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Against Liberal Monism; On Secularism & Religion by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain is a political philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of several books, most recently Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. She is also co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, along with E.J. Dionne. She wrote this essay for Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she has been a fellow since 1996. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher, MIT Press.

Despite the separation of church and state in America, religion and politics in this country have long influenced one another in ways direct and indirect. This theme was advanced by Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterwork, Democracy in America. Tocqueville argued that the nation's religiously formed democratic optimism was something new under the political sun, for it led, in practice, to the associational enthusiasm he observed when he toured America during the Jacksonian era.

In the real world of religion and politics as they actually coexist in America, citizens resort to 'god talk' at least as much as they use 'rights talk.' Faith informs the way America speaks and has always spoken.

Contemporary analysts too frequently assume that the mutually fructifying influence between religion and politics applauded by Tocqueville either no longer exists or is deeply problematic. Their mistake is a result of focusing too narrowly on the recent constitutional trend toward strengthening the separation of church and state, rather than looking more broadly at the worlds of religion and politics as they actually intersect, and mutually flourish, in America today.

That church and state in America are in fact separate means that ours is a secular government--but it does not mean that ours is a secular society. It isn't now. It has never been.

In fact, the terrain on which religion and politics have most often met in American history is the realm of non-state institutions we call civil society. In every aspect of human endeavor, faith matters to people and to particular communities, and, when as citizens these people and communities participate in politics, to the nation at large.

These facts suggest a logic for religious engagement in the civic realm that clashes with a dominant strand of argument in academic philosophy that, although prominent in scholarly debates, has very little to do with how people actually talk and act. The academic philosophers insist that the convictions of the religious need to be translated into a purely secular idiom if the faithful are to join in political deliberation. If the religiously minded are not comfortable translating their convictions into such a secular idiom, they had best remain silent.

Some versions of this argument--for example, that associated with the late John Rawls--are subtle and complex. Others are much simpler. They assume that there is a single vocabulary for political discussion; if your speech lies out side the purview of a secular language of 'public deliberation,' it isn't legitimately public speech at all.

The draconian requirement that a purely secular mode of speech supplant all other ways of making public argument cuts against the grain of American political history and civic culture. In the real world of religion and politics as they actually coexist in America, citizens resort to 'god talk' at least as much as they use 'rights talk.' Faith informs the way America speaks and has always spoken. The U.S. Constitution never required that people give up the communal dimensions of their faith as the price for civic admission. Catholics, Lutherans, Jews--all built networks of schools and charitable institutions. Jews, in particular, distinguished themselves publicly through visible markers of their identity in dress and in dietary regulations. Even a cursory glance at our history shows the manner in which confessional pluralism and social pluralism have been linked in the American polity as religious differences were marked publicly through a variety of modes of communal identification. One reason that America's religious institutions are such an indispensable part of American civil society is that religion in America has never been compelled to privatize itself along the lines suggested by Rawls.

For the first 150 years of the American republic, primary responsibility for religious rights and liberties was lodged in the states. No federal law governing religious institutions in their relation to the government was ever passed. The federal government got into the act where religion is concerned--at least in a big way--only during the last half century.

In recent years, a constitutional position has emerged that might be called strong separationism. This position seeks to do on the level of law what a strict version of Rawlsian philosophy aims to do in the realm of discourse-namely, to strip public life of religious markers, emblems, and ceremony.

I have called this position liberal monism, for its origins lie in certain strands of classical liberal political philosophy. This position holds that all institutions within a democratic society must conform to a single authority principle; a single standard of what counts as reason and deliberation; a single vocabulary of political discussion. Within this position, religion is routinely discounted-as the secularization hypothesis would have it--as irrationalism, or as a search for epistemological privilege.

According to liberals like Rawls, citizens who are believers are obliged to translate every view supported by their beliefs into a purportedly 'neutral' secular language. Only in this way, so the argument goes, can Americans achieve some kind of workable civic consensus.

From the standpoint of religious belief, however, 'the problem' looks quite different: for what Rawls proposes would dramatically narrow the purview of religion as it actually exists within American civil society.

Rather than asking how much religion can, or should, the polity tolerate, we might pose a different question instead: What sort of political arrangements "enable religion to play the constructive public role that religious commitments themselves demand?" (1)

One enters political life as a citizen. But if one also has religious convictions, these convictions naturally will inform one's judgments as a citizen. My religious views help to determine who I am, how I think, and what I care about. This is as it should be. In America it makes no sense to ask people to bracket what they care about most deeply when they debate issues that are properly political.

(1) This is the provocative suggestion of the theologian Robin Lovin.

Copyright 2003 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Daedalus

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posted april 29, 2004

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