A few weeks ago, as part of Jesus Week at the University of Auckland, Thinking Matters and Evangelical Union hosted an event entitled A Godless Public Square: Do ‘Private’ Christian Beliefs Have a Place in Public Life? This event was a conversation between Theology, Philosophy and Law and featured Matthew Flannagan – Analytic Theologian, Glenn Peoples – Philosopher and Madeleine Flannagan – Legal Scholar. The video is still being edited and will be available soon but for now, this 3-part series comprises the written speeches of each speaker.
Glenn Peoples – Philosophy
Often the subject of religion and politics is alluded to by way of references to terrorism, vigilantism, totalitarianism and persecution, as though these are the only alternative to a public square stripped of religious conviction altogether. This is about as helpful and honest as the automatic association of secularism with the purges of Stalin. The truth is that the flourishing debate in the Western world over the legitimate role of religious convictions in our public decision making is set within the broad liberal democratic tradition. Within that tradition, taking for granted things like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, clear institutional separation of church and state, freedom of association and so on, we’ve seen that it is clearly possible to hold a variety of views on the proper place of religious belief in politics, policy, public lobbying, your own voting and so on. Of course, there are plenty of religious people in the world and in history who do not cherish liberty and mutual respect (as there are and have been non-religious people who do not cherish these things), but you and I do.
Our popular level discussion here in New Zealand over the proper role of religion in a free society – in the media, in letters to the editor, on talkback radio, in religious speeches, could have been greatly benefited by an exposure to the way that this issue has been dealt with in philosophy, specifically in political philosophy, in ethics and philosophy of religion, which are the areas that really interest me. In particular the following issues need to be seen as central: What is the specific concern that justifies people in identifying religious convictions as an area of worry over and above other convictions? Are these concerns applied consistently and fairly when not thinking in terms of religious convictions? Are they the right concerns to have about public life generally? Secondly, should these concerns really cause us to reconsider the role of religious convictions at all? If so, then how?
Why is religion singled out?
Conflict and Polarisation
Why is there an issue centred specifically around religion in the public square? We don’t hear much, if anything, about the worry of acting on our political beliefs or (usually) our ethical convictions or our scientific findings – at least not because they are political beliefs, ethical convictions scientific findings, yet there is a concern about religious beliefs in the public square, and that concern exists because the beliefs in question are religious. What makes religion special?
Perhaps the more popular reason that people might have for wanting to see religion take a back seat when it comes to public reason is that, in their view, religious beliefs unleashed in public are dangerous in certain ways. American philosopher Robert Audi is not alone in voicing the concern that “religious disagreements are likely to polarize government” leading to irresolvable disputes and political stand-offs. In order to avoid strong polarisation and the associated mischiefs that come with it (lack of co-operation, social unease and mutual suspicion, perhaps even rioting and acts of violence or terrorism as in Northern Ireland), let us keep our religious beliefs well away from our political reason.
Matt has already said a thing or two about this, so I’ll just be brief. Is this fair? For starters, is it really true that as soon as we allow people to lobby, vote or even legislate in certain ways because of their religious convictions, we will witness intractable political stand-offs and social disorder? Not at all. We can easily imagine scenarios in which one person or group lobbies for a given policy because their religious convictions motivate them to do so, and another person or group lobbies for exactly the same policy with quite different motives. I think, for example, of the government’s role in marriage. I know of religious people who maintain that the state has no role in formalising marriage since this is, in brief, “God’s business” that the government should frankly stay out of as a matter of the purity of marriage as a holy institution. I also know of libertarians committed to the doctrine of self-ownership and the priority of personal liberty who also think, without any reference to God, that marriage properly belongs entirely to the private realm. So it can’t be the case that endorsing policies because of one’s religious convictions will inevitably or always lead to social or political polarisation and conflict.
That said, it’s true that different religious convictions (including convictions against religious beliefs) have led to considerable differences of opinion over public policy. But this does not show that this polarisation is relevant in deciding whether or not people should endorse policies for religious reasons. In order to assess that, we must ask: Is religious belief in any way unique because it often perpetuates the kind of polarisation lurking behind this fear? I do not see that it is. The last century of western history alone proves fairly conclusively that human societies can become polarised with no help from religion. Civil and political clashes between fascists and communists, for example, did not take place because someone was smuggling their religious beliefs into politics. On a somewhat less dramatic scale, I see no end to disputes in New Zealand over the rights bestowed upon Iwi by the Treaty of Waitangi, nor to the hostile attitudes in society that get stirred up by these stand-offs. Again, these disputes did not arise because of the clandestine combination of religious convictions and political lobbying. What is more, there is no reason to think that policies that are likely to polarise should never be advocated. It is easy for us to appreciate, for example, that the attempt to ban slave trading in the British Empire was intensely polarising, and yet we admire those who advocated abolitionist policy.
So firstly, making political decisions because of our religions convictions does not necessarily cause polarisation and conflict and secondly, even where it does cause polarisation, religion cannot legitimately be singled out as the culprit since politics in general can have the same effect – an effect which does not necessarily indicate that the policy being advocated should not be advocated. So if there is something basically wrong with bringing our religious convictions into the public square, it is unlikely to be because this practice results in social polarisation and conflict.
Two Concerns: Respect and Justification
Most political philosophers realise that if there is a principled reason for keeping religious convictions separate from politics, it will not be the pragmatic reason suggested above. A more sophisticated and arguably more plausible line of argument has been developed in various forms in the literature.
The argument starts, not with religion, but with very general principles in political philosophy. One of the crucial concepts of the modern western liberal democracy is that of equality. There is no politically privileged class. This affects the way our societies function in all kinds of way. It’s why we have the slogan one man, one vote. Everybody’s voice counts the same. It’s why women and men both vote. But the principle of equality and consequently of equal respect is more pervasive than that. It’s the reason you care – or should care – about the way your fellow citizen is treated, politically speaking. Just as you don’t want to be subjected to arbitrary legal coercion for which there is, as far as you are concerned, no good justification, you also don’t want your fellow citizen to be treated that way either. Because we’re all equal, your fellow citizen, no less than you, is owed an explanation for why he or she is subjected to the laws that she is being asked to live by.
In short, the policies that you advocate need to be justified to your fellow citizen in the right way, or else you’re just coercing them and you’re not showing them proper respect as your equal.
20th century political scientist Jown Rawls introduced the term overlapping consensus to describe the sorts of policies that are appropriate in a liberal democracy. Basically, the idea is that there are policies that are justified to you – justified by your own desires, beliefs, values goals, and so on. But of course the fact that they are justified to you doesn’t make them justified to anybody else. Everybody has their own set of beliefs, values, desires and so on, and their set makes a set of policies justified to them. Think of everybody’s set of justified policies as a large circle. Although it’s clear that these circles won’t share exactly the same outlines – because the liberal democracy is marked by pluralism – the fact that we share basic values, says Rawls, means that there will be considerable overlap. Think of all of us as a circle of beliefs, desires and values, and the area where we overlap in the middle is the area where those beliefs, values and desires overlap enough to support the same policies. There will, said Rawls, be an overlapping consensus on a range of policies. Those policies will be justified to all of us. To use Rawls’s language, there will be a consensus among reasonable citizens on a set of overlapping policy ideals, and it is those policies that meet the standard of justification that properly expresses respect for all our fellow citizens.
Before you support any policy with your vote – your voice as a citizen, Rawls says, it must be one that is justified to everyone else. The devil, however, is in the details. Rawls stressed that we’re only interested in the policies that our fellow citizens support in light of their reasonably held convictions, goals, values etc. And which beliefs, values, goals etc are reasonable? As good supporters of the liberal democracy, we don’t think racism is a reasonable set of values – or sexism. But what about socialism? Or strong views on private property rights and individualism? Or – and here’s where things get interesting – what about atheism? The father of classical liberalism, John Locke thought that atheism was such a despicable and dangerous view that it shouldn’t even be tolerated in a modern democracy. Or what about Islam? Or Buddhism? Or Christianity?
Part of the respect that is promoted in the modern liberal democracy is that we are accepting of pluralism. We don’t try to change the fact that we have pluralism, we accept that other people inhabit different circles and they are welcome to do so. Provided we take this open minded approach to what counts as a reasonable outlook, without imposing our beliefs upon others, the actual ground on which all those circles overlap starts shrinking.
Political philosopher Gerald Gaus was stating the obvious – even if slightly exaggerating – when he said “little, if anything, is the object of consensus among reasonable people.” We recognise the danger in deferring too much to our fellow citizen, in a sense, showing them too much respect. If we give up our support of a policy just because there exists, somewhere, a reasonable person who doesn’t currently support it, the democratic state is likely to be paralysed. What about same sex marriage? Which way should the law go? Should we use trade tariffs? Should charitable organisations – like churches – be tax exempt? Should churches be treated like charities? Should manufacturers and producers be required to regulate their business activities to take account of public concern over global warming? Is there a total consensus of reasonable people on any of these issues one way of the other? In fact there is not, and yet we do have policies one way of the other on these things, and we really can’t help doing so.
Let’s not swing too far the other way. We do want to respect our fellow citizens and not just coerce them with our will. But we have no power over what they accept and don’t accept. Justifying our policies to our fellow citizens in a way that treats them with adequate respect cannot mean that we can’t propose any policy that they don’t accept already. Just imagine advocating a policy on abortion only if it was supported both by those who believe in the sanctity of human life from conception and those on the extreme end of the pro-choice side of the issue, who think that even if the unborn child is a human person in the full sense, a mother has the right to terminate pregnancy at any stage. Good luck.
But if you don’t have to successfully convince people that your policy is the right one in light of what they believe and value, then what do you have to do? According to Gaus, and I think this moves us in the right direction, you have to idealise. You idealise or imagine away from what your fellow citizen is right now willing to accept, and you think of what, as far as you can tell, they – given what they now believe about reason and evidence – would accept if they were better informed and willing to fairly consider all the available reasons. As Gaus puts it when considering our hypothetical fellow citizen, Alf, to whom we owe a justification, “if Alf’s beliefs were subject to extensive criticism and additional information, does his viewpoint commit him to revise his beliefs?” If so and if we offer reasons for him to think so, then we are doing our duty in terms of showing Alf that what we are proposing really does have something going for it. So according to this view, you’re not hamstrung by what your fellow citizen is currently willing to endorse. At the same time, you regard them as worthy of a justification and you offer them one in good faith – one that you are justified in believing that they should accept based on what they know and are capable of coming to understand, but recognising that they may in fact not accept it.
Where does this leave religion?
Once we’ve strengthened the notion of political justification to make it plausible and workable, we’ve got to sit back and ask, “OK, now does this actually leave us with any problems for policies that we support for religious reasons.” Take my stance on abortion or on marriage. Let’s say that I hold to my views on those issues for religious reasons – reasons that ultimately involve my beliefs about what God wants. Does that automatically mean that there is no form of justification that I could offer for those policies? Maybe – if we are pre-committed to the personal belief that there is no justification for any of these beliefs about God. If we assume that there are no reasons for our beliefs and hence our policies that we can give our fellow citizens, reasons that we reasonably believe that they should consider if they were open minded, willing to listen to reasons, consider all the arguments and evidence, and not reject considerations out of hand just because we’re talking about the supernatural.
But why assume that? To ask Christians to assume this is to basically ask them to assume that Christianity is intellectually indefensible. It may be that you think of religious faith as being irrational, unconcerned with reasons and basically being blind devotion. I regard that caricature as a symptom just the sort of ignorance and unfairness that modern secular liberals sometimes accuse religious people, ironically enough. Now, of course Christians realise that they aren’t going to successfully persuade everybody, just as defenders of a whole range of theories on ethics understand they aren’t going to actually persuade everybody, as scientists do also when it comes to one of their findings (but this should not stop them from urging people to support policies on, say, smoking, pollution or climate change). But to ask Christians to just assume that there exists no justification for their beliefs that they can offer is not neutral. It asks them to assume that at least some of their beliefs are false, namely their beliefs about just how defensible their beliefs are.
The fact is, the disagreement over whether or not any religious beliefs are properly justified is just as evident as the disagreement over religious beliefs themselves. To claim that religious convictions must not drive public reason, and to claim the justification test as our reason for this, is simply to take a controversial stance on religious matters. It is to veil an anti-religious bias in the name of neutrality.
In a liberal, pluralistic society, of course you are welcome to the private belief that all religious beliefs lack appropriate justification, and the belief that nobody should be convinced to hold them. But to require everybody else stay out of the political game altogether until they are prepared to live in accordance with that belief steps way over the line of what is acceptable in a free society. You are welcome to advocate policies that are compatible with your beliefs, as long as you are willing to engage your fellow citizen conscientiously, as an equal with you, only propose policies that are compatible with this doctrine of equality, and therefore genuinely offer your fellow citizen justifications for your policy that you think there are good reasons to accept. But to suppose that only people whose beliefs are not religious are morally permitted to do this is to manifest a kind of bigotry that has no place in a modern, pluralistic and democratic society.
Part III will feature Madeleine Flannagan’s talk from the perspective of Law.
 Robert Audi Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 39.
 Gerald Gaus Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (New York: Oxford University Press 1996) 293.
 Ibid, 32.
If you want to hear more from Glenn he has made a very good podcast on this topic here: Podcast: Religion in the Public Square