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G. Elijah Dann Headshot

Santorum, Cardinal Dolan and the Tinfoil Hat: Who Gets Into the Public Square?

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The other night Jon Stewart was right to rip on Rick Santorum. Saying that President John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on religious equality made him want to throw up evidences more than we need to know about Santorum's cognitive taste buds.

Why the nausea? Santorum took Kennedy to mean that, "people of faith have no role in the public square." Newly minted Cardinal Dolan has now chimed in, claiming that "the U.S. government is engaged in 'an unwarranted, unprecedented radical intrusion.' He told the crowd they 'live in an era that seems to discover new rights every day.'"

Imagine, in a country that won't elect a President unless he's Christian; having just had an exuberant, born-again Christian President in the form of George W. Bush; with a Supreme Court full of Christians; States rushing toward forcing women into trans-vaginal sonograms (talk about "radical intrusion"!); and now, what looks like an effort to start a national debate over the right to contraception (talk about "discovering new rights every day"!), Santorum and Dolan want us to believe Christian conservatives are being bullied in the public square and told that they are not welcome. Cardinal Dolan, who thinks that there should be a "freedom of religion battle," needs to think about how religious wars in the past turned out for the Church. At minimum, he should ponder if the rules of engagement will encourage language where it's OK to be called a "slut" for trying to argue sensibly about health care provisions.

Santorum and Dolan are at least right on one point. No one should be saying that religious people can't participate in the public square. In a healthy democracy, everyone, irrespective of religious beliefs -- including those without any (how often is that forgotten?) -- should be welcome to participate in the debates over values.

The reality is, however, the public square has a cacophony of voices, all vying for attention on a wide continuum of convictions. From the rantings of the guy with the tinfoil hat telling us how aliens are monitoring our thoughts, to those who say God hates homosexuals, to those who occupy our public spaces demonstrating against economic injustice -- all want to change perceived untruths, immoralities and social injustice.

In the din of competing voices, where's the fundamental starting point? How do we cut through the hooey, malarkey, tub-thumping, bluster and what Michael Shermer calls "woo-woo"?

Here's the crucial point where Santorum and Dolan are wrong:

While everyone has a right to participate in the public square, no one has a prima facie right to have their beliefs taken seriously.

To be taken seriously, we need to provide good reasons for why our particular value should be accepted.

Good reasons have solid argument, appeal to some empirical facts and are the sort that all can grapple with, whether or not you believe in God or the authority of the Church.

True, under these conditions, the exuberance of "God said it, I believe it," or "The Church teaches that..." or "The Bible says that..." are excitements that don't cut the logical mustard. Yet it's this very obligation to provide good reasons -- reasons that all can access, inspect and evaluate -- that separates a democracy from the madhouse that continues to attract the tinfoil hatted-ones, assorted shock-jocks and ecclesiastical bullies.

This test of democratic political philosophy is certainly nothing new. Perhaps it's best said by one of the most formidable of Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. If he were around today, he'd spend a few hours watching talk TV and surfing the Internet and would come to the same conclusion that he did in his own day: "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."