews that are, by their very diversity, the soul of a truly democratic society. Truth, it is argued, transgresses the neutral safe-zone that buffers a rival Church and State. Because it makes universal and binding claims on reason, truth makes those who’ve rejected it feel unfairly “judged” by its purveyors. Only the contemporary incarnations of secular reason, garnered by a democratic consensus, can claim authority to judge.
I’d argue that this nearly invisible cultural air we breathe is far more important in effecting the progressive elimination of religion from public life than is the highly visible political/legal battle. Cultural revolutions precede and empower political and legal revolutions.
It’s About Morality
In addition, it is the moral dimension of religious traditions’ reasoning that comes to the fore in the struggle for dominance in the public square, especially in regard to the Big Three moral battlegrounds: life-issues, marriage, sexuality. Moral questions serve as the prime subjects of the naked public square’s ravenous appetite for total control. That’s an important point to make, as the moral assertion of the inviolable dignity of all human life or of marriage as heterosexual, indissoluble and monogamous historically originates in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief in a God who created humanity in the divine image and established a determinate moral order that is known both by divine revelation and right reason. So anyone who wishes to deconstruct these moral arguments in favor of, for example, abortion or same-sex marriage knows they must contend with their theological associations.
Now, these arguments can, a Catholic would say, be persuasively made apart from theological sources because faith and reason are harmonious. But because our culture usually abhors such fine distinctions it’s usually quite easy for critics of faith-associated moral arguments to make a slam dunk, guilt-by-association argument, bringing a swift end to the hegemony of Judeo-Christian morality in America. Throw a “fanatic” epithet here, “fundamentalist” there and “bigot” over there, and the case is closed. Genuine dialogue is over.
This point reminds me of an interesting perspective a seasoned priest once shared with me. It went something like this:
A Catholic parent recently pleaded with me to speak to her son who had returned from his first year of college claiming to be an atheist. My first question to him was, “What’s the name of the girl you’re sleeping with?” In my experience, the rejection of organized religion or the idea of God is often arrived at through the back door of a morally dissonant life. My chosen lifestyle is incompatible with my faith, so I can either give up my immoral behavior, live in guilt or reject the faith. Not a tough choice for many. I say that many atheists or agnostics begin not as atheists but as amoralists who need atheism to sustain their desire to be unhindered.
Final Vatican Thoughts
I will end my considerations with a quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that weighs in on this debate with some keen insights:
In democratic societies, all proposals are freely discussed and examined. Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism. The oppression of the weak by the strong would be the obvious consequence. The marginalization of Christianity, moreover, would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization.