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The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere

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On both sides of the Atlantic, a debate about the scope and limits of secularism has begun to collide once more with those wanting to increase the power and presence of religion in the public sphere.

The debate isn't of course new, and in many cases never really went away. Almost three decades ago, to offer just one example of its cyclical quality, Richard John Neuhaus wrote "The Naked Public Sphere: Religion and Democracy in America" in an attempt to understand what was driving renewed religious mobilization on the right, including by the then-ascendant power of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Still, with Baroness Warsi (Britain's first female Muslim Cabinet minister) recently decrying what she called the UK's and Europe's "militant secularization" and Rick Santorum now serving as standard-bearer for those who view the separation of church and state in the U.S. as an unacceptable deviation from "God's law," it's clearly time to revisit both the idea and practice of secularism, to determine when it works, why it sometimes fails, and what's at stake in its underlying premises.

Last year, in a well-timed publication, Columbia University Press released a short but striking collection of essays called "The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere" that tackled these issues head-on. Featuring lively talks by Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, and Cornel West, as well as productive exchanges among them and an excellent afterword by religion scholar Craig Calhoun, the collection makes clear, among other things, that the "subtraction" argument, in which religion plays an ever-diminished role in secular society, not only doesn't hold up to scrutiny, but also failed to anticipate the "widespread resurgence of interest in the public importance of religion."

At the same time, what the editors call "the full-throated return of political theology" raises pressing questions about religious overreach in government and the courts that Habermas and Taylor, in particular, try to hammer out. While Habermas is mindful of "a subliminal resentment within religious circles concerning the justification of constitutional principles 'from reason alone,'" he notes quite reasonably that "the secularization of the state," in terms of practical government, "is not the same as the secularization of society," and doesn't require the latter to ensure "democratic process within civil society." When religious beliefs and rhetoric threaten to overturn such principles, however, with obvious consequences for those who follow different faiths or have no religious beliefs, he argues that secularism offers a requisite "institutional filter" that maintains neutrality by ensuring a principled distance between secular government and theological doctrine.

Taylor, however, is skeptical that religion can or should be singled-out as a special concern, and rejects the notion that it continues to represent a "threat" to secular democracies. In "Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism," he argues that democracies today should conceive of secularism not as a "bulwark against religion," but as a "good faith attempt" to advance such well-wrought principles as liberty, equality, and fraternity, which he sums up as follows:

  1. No one must be forced in the domain of religion or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty, including of course, the freedom not to believe. This is what is also described as the "free exercise" of religion, in terms of the U.S. First Amendment.
  2. There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic belief; no religious outlook or (religious or areligious) [world view] can enjoy a privileged status, let alone be adopted as the official view of the state.
  3. All spiritual families must be heard, included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity), and how it is going to realize these goals (the exact regime of rights and privileges).

In such a model, Taylor contends, conflict may of course ensue but "as much as possible ... relations of harmony and comity" should prevail. He reasons, "a really diverse democracy can't revert to a civil religion, or antireligion, however comforting this might be, without betraying its own principles. We are condemned to live an overlapping consensus."

What's striking about Taylor's essay, however, is that it also details historically just how often America's Christian communities have challenged point #2, a phenomenon I describe quite similarly in "The Age of Doubt." When the National Reform Association was founded in 1863, he notes, it voiced this as an express goal:

The object of this Society shall be to maintain existing Christian features in the American government ... to secure such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will declare the nation's allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so as to indicate that this is a Christian nation, and place all the Christian laws, institutions, and usages of our government on an undeniable legal basis in the fundamental law of the land.

When American Catholics and Jews joined freethinkers in the 1870s in opposing such restrictions, he notes, they did so on the understanding that the NRA's goals were designed to obstruct the free expression of their own beliefs and non-beliefs. Even so, the word "secular," appearing at this time on the American scene, rapidly acquired the meaning of being non- or even antireligious, rather than, as intended, as promising strict neutrality about religion in its disinterested understanding of government.

"As late as 1890," Taylor adds, "thirty-seven of the forty-two existing states recognized the authority of God in the preambles or in the text of their constitutions. A unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court of 1892 declared that if one wanted to describe 'American life as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs and its society, we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth ... that this is a Christian nation.'"

Taylor seems to think that in detailing this history, he'll reassure those still concerned about religious overreach that their worries are now misplaced and no longer tenable. "Our fixation on religion as the problem is ... a historical relic," he claims, that obscures the broader, more-pressing issue of how to integrate a plurality of beliefs (many of them nonreligious) into our democracy without allowing them to redefine it.

That plurality is clearly an empirical fact, as pressing for the U.S. to address as it is for other multicultural societies. Still, when a serious Republican contender for the Presidency declared only last week that the separation of church and state made him "want to throw up," building on a statement last November that our civil laws "have to comport with God's law," in language that clearly harkens back to the 1860s' NRA insistence that the nation should "declare ... allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion," Taylor greatly underestimates the turbulence and hostility that secular principles -- including of course the "free exercise" of religion -- can still ignite in parts of twenty-first century America.

"The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere" was published last year by Columbia University Press.