AUGUST 1, 2001
Is Faith Fungible?
-- Sheila Suess Kennedy
One of the enduring complaints leveled by culture warriors is that religion has been ejected from the public square, that people of faith have been marginalized by a liberal elite more concerned with tolerance than Truth.
The recurrent attempts to return official prayer to public schools, campaigns to post the Ten Commandments in county courthouses, President Bush's faith-based initiative, and much of the political rhetoric surrounding these and similar efforts, are all part of an effort to counter that perceived marginalization, to make religion a greater part of the American communal experience. The assumption is that religion of any variety is an unalloyed good, and should be accorded a larger role in the solution of our common social problems. Opponents of these measures rarely contest religion's inherent value, but argue that mixing Church and State harms both.
This uncritical approval of the genus religion sidesteps some disturbing questions: What if "faith" is not the fungible commodity routinely referenced by politicians? What if some religions are more supportive of democracy, less inclined to racism, or otherwise better for our civic health than others? Moreover, how are we to negotiate the very real value judgements that people make then they choose one community of faith, or one religion, over another. After all, there are real differences between faiths - - real reasons that people opt for Belief A rather than Belief C. Which religious beliefs should shape our public policy and how should we decide?
Liberal democratic theory holds that civic peace achieved through the domination of some by others is neither sustainable nor desirable, and that democratic societies must protect the right of individuals to disagree on matters of ultimate meaning. Liberal theory thus accords individuals the broadest moral authority over their own lives consistent with the need to maintain a public order. Government is to be the neutral arbiter among citizens who are legal equals, and is to confine itself to matters clearly within the jurisdiction of the state.
The problem is that faithful citizens do not always experience neutrality so conceived as neutral. For some believers, a system that fails to recognize the supremacy and impose the mandates of their belief system discriminates against those beliefs. For others, a system that forbids the placement of religious symbols on public property seems both discriminatory and petty. To such groups, official neutrality represents the triumph of secularism.
One must be a very naïve observer, however, to conclude that the state's obligation of neutrality keeps religion out of our public deliberations. Indeed, it is striking how many of our most contentious public policy debates are basically theological disputes. The legality of abortion, the propriety of stem cell research, and the ethics of cloning are among the more obvious examples. But religious beliefs also frame public debate about crime and punishment, welfare policies, even taxation. (In his recent, important book, Religion, Economics and Public Policy, Andrew Walsh describes the ironic combination of social Darwinism and Biblicism behind the belief, popular among some Christian conservatives, that redistribution through progressive taxation thwarts the will of God.) The current debate over Charitable Choice and President Bush's faith-based initiative is in large part a theological dispute over the nature of poverty, and the moral obligations of haves to have-nots.
In a diverse country with a commitment to equality before the law, we do not have to leave our beliefs at the entrance to the public square, but we are obliged to offer what John Rawls has called "public reasons" for positions that may be, and often are, devoutly religious in origin. We are obliged to make policy arguments without resort to transcendent justifications, to convince others of the secular merits of our proposals, to use a common civic language to find a common ground.
It may not be the most satisfactory system, especially to those few whose sincerely-held beliefs require them to seek religious hegemony, but it is the price of civic peace in a polity where everyone supports religion until it gets too religious.
-- Sheila Seuss Kennedy teaches law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. With the support of the Ford Foundation, she is currently studying the implementation of the 1996 Charitable Choice provisions of welfare reform. Her books have included What's A Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU? and, most recently, To Market, To Market: Reinventing Indianapolis, with Ingrid Richie.