Wednesday, June 23, 2004I have enormous respect for Amy Sullivan's work at Political Aims, but today I'm going to pick a fight with her. Her principal issue is the relationship between Democrats and religion. I think most of her points are well taken: the Democrats are going to find it very difficult to win elections in America, the western world's most religious nation, without an understanding of how to speak to those powerful spiritual sentiments. And for strictly prudential reasons, I think this concern is appropriate. For example, the only two Democrats who have been elected in the last generation have been two Baptist Southerners.
But all this utilitarian calculus really misses the point. It may be smart to talk religion, is it appropriate in a democratic society to allow religion to enter into the public square? And I think the answer is clearly no. And that is why secularists are so unwilling to do so, even though they know it would be good politics.
There are good reasons for excluding religion from politics. When religious debates enter the political arena, the discussion quickly rises to the level of moral absolutes- one's opponents are not mistaken or misguided, but malevolent. Partisan debate then becomes much more virulent, and perhaps violent. Which is why we took religion off the political table in the first place. There were simply too many bodies.
And if religious justifications are used for policy discussions, then religious minorities are inevitably going to be discriminated against by religious majorities, who will be able to manipulate the coercive powers of the state to impose their spiritual vision. We should not forget that the acceptance of contemporary religions to religious pluralism is out of practicality, not conviction. It would be dangerous to open that door again.
Furthermore, religion is usually corrupted by its involvement in politics. Ambitious leaders parade their religions on their sleeves to win support while suborning church leaders and often pursuing agendas that have nothing to do with faith. And all too many prominent church leaders who have dabbled in politics have been caught with their pants down, either figuratively or literally. Look at the effect that its alliance with the medieval Kings and Emperors had on the Catholic church. Let's just say it wasn't pretty.
So the introduction of religion in politics is morally suspect, harmful to the democratic discourse, and dangerous for the purity of the church. Does this mean that people should just leave their religion at the door when political disputes challenge their deeply held beliefs? Not entirely. As Rawls has argued in Political Liberalism, we can justify our positions using moral arguments the premises of which our political opponents will accept. There is no reason you can't have a strong ethical component to democratic debate, as long as you can frame it without specific appeals to a particular religious authority. And if you can't, then you don't have much of case, do you?