7 February 2005

Soul of the secular state

Yesterday’s NYT has a review of Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics.  Short.

But Ryan Lizza, of The New Republic, points out the following:

And to liberals wary of any prescription that includes more religion in
politics, and to those worried that his evangelical Christianity is not
ecumenical, Wallis makes an important point rarely heard on the
religious right. ”We bring faith into the public square when our moral
convictions demand it,” he writes. ”But to influence a democratic
society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you
advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic
discipline religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the
public square.” It is a reminder that Martin Luther King may have had
a Bible in one hand, but he had the Constitution in the other.

Winning the public debate by appealing to and persuading via the public
good.  This is the essence of liberalism and the tolerant
secularism that it demands.  Funny that it takes an evangelical
preacher, arguing for the re-emergence of a religious progressivism in
our contemporary politics, to remind us  what the soul of the
secular compromise is.  What the religious and the “secular”
(let’s call them the non-religious) have both forgotten is that
secularism
demands that we make arguments about how to live our common life on the
basis of appeals accessible in common. 

Religion cannot make an appeal to the common, except perhaps in a
theocracy.  So it cannot be the basis for an argument as to why we
should or should not pursue a policy.

Similarly, secularism does not require that we never make mention of
factors and forces like religion in public.  In fact, it’s
perfectly acceptable to do so.  It might even be desireable to
understand the motivations that religion provides.  But secularism
cannot require the shut-down of all talk of religion, for that’s a
similar problem.  Areligiosity cannot make an appeal to the common
either.

The original toleration thinkers (I especially mean Locke and Mill)
thought that Reason would provide the basis by which people of varying
viewpoints and beliefs could talk together in public.  I’m not so
sure that such would work today (as there are plenty of signs that
reason does not dominate our ways of thinking in public), but there has
to be a middle ground, wherein we can acknowledge differences in
beliefs without allowing them to be publicly determinative personally
or politically.

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One Response to “Soul of the secular state”

  1. Transparent Eye Says:

    I read God’s Politics, and pretty much liked it. I plan to write up a review

    It’s going to be hard for the Democrats to use it effectively, because Wallis view of the prophets as focusing on social justice pulls the party far to the left, while his pro-life position tugs to the right. As he himself says, there really isn’t a pole of American politics he fits comfortably in. He’s hardly giving a blessing to the Democratic Party as in.