Michael Perry’s new book is a refreshing contribution to the often overwrought debate about the role of religion in American democracy. Perry offers hope for Catholics pained by the embarrassed, dismissive reaction to religiously based arguments in the public square, but also dismayed by Vatican pronouncements, such as the recent one on same-sex unions, that seem to confirm prejudices about Catholic intellectual narrowness and moral indifference to the complexity of such issues. Perry both justifies the use of arguments from religion in politics and suggests how Catholics may mediate the claims of the magisterium in a liberal democracy. His balanced approach, equally respectful of the claims of religion and the liberal tradition, offers a way out of this dilemma. For followers of Perry, now a professor of law at Emory, Under God? may be a surprise, because it marks a sharp break from his previous books, Love and Power: The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics (1991) and Religion and Politics: Constitutional and Moral Perspectives (1997). In those earlier works Perry argued forcefully for the exclusion of religious belief and discourse in politics. He has now changed his mind. An inclusionist, he explains, believes that religion may play a significant role in politics, while an exclusionist believes that religious faith should be excluded from it. This distinction, he points out, does not track the distinction between believers and nonbelievers; some believers are exclusionists, some nonbelievers are inclusionists. One’s position on highly contested issues such as abortion and same-sex unions also does not necessarily depend on whether one is an inclusionist or exclusionist, but may derive from unrelated convictions. But the inclusionist/exclusionist divide is obviously relevant to those debates, and has been one of the major fault lines in American culture and politics. While nuanced, Perry’s argument in Under God? is straightforward. He makes two basic points. First, he argues that neither the American constitutional norm of nonestablishment of religion, nor what Perry calls the “morality of liberal democracy” requires the exclusion or marginalization of religious faith in political conversation or government decisions. Religious discourse should not only not be excluded from the public square, it should be welcomed. His second point, however, is that religious participation in politics, while legitimate, is still problematic. Believers should be cautious, self-critical, and independent-minded when injecting religiously grounded beliefs into deliberations about political choices over morally complex issues. Religious convictions, furthermore, should be expressed in a way that engages, rather than silences, nonbelievers, as urged by the Williamsburg Charter (1988): “Arguments for public policy should be more than private convictions shouted out loud. For persuasion to be principled, private convictions should be translated into publicly accessible claims.” Perry is thus a strong inclusionist, but a modest, chastened one. Under God? is structured around these two basic points. Part 1 is directed primarily toward exclusionists, and explains why the inclusionist position does not violate either the Constitution’s nonestablishment clause or the moral principles essential to liberal democracy. Perry analyzes the constitutional issue by cutting through the inconsistencies of Supreme Court precedents. The nonestablishment norm, he argues, only prohibits government from taking any action that favors a church in relation to another church, or in relation to no church at all, on the basis of the view that the favored church is, as a church-as a community of faith-better along one or another dimension of value... When viewed this way, the Constitution would not prohibit a school voucher program from including religious schools, so long as admission to those schools is religiously neutral, and the aid to a religious school is not based on the government’s belief that the church sponsoring the school is somehow superior to other churches or no church at all. Perry thus rejects the distorted version of the nonestablishment norm applied by Justice David Souter (joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsberg) in his dissent in Mitchell v. Helms (2000) that would preclude government aid to religious schools, even when the government aids all secular private schools. Perry rejects this claim not only because it is unsupportable by the Constitution’s “words, history, and structure,” but because it is based on a non sequitur, and a troubling one: that is, because the government may not discriminate in favor of religious schools does not mean that it must discriminate against such schools. Can, however, government choose to exclude such schools, even if it is not compelled to do so? Perry argues convincingly that it cannot, because to do so would violate the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of expression by disfavoring those who send their children to religious schools. The question of religion in politics, however, is more than a legal/constitutional question, as Perry recognizes. How can religious discourse, with its inherent truth claims, play a role in a liberal democracy? Perry answers this question by defining the basic moral commitments of liberalism. Those fundamental moral commitments, he argues, are to the inviolability of every person and to the human rights that protect that inviolability. Nothing in those two commitments, Perry insists, makes it illegitimate to introduce religious belief into moral arguments. His real point, however, is more affirmative. He believes we should welcome religious discourse. “We should make it bad taste to sneer when people bring their religious convictions to...public discussions of controversial moral/political issues such as homosexuality and abortion.” To sneer and exclude would be to underestimate the powerful role that religious beliefs play in American politics, and would prevent both religious and secular beliefs from being challenged and tested in the deliberative process. It would also disfavor religious beliefs that are not necessarily more sectarian or divisive than secular beliefs, and are a compelling source of meaning for many Americans. To attempt to build an airtight barrier between religious and secular discourse would be fruitless, he concludes, because the boundary between the two is so permeable. Perry’s resolution of this question is both principled and pragmatic, although perhaps incomplete. Would Perry find a place in public argument for religious beliefs, such as some fundamentalisms, that do not share liberalism’s core commitments to human freedom, and that discriminate sharply between believers and unbelievers? He also may define liberalism too minimally; by his definition, he admits, we are all liberals now. While liberalism shares with many religions a commitment to the inviolability of every human person, it also emphasizes human autonomy in a way that jars with the Christian sense of man’s radical dependence on God’s grace. The religion and the liberalism that meet in Perry’s public square are linked in their moderation and can speak to each other. When their more extreme manifestations meet, the encounter may be less benign. Perry understands the dangers of religion in politics, even though he believes its assertion is legitimate, both legally and morally. He thus addresses inclusionists and believers in part 2 with a plea for self-restraint and an argument against uncritical reliance on religious belief in political decisions. He uses the debate over the legalization of same-sex unions to illustrate what he means. Perry argues that Christian believers should be cautious in opposing the legal recognition of same-sex unions on the basis of their religious beliefs. This is partly because the scriptural justification for opposing homosexual conduct is contested and obscure, but mostly because there is so much division on moral-theological grounds among Christian (including Catholic) thinkers themselves about homosexuality. Such profound, principled disagreement among Christians, he argues, should make Christians wary of pushing their religious views too hard, even if they have made up their minds about where they stand. Perry recognizes, however, that this problem is different for Catholics, for whom the magisterium has a unique authority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Perry notes, holds unequivocally that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and “[u]nder no circumstances can be approved.” The pope’s recent statements hostile to the recognition of “gay marriage” only underline this message. What then is a “faithful” Catholic to do? Perry aligns himself with Catholic thinkers who recognize that the magisterium, made up of mortals and sinners, and searching fallibly for truth, is distinguishable from the church which is “the bride of Christ ‘with neither blemish or wrinkle.’” The magisterium can err, as it did famously in the case of slavery, and in prohibitions against usury and religious freedom. This recognition admits the possibility of dissent, as the people of God strive to discern the meaning of the gospel in the flux of human experience. Perry does not believe, however, that a person who considers himself Catholic can simply ignore the magisterium and the tradition. A faithful Catholic must engage in conversation with them to understand one’s experience in light of their collective wisdom, so that truth can be at once received and discovered. But Perry’s ultimate conception of the faithful Catholic is of one free to assess the weight of the church’s teachings for his political decisions, and thereby exercise self-restraint in expressing religious views. This is encouraging for those torn between the magisterium’s intransigence on homosexuality and their own liberal instincts. Perry offers a way to think of oneself as both a faithful Catholic and a citizen. But whom, one wonders, will he convince who is not already convinced? While reading the chapter on the magisterium, I could almost hear certain voluble conservative Catholic polemicists objecting by chanting “Obedience, obedience, obedience!” For those who see liberal democracy as fatally compromised by the “culture of death,” Perry’s vision of a legitimate, but self-restrained role for religion in politics will have little appeal. For those who bristle at the slightest hint of God-talk, his modest proposals will look like the thin wedge of theocracy. Perhaps that is why he should appeal to the rest of us. end

Published in the 2003-10-24 issue: 

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