‘Public Reason Disease’

Generally speaking, the “religious left” in the United States is credited with broadening political support for progress on issues such as environmental stewardship and economic justice. But an obvious question looms regarding an even more fundamental issue that marks the political divide: What does the religious left have to say about church-state relations? Cornell professor Steven Shiffrin insists that religious liberals can fill a gaping void in this country’s ongoing, often rancorous debate over the separation of church and state. Religious liberals have a persuasive and authentic case to make for separation, says Shiffrin, not because religion does not matter (as secular liberals often seem to imply), but because it matters so much.

 As a leading civil-liberties scholar and a Catholic who is liberal both theologically and politically, Shiffrin is uniquely positioned to deliver this message. His new book, The Religious Left and Church-State Relations, offers a tour-de-force account of the First Amendment’s religion clauses and how they should be interpreted. This is no dry academic exercise, but rather a direct response to conservatives who view supporters of church-state separation as uncaring, even hostile, toward organized religion. The book is a refutation by one who cares deeply.

 When religious liberals enter religious liberty debates, conventional wisdom accords them two possible aims: either sticking up for a nonmainstream religion that appears vulnerable, or joining the secular left’s warning chorus of “theocracy!” Shiffrin, however, proposes another way, maintaining that religious liberals can offer a more robust defense of religious liberty than the secular left, since they place value in religion as religion, not merely as another form of liberty. He insists that courts interpreting the Free Exercise Clause should account for the multiple values underlying religious liberty, including “the political and social importance of religion.” Accounting only for values such as autonomy, equality, or social peace does not do justice to the religion clauses; we must also account for the fact that “religion itself is regarded as valuable.”

 Consider, for example, the inscription “In God We Trust” on our coins. In Shiffrin’s view, while it is “unfortunate” that some people “feel a need to use government to express monotheistic views without regard for the views of Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and agnostics,” liberals should nonetheless recognize that “our Constitution is embedded in a dominantly monotheistic culture that values religion.” Those who oppose “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance express a constitutional vision of a “nation in which one’s religion or lack of religion has no bearing on one’s identity as an American citizen.” Such observers, Shiffrin comments rather bluntly, “see a nation that does not exist”—and “never will.”

 That said, religious liberals need not abandon the secular left’s traditional resistance to the entanglement of church and state—nor need they feel disloyal to their religious commitments in maintaining that resistance. Shiffrin agrees with the secular left that the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion signifies “equal citizenship without regard to religion.” But, he insists, it also “promotes religion in the private sphere” and “protects religion from the corrupting influences of the state.” Herein lies his disagreement with many religious conservatives on the church-state issue. He rejects both the assumption that “the Bible authorizes tight connections between religion and the state” and that such connections are “good for religion.” The “great issue” in American religious politics, he writes, “is not whether religion should be promoted, but how.” In his view, religion is best promoted by keeping government away from it.

 The American left tends to attribute pernicious aims and corrosive effects to organized religion’s role in the public square, and while Shiffrin avoids knee-jerk cries of “theocracy!” he is not totally immune to creeping cynicism—as when, in criticizing the case for school vouchers, he makes the highly contestable assertion that Catholic schools “exist primarily to maintain or to increase the membership of the church.” For the most part, though, he maintains a healthy skepticism toward conservatives’ insistence that a closer relationship between church and state marks off a prudent path for both. His book offers a spirited defense of public education, noting that some credit for our nation’s stability is owed to the fact that “90 percent of U.S. children grow up attending school together in the public schools,” in contrast to Northern Ireland, where “94 percent of Catholic and Protestant children attend separate schools.” Our real church-and-state concern, he argues, should be that government funding and promotion will lead to the loss of religion’s prophetic voice. In this regard, while the secular left “does not understand the importance of religion in our constitutional tradition,” the religious right “does not understand that government harms religion when it tries to help.”

 How liberals talk about all of this matters greatly. The problem is not that liberals do not care about religion (obviously, millions do); the problem is that, in the political arena, they are perceived as not caring. This perception is attributable to what Shiffrin terms “public reason disease.” The doctrine of public reason holds that laws should be grounded in reasons that citizens from diverse moral and religious backgrounds can accept. Attributing this doctrine to fear of political and social “instability” provoked by religion, Shiffrin argues that while much of European history supports such a concern, American history—from the abolitionist movement, to the Progressive movement, to the civil-rights movement, to current political causes championed by the left or right—tells a different story. As he puts it, “the exclusion of comprehensive views has never been a part of American history.”

 Shiffrin points out that while religious liberals “do not believe that government may give religious arguments to justify public policy,” they also do not believe “citizens must refrain from giving religious arguments in the public square.” Liberals unwilling or unable to consider such arguments will continue to miss out on an important dimension of American political life—including Democratic candidates, who have often acted as if “religious beliefs were the monopoly of the Republican Party.”

 If Democratic politicians and other liberals are to join the conversation about religion’s relationship with the state, they must go beyond observations about religion’s potential to be a divisive force. It is difficult to talk meaningfully about what is good or bad for religion, Shiffrin understands, without speaking from within religion itself. This is precisely the point at which religious liberals must step forward. The arguments of religious liberals must include theological arguments. Given that “religious Americans are politically motivated by theology,” it “is important to talk about theology in politics.” In a nutshell, the answer to the religious right’s influence in politics is not to demand that they take their theologically informed political views out of the public sphere; the answer is to propose better political views, and “to combat bad theology with good theology.”

 The Religious Left and Church-State Relations gives us an author speaking not only tactically, but from the heart. Shiffrin worries about what banishing religion from political discourse would mean for the quality of that discourse. “Religious perspectives,” he writes, “bring a moral outlook to a public square dominated by instrumental and egoistic perspectives.” The proreligion case for church-state separation is powerful, but its viability depends on breaking through the simplistic categories and easy assumptions of “secular left” and “religious right” alike. First Amendment jurisprudence should reflect the fact that religion remains an important and irreducible building block of the common good. Conservatives and liberals may never agree on what a healthy degree of church-state separation entails, but religious liberals can help shape the conversation by testifying to religion’s vitality—which does not require and may not survive government sponsorship.

Published in the 2010-03-12 issue: 

Robert K. Vischer is the dean and Mengler Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

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