Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Secularist Straw Man:

[Note: TCS politely rejected this submission. If any publishers want to print this, please contact me -- although I'm not expecting any.]

Ed Feser, in an article advocating the mixture of religion and politics, takes on a secularist straw man, while he accuses secularists of directing their arguments against a religious straw man. Feser's "secularist box" includes not only those who advocate bestiality, necrophilia, and infanticide, but also such venerable figures as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. My secularist box, on the other hand, includes James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and evangelical Christians like Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptists, which group up until recently ardently supported the Separation of Church and State in America.

Instead of arguing over the exact proper interpretation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution (for instance, Feser “readily concede[s] that the Constitution forbids the establishment of any particular denomination as the official religion of the United States,” but nothing more. Madison, the architect of Constitution, by contrast, went so far as to declare the appointment of Congressional Chaplains to be a “palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles…”), let me focus on the main thesis of Feser's article. He writes:

So why do [secularists] demand that religion and politics be separated not just in the constitutional sense that no one ought to be forced to belong to a particular denomination or to accept a particular creed, but also in the stronger sense that religious considerations, however well supported by rational arguments, ought to get no hearing in the public square and have no influence on public policy?


Feser’s secularist is a straw man: No one, as far as I know, wants to abolish religious convictions from the public square, as long as they are in fact "well supported by rational arguments," and alas, often, they aren't. In other words, one has to do better than "it's written in the Bible, therefore, it should be law," or "the Catholic Church says it, therefore it's got to be law" to justify one’s religious convictions as legitimate grounds for public policy.

And there is plenty written in the Bible and part and parcel of the dogmas of various religions that even the most ardent atheistic secularists support as acceptable public policy. For instance, as far as I know, the Bible says and the Catholic Church holds that we shouldn't murder innocents or steal—public norms that are universally supported by secularists and everyone else. Liberal secular humanists defend the Golden Rule as well. No one wants a legal system where a rule that is endorsed by the Bible cannot exist in our public laws.

Feser in fact, desires that religious conservatives do more than simply appeal to religious dogma or cite Scripture when they make public policy arguments. And he invokes thinkers -- including Catholics from the past (Thomas Aquinas) and present (Robert P. George) and metaphysical philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Newton -- who made rational arguments that coincided with their religious or metaphysical beliefs. Feser states that:

Thomas Aquinas, for example, would have found [the notion that religious beliefs are groundless to be] unrecognizable, committed as he was to the proposition that the foundational truths of religion could be demonstrated through reason alone.

Fine, so when religious conservatives make public policy arguments, they should prove their case through reason alone -- make a universal argument, accessible to man as man. They should not simply cite Leviticus and tell us it ought to be law. The Puritans, by the way, did this. They tried to write much of the Bible—explicitly referencing verses and chapters of Scripture—into their colonial civil codes. And the disastrous results were blasphemy, heresy, and idolatry laws, cited approvingly by certain members of today’s religious right, that merited the death penalty for openly worshipping "any other god but the Lord God."

Feser simply doesn’t adequately address that the Protestant fundamentalist wing of the "religious right" (the main wing) often argues, while citing revisionist history full of false quotes from our founders, that Biblical Revelation unassisted by Man’s Reason is a wholly appropriate basis for public policy. D. James Kennedy, Roy Moore, and David Barton, alas, are not Thomas Aquinas. And most of the historical philosophers that Feser cites, especially Locke and Aquinas, argued vociferously against appeals to Biblical Revelation or ecclesiastical authority alone as legitimate bases for public policy. Locke held that revelation and the positions of the various Churches were sufficient grounds for public policy only to the extent that such beliefs could be confirmed by Man’s Reason.

Seen in this way, thinkers like Aquinas, Locke and our Founders were the forerunners to John Rawls, insofar as they demanded that when religious convictions be made into public policy, that reason justify such sentiments. Catholic thinkers, with their natural law tradition, tend to accept this theory of "public reason" more so than Protestant fundamentalists when they make religious arguments for political positions. (Ironic in that we are a nation in which Protestantism, not Catholicism, was dominant during the Founding).

At the conference on Religion and Public Life put on by Robbie George's James Madison Program at Princeton University (which I attended), University of Maryland’s William Galston reflecting on Richard John Neuhaus's book, The Naked Public Square, noted the similarities between the positions of Father Neuhaus and John Rawls:

[T]he issue of public reason has been intensely debated, largely under the influence of John Rawls. When I returned to Neuhaus's work, I was surprised to discover that his account of public reason bears more than a passing resemblance to Rawls's. Neuhaus criticizes the religious new right for "making public claims on the basis of private truths" (36; emphasis in the original). The integrity of politics, he says, requires us to resist all such proposals. Public decisions, he insists, must be made through arguments that are "public in character." He continues: "A public argument is transsubjective. It is not derived from sources of revelation or disposition that are essentially private and arbitrary" (36). Accordingly, those who want to bring religiously based values into the public square "have an obligation to 'translate' those values into terms that are as accessible as possible to those who do not share the same religious grounding" (125).


Now, Feser alluded in his piece that so long as the likes of Father Neuhaus and Professor George can justify fundamentalists’ support for writing certain Scriptural norms into law by “translating” those values into rationalistic arguments, the original arguments based on appeals to Revelation alone are de facto valid.

[S]ome liberals might object that it is one thing for religious intellectuals to weigh in on matters of public policy, but quite another for redneck Bible thumpers to do so….If a policy can be supported with serious arguments made by serious thinkers, what does it matter whether someone who is uneducated also supports it for less sophisticated reasons?

My response is that public policy appeals to Scripture alone should be summarily dismissed as invalid until someone like Robert George defends the policy via an argument based on natural reason; that’s when liberal society will engage such arguments put forth by religious conservatives.

Arguments based on scripture alone are unanswerable. We simply believe them or we don’t. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “If someone insists that God tells him that the sky is red, and makes no other statement to support the claim, it’s hard to have a very fruitful dialogue with him.”

Even Locke recognized that at least some of Scripture could not be justified by natural reason; you simply accepted or rejected it on groundless faith.

Unlike the case with bald Scriptural based assertions, we can analyze arguments based on natural reason for their the rational soundness. For instance, when the likes of Robert George and Gerard Bradley defend traditional sexual morality in this manner, we see that their view of nature sees not only homosexuality as “unnatural” and hence wrong, but also contraception between married couples and even masturbation. Most people reject (properly in my opinion) the notion that the natural teleology (in an “ought” sense) of sex is procreation, which would make immoral not only homosexuality, but also behaviors practiced, without controversy, by the vast majority of the population. But ultimately, that’s where the arguments ought to take place—within the domain of reason and rationality.

This is all we Enlightenment-influenced secularists are asking for—that religious arguments be independently justified by "public reason," because, in the public sphere, Man's Reason takes precedence over Biblical Revelation and the claims of ecclesiastical authorities. That’s the way our Founders -- who, in forming this nation looked not to the Bible or ecclesiastical authority but rather to certain “self-evident Truths” grounded in natural reason -- desired it to be.

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