Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism

How does a religious person behave in the public square? Does one do cartwheels across the intersection in order to draw attention to one’s convictions–perhaps knocking people over in the process? Or, does an ethical religious person stand shyly on a corner watching others shape discussion? Or park under a tree and advertise? Perhaps James Dobson speaks your language? According to Time magazine Dobson said Mitt Romney’s “Mormonism” speech was a “magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy.”

Think about Dobson’s words. Religious faith MUST play a role in government and public policy. Whose religious faith? Yours, mine, ours, a mulitplicity of faiths, mine today, someone else’s (Mitt’s) tomorrow? What exactly does he mean and, more importantly, what constitutes religious faith anyway?

Last Friday, I attended a  lecture at UC Irvine in which University of Notre Dame philosopher Robert Audi argued that a conscientious religious person ought to shed their faith commitments in the public square. Well, maybe he wasn’t as stark as all that, but he does believe secular reasoning is the only kind appropriate to public discourse.

Audi surprised me on a variety of levels. First, his eloquence was impressive. Second, his thesis was persuasive, if limited. Third, his repeated reference to assisted suicide as an example was either a simple coincidence or confirmation of reports I’ve heard that this topic dominates Ethics discussions at UCI.

Audi set aside church/state and corporate questions, limiting his topic to what individual ethical citizens should bring to public conversation in a pluralistic society. Here’s his outline, with my notes and commentary:

I. Background Assumptions

A. Liberty, equality and neutrality principles.  (Implicit in these assumptions is that religious and non-religious persons and institutions will be treated equally. Religious persons will not be preferred over non-religious [try telling that to the current crop of presidential candidates]).

B. A moral right to “maximal” liberty. (A free democracy should allow as much liberty as possible. For example, it might prohibit child sacrifice, but allow many behaviors that make a majority of citizens uncomfortable.)

II. Standards for Free Expression vs. Standards for Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. Advocacy and voting as subject to stronger ethical constraints than free expression. (He said advocacy, and voting as a kind of advocacy, can be coercive if done on religious grounds. During the Q&A, an attendee offered the teaching of Intelligent Design/Creationsim in public schools as an example of coercive advocacy. Audi agreed without reference to significant differences between the two. Another audience member asked if he was equating coercion with exposure. He didn’t believe so. For example, he said students on a school bus are a captive audience to whatever advertising is displayed there [Planned Parenthood and/or crisis pregnancy center ads]. His argument seems to imply that it would be wrong to vote for a political candidate on religious grounds, but perhaps right to reject a candidate who “advocates” from his or her religion.)

B. Oughts contrasted with rights (Rights don’t exhaust morality. Ethics calls on us to do more than any one has a right to ask us to do. So, while nobody can forbid me from rejecting a presidential candidate because he or she might wear “holy” underwear, or be a closet Muslim, or a theological liberal or a guy who wants Jesus as his vice-president, the ethical thing for me to do would be to vote on non-religious grounds … unless of course I’m voting against a coercive candidate.)

III. Some Major Principles Governing Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. The principle of secular rationale also called the principle of natural reason: citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support (e.g., for a vote). (It would be wrong, however, for a citizen to use a secular argument as a cover for a religious one. An ethical person should give the reason they have and act on the reason they give.)

B. Qualifications and basis for the principle

  1. The defeasibility of prima facie obligations (The reason for acting must be sufficient.)
  2. Prima facie obligations are compatible with rights to act otherwise
  3. Secular reasons: not anti-religious, but having independent justificatory power (For example, opposing assisted suicided because “only God has the right to take life” would be inadequate, but opposing it because legalizing assisted suicide would exploit the poor is an adequate reason.)
  4. An adequate reason: one that objectively justifies its object (Sufficient reason doesn’t have to be conclusive, just adequate.)
  5. Excusability: being unjustified is compatible with being excusable (Some people can’t think outside a theological context.)
  6. Non-exclusivity: the principle accomodates religious reasons; allows having only those for expanding liberty; and does not require “privatizing” religion
  7. Basis of the principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support.

C. The principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate   or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support. (Audi suggested challenging a religious individual’s interpretation of their own religion. For example, if a religious citizen really believes in the sovereignty of God, wouldn’t he or she trust that God ordered the world with men and women who can reason through problems together. He believes his two principles are complimentary. [Time did not permit him to go into detail about this principle. He either did not adequately discuss points 5&6 about excusibility and non-exclusivity or my notes don’t reflect his explanation. As a result, I find it difficult to comprehend exactly what role he thinks a person’s ontological and/or religious beliefs should have on their citizenship. Nonetheless, I do find the next section helpful.])

IV. The Wider Question of the Place of Religious Considerations in Public Discourse

A. Judiciousness: ethical sensitivity, prudence, consensus-building, etc.

B. Reciprocity: universalizability and the search for common ground

C. Theo-ethical equilibrium: a reflective equilibrium between religious and secular considerations (The search for equilibrium can refine both one’s theology and one’s perspective.)

D. Civic Voice (The voice we use can be more important than what we say.)

Exploring the Intersections

During the Q&A, one audience member went into a long-winded diatribe that included a salient point about religion as a subclass of ideologies and philosophies. He mentioned Marxism as another. I had been wondering what Audi’s definition of religion encompassed? I asked him. He said that to include such things as Marxism and Scientific Naturalism in the definition is not advisable because, although adherents to these ideologies can be religiously devoted to them, broadening the term too much would extinguish any avenue for discourse. He did, however, agree that non-religious ideologies can be as coercive as religious ones.

I am left to wonder what principles ought to guide non-religious citizens? Do unto others? A Bible verse? Isn’t that fundamentally illogical from his point of view? I wish I had stayed behind to press him on this, but … I was wearing sweat pants and grungy sneakers, and little make-up on the way to a jog. Not exactly the best public face for debating a scholar of superior intellect. 

When I began homeschooling my children some years ago, it was, in part, because of coercion in their public school system. Integral to the “Whole Language” curriculum that had come to us from California was a strong multicultural component. As Thanksgiving neared in my son’s third grade class, readings in Native American literature increased. Included among this reading was a Native American creation story. Additionally, a Native American came in and talked about her religious beliefs and rituals. I was okay with this. Our school system generally did a good job of respecting the varieties of religions that were represented in our community.

But then, as part of the Thanksgiving celebration, the children put on a play, which I attended. In it, the Pilgrims thanked the “Indians” and the “Indians” thanked the Pilgrims. Nobody thanked the Pilgrim’s God. What I witnessed was not a story I recognized. I went to the library and confirmed for myself that the Pilgrim’s faith and clear motive for celebrating Thanksgiving had been edited from this history lesson. I complained to the school principal and was told that it was a separation of church and state issue. The superintendent of schools wisely disagreed. I’m not sure what happened as a result because this situation, along with other academic and social issues that were shaped by dogmatic political ideology, convinced me to withdraw my children from the public school system for several years.

Here is an example of coercion that prioritized a minority religion over the majority one. The example demonstrates the merit in Audi’s principle of natural reason.

Yesterday I attended the afternoon sessions of another seminar at UCI, titled “Politics, Psychology and Ethics.” I heard two European scholars talk about religion and public life. Orla Muldoon, head of the department of Psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland, talked about identity and social change in Northern Ireland.

She mentioned the “Good Friday Agreement,” but quickly corrected herself, saying the terminology gave her away as a Catholic. Protestants call it the “Belfast Agreement.” Either way, Muldoon said the agreement codified division by creating two political parties based on conflicting religious indentities. While moderate third parties flourished for a while, these have disappeared and given way to a zero-sum game. Political negotiation is about minimizing loss for self and gain for the opponent. Even those who hold no real religious conviction are shaped by the divisions. They may not identify fully with one side, but are quite sure they don’t want to be identified with the other. Sounds familiar.

Muldoon talked about emotionally charged signifiers. For example, a lily is a Catholic symbol and a poppy is a Protestant one. The symbols are so potent that a Catholic television journalist who refused to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day forfeited her career as a result. For Muldoon, leaving Northern Ireland brought immense relief in that she no longer had to worry about such signifiers. She mentioned the development of a unique Northern Irish identity that rejects polarizing labels, but said that for those who have been traumatized by violence, traditional identities are difficult to abandon. However, the absense of violence is helpful in creating space to negotiate new identities.

I did not take notes on the other speaker, Catarina Kinnvall, a political scientist from Lund University in Sweden. Her talk was titled “Being too (in) tolerant? Radical Islam and the ethics of multiculturalism in Scandanavia.” Kinnvall focused solely on the rise of radical Islam among the youth of Denmark and Sweden. She said Sweden has relied on pluralistic means of accomodating its Muslim immigrants, which marginalizes in its own way, while Denmark has chosen an assimilationist, and some might say annihilationist, approach. Kindvall said it is difficult for her to even find appropriate language to discuss her topic without inflaming passions of both Muslims and those prejudiced against them. She reminded us that most Muslims are not radicals.

I mention these two talks because they highlight where I think we don’t want to go as a nation. And yet, listen to the heightened discourse over religious identity in our own presidential race. Obama claims that there has been a concerted effort to label him a Muslim. This fact alone is deeply troubling. First someone surmises, correctly I’m sure, that our fear of Islam is so great that if he were a Muslim, and a closet one at that, he would be instantly discredited as a candidate. Second, a candidate for the presidency of the United States is willing to inflame religious strife in order to get elected. Third, religious identity is so vital to getting elected that nearly every candidate has to defend (or fake) their own faith commitment. Finally, the non-religious have so demonized people of faith (and we them) that everyone is on the defensive. Do we really want to keep playing a zero-sum game?

I like what Audi said about the sovereignty of God. If people of faith really believe that God is in charge, shouldn’t that belief temper our public discourse? As a writer who sometimes advocates a position, I don’t really think in terms of winning. I think about contributing to a public conversation. Sometimes a rebuttal spurs my thinking further, or changes my mind entirely. Sometimes, my own convictions are reinforced.

Still, I’m left to wonder if Audi wants a better deal for the non-religious or nominally religious. I wonder how and why he limited both his discussion and his definition. That he did reinforces mistrust.

[©cas 208, all rights reserved]

3 Comments on “Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism

  1. I neglected to mention in this post that Audi actually quoted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as a model for public advocacy.

  2. Pingback: Recovering from Trauma « Christine A. Scheller

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