Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Public reason and prophetic witness

Michael C. Dorf’s column contains much that is sensible, but then he invokes the ghost of John Rawls and conjures up fears of religious warfare and persecution.

Having argued persuasively that we can’t really impeach a person’s (religious) motive for supporting a particular piece of legislation, he nonethless insists that "in a pluralistic society like ours, it is fair to demand that our laws be justifiable by reference to secular ends and means." I won’t quarrel with the argument that government may pursue only secular ends, but why must the argument in defense of the secular end be a secular argument? And why must the means be secular? Why not a level playing field, offering support for both religious and secular means of addressing secular problems?

Dorf’s response to this line of argument is to point to the good old slippery slope:

what the objection overlooks is the reason we as a society have for trying to prevent public policy debates from becoming competitions between different religious sects. As the framers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights well knew, history teaches that societies in which political divisions track religious ones frequently descend into bloodletting. And sadly, our own era provides no shortage of further examples.

Of course, I do not suggest that the injection of religious arguments into American politics by evangelicals or others will plunge us immediately into a religious civil war. But the abundant lessons of the past and present do provide reasons to be wary of even the first step down that path.

I have a different thought. In the first place, there are significant religious freedom concerns at stake here. If the only way I can bear prophetic witness in the public square is by means of "public reason," then I can’t genuinely practice my faith.
Those who "conscientiously object" to the requirement of public reason have a point. Second, the experience of participating faithfully in a pluralistic public square need not simply teach us to persecute those with whom we disagree; it might teach us how to deal respectfully with them. On the other hand, the secular "silencing" of the religious teaches them about the appropriate use of political power to marginalize those with whom you disagree. Achieving and maintaining respectful "non-toxic" pluralism (I’m borrowing the language, not endorsing the author’s use of it) may require some bumpy experience; I don’t think it can be achieved by the simple exercise of state power, or even by a kind of secular censorship.

Discussions - 1 Comment

Well, there is the fact that for secular folks religious arguments are largely meaningless (also between different religions, to a lesser degree) . ..

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