Religion and Politics

Mr. President, congratulations on being elected. I’ll take you up to the Oval Office in a moment. Just leave your coat here. Religious? Well and good, sir. Just remember not to take any of that religion stuff in with you, either. Why don’t you tuck it all behind this, and I’ll have it primed for pick-up in four years when you get out. Feeling sufficiently secularized? Perfect. Now let’s go craft some public policy.

In our secular age, many would like for these words to adorn the White House welcome mat. Religion is fine, the prevailing secular wisdom dictates, but keep it out of the public sphere. Don’t let it influence stem cell policy or gay marriage laws. Or take the word from the Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism, a document the Center for Inquiry released a few years ago which indicts political leaders for allowing religion “to shape public policy,” and calls for legislation “based on secular principles, not religious doctrine.” The document has since accumulated an all-star roster of signers—including our own Steven A. Pinker.

After eight years of a Bible-thumping president whose hobby appeared to be waging crusades (his word, not mine) in non-Christian countries, this phobia of religion-fueled politics seems, well, justified. But it isn’t. Rather, it is grounded in a theory of government—liberalism—that is profoundly unfair to believers. Let’s see why.

By liberalism, I don’t mean that set of beliefs that is “politically left” or held by democrats. I mean the enlightenment era doctrine that holds that the purpose of government is not to force on its citizenry a conception of “the good,” but rather to allow its citizens to pursue individually what they each take to be good. (As President, you may be Christian, but let your citizens worship whom they may.) Liberalism is motivated by the idea that government must somehow produce order from a mishmash of wrangling individuals. Since faith is the queen bee of conversation-stoppers, we can move forward only if, as the declaration of secularism says, “we are willing to put personal religious beliefs aside when we craft public policy."

The liberal government functions not by promoting any particular conception of what is valuable, but by ensuring the right of the citizen to pursue whatever she takes to be valuable. Liberal government itself stays neutral with respect to matters concerning value. So eager secularists might appeal to liberalism in the following way: Public policy should always be grounded in non-religious principles for otherwise government would be imposing onto the public a particular and idiosyncratic vision of what counts as a life worth living.


Although this liberal tradition is appealing, there are good reasons to reject it. It demands that government stay neutral between competing conceptions of what is valuable only by smuggling into public discourse its own values through the back door. Liberal governments can justify their refusal to “legislate morality” only by appealing to their own ideals—autonomy, freedom of expression, hands-off-ishness. The public sphere is necessarily value-laden and, like a revolving door, one can keep some out only by keeping others in.

What is more, the liberal and secular values of autonomy and freedom are not necessarily the values prized by the most religious. The argument for liberal government gets no purchase on certain believers; it begs the question against them. Various religious traditions emphasize not being master of thyself but subservience to something larger, not unadulterated freedom but rather freedom mitigated by the dictates of a benevolent Creator.

The crux of liberalism is that it demands, in the words of one writer, “that we recognize rights for what (we believe) is wrong.” This demand, far from being just another view liberal government can merely accommodate, must be a principle that liberal government imposes onto its citizenry. And a government that requires its public sphere to be “purified” of religion can impose this value only by unfairly burdening the religious. For liberalism demands that believers enter public dialogue stripped-down—or as Stephen Carter of Yale writes, “only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital.” Non-believers, on the other hand, are not forced to check their principles at the door.

Some secularists contend that even if banishing religion from the public sphere is unfair to believers, we must still do so because it is pragmatic. (If Congress spent its time arguing over scripture, how could it ever get to that debt ceiling?) Yet this reply fails. To “privatize” religion in the name of pragmatism is itself to import normative assumptions about which kinds of public conversations are worth having, about whether government should sacrifice fairness for practicality, and these are assumptions that many believers are likely to reject. Once again, the argument begs the question against the devout.

Granted, those who wish to bar religion from policy-making have justified fears of religious intolerance infecting the public square. But this may be a case where extremes meet. As the effort to privatize religion shows, the intolerance emanates from both sides.

Gregory D. Kristof ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Hurlbut Hall.


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