Secular Liberalism and the Myth of the Neutral State

“Statecraft is soulcraft.”  — Aristotle

I usually read during my “lunch hour”. Whether working at a job or taking care of stuff at home (or just hangin’ out), that’s a time I usually set aside to get through at least a few pages in one of the books I have in progress. Lately, I’ve been reading Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft by Francis J. Beckwith. From the “Politics for Christians” title, you might assume it would be a somewhat superficial book with lots of Bible verses thrown around, while telling Christian readers what to think and how to vote on every political issue under the sun. On the contrary, as an entry in the “Christian Worldview Integration Series” by IVP Academic, this book is a work of substance, though communicated at a lay level. Taking his queue from the above quote, Beckwith states,

famous bust of Aristotle

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle

“[Aristotle] meant by this that the state government, by its policies, procedures and actions, places moral ideas in the social and legal fabric of a political regime, and that these ideas serve to shape the quality of its citizens’ character. This central truth animates the notion of politics offered in this book. And it is, I will argue, central to a Christian understanding of politics.”

Christians like myself are often told, whether explicitly or implicitly, that we should keep our religious ideas to ourselves and “God forbid” that we let any religious belief influence our politics. If we have “religious reasons” for supporting or opposing a piece of legislation, for example, we are told those are irrational and inadequate. And, oh, by the way, “the Constitution says you can’t force your religion/morals down everybody else’s throats!”

A reasonable assessment, however, of the ideas of religious freedom, liberal democracy, civic responsibility, etc., shows this to be an unfair position, both in its accusations and its demands. Beckwith, of course, examines the philosophical, theological, and constitutional arguments on the subject throughout his book. But, the part I want to share excerpts from is Chapter 4, “Secular Liberalism and the Neutral State”. Beckwith explains:

“In opposition to Christian activism, some argue that if the views of Christian citizens were to become enshrined in our law, it would violate a fundamental principle of liberal democracy: in a pluralist society that includes citizens with conflicting and contrary philosophical and religious beliefs, the law should not embrace any one of these perspectives as correct. Some argue that this principle is supported by America’s tradition of church-state separation that supposedly bars legislators, through the U.S. Constitution’s free exercise and establishment clauses, from imposing a religious view of the human person and the common good on citizens who disagree with that view.

This position is called secular liberalism (SL)…. [It] is widely held in different forms by an array of thinkers across the religious and political spectrum. For this reason, secular liberalism should not be confused with the popular political philosophy known as ‘liberalism,’ which is associated with left-leaning members of the Democratic Party in the United States or the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Some of the strongest critics of SL are self-described liberals, such as William Galston and Michael Sandel. On the other hand, some of the strongest supporters of secular liberalism (at least on the matter of the role of religious worldviews in the public square) are non-liberals such as Episcopal priest and former Republican U.S. Senator John Danforth (Missouri) and conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan, a self-described ‘gay Catholic.’

Secular liberalism has had a tremendous impact on the law and the way in which courts (especially the Supreme Court) have dealt with social issues such as abortion and homosexual conduct….

…As understood and embraced by popular culture, secular liberalism accentuates the fact of pluralism, that there exists a plurality of different and contrary opinions on matters religious, philosophical and moral. From this fact, many in our culture conclude that one cannot say with any confidence that anyone’s view on religious, philosophical or moral matters is better than anyone else’s view. Given that, it is a mistake to claim that one’s religious, philosophical or moral beliefs are exclusively correct and that fellow citizens in other religious, philosophical and moral traditions, no matter how sincere or devoted, hold false beliefs. Thus, it is wrong to hold that political or moral positions derived from one’s religious, philosophical or moral tradition ought to be the proper subject of laws that constrain another’s liberty.”

I’m sure you noted, as I did, the underlying assumption (or is it a conclusion?) of moral and epistemological relativism — near-constant companions of strong pluralism — that permeates the SL position. This is true, despite the efforts of its more sophisticated proponents, like Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls, to offer political theories “in order to defend a political regime in which there is wide philosophical and religious disagreement among its citizens and yet a justified system of laws that does not collapse into moral relativism.” I think it’s a little late for that, when such relativism seems to be part of your foundation, fellas.

“Although secular liberalism is offered by its proponents as the most rational ordering of the public square in a society in which its citizens embrace conflicting and contrary worldviews, I think there are good reasons to believe that it cannot succeed in this noble purpose.”

image of Bible with "Banned" across itThe issue in question, then, is “whether liberal democracy itself forbids… Christians[, for example,] from ever making their case in the public square and/or having their views enshrined in law.” At this point, Beckwith proceeds to examine three arguments often used to defend secular liberalism and, thereby, prohibit legislation informed by religious thought. He refers to them as: a) the golden-rule-contract argument; b) the secular reason argument; and, c) the err-on-the-side-of-liberty argument. I won’t try to explain all of them here, but I will give a couple examples from Beckwith’s examination of the “secular reason” argument.

Philosopher Robert Audi gives this brief explanation of the argument: “[O]ne has a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless one has, and is willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support (say for one’s vote).” But, one needs to ask not only, “Why does one have this obligation?” but also, “What is this ‘secular reason[ing]’ he speaks of?” What does he mean by that, exactly? Beckwith argues that the “secular” vs. “religious” distinction is inappropriate, because “‘secular’ is not a relevant property of a reason that is offered in support of the strength or soundness of the conclusion that its advocate is advancing…. A reason does not gain more or less truth by being ‘secular’.” In essence, Audi makes a category error.

“Consider this example. Suppose one believes the conclusion that unjust killing is morally wrong and offers two reasons for it:

(1) The Bible forbids unjust killing.
(2) The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative forbids unjust killing.

Most people would call (1) a religious reason and (2) a secular reason, since the first contains the name of a religious book, the Bible, and the second contains a nonreligious principle, the categorical imperative. But how do the terms religious and secular add to or subtract from our assessment of the quality of these reasons? If one has good reason to reject the authority of the Bible, then that good reason and not the religious nature of the Bible is the real reason why one ought to reject reason (1). On the other hand, suppose that one has good reasons to believe that the Bible is a better guide to moral philosophy than Kant’s categorical imperative. In that case, one ought to conclude that (1) is a better reason than (2). But, again, how do the properties of “religious” and “secular” affect such a judgment? At the end of the day, a reason is weak or strong, true or false. Thus, “religious” and “secular” are not relevant properties when assessing the quality of reasons people may offer as part of their arguments.”

In considering another aspect of the “secular reason” argument, Beckwith then reviews Ron Reagan’s speech on embryonic stem-cell research at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Reagan argued that embryos are not human beings, let alone “persons” deserving of rights.

“But by sequestering early embryos from the class of moral subjects, Ron Reagan attempts to answer a question of philosophical anthropology that religious traditions also offer an answer. Reagan presents an argument in order to justify killing early embryos by trying first to answer the question of the nature of a moral subject. Those who oppose Reagan’s position, mostly Christians, present arguments and counterarguments in order to first show that the early embryo is a moral subject and then, from there, show that killing that entity in the way that Reagan suggests is unjustified. Reagan chooses to call this position ‘an article of faith’, even though its advocates offer real arguments with real conclusions and real reasons. Of course, these arguments and the beliefs they support are, for many of their advocates, articles of faith, but they are also offered as deliverances of rational argument. In that case, they should be assessed on their merits as arguments….

…[N]o matter what position the government takes on the nature of the embryo or fetus, it must rely, whether explicitly or implicitly, on some view of the human person tied to a metaphysical position that answers precisely the same sort of question that the “religious” positions to which [Paul D.] Simmons alludes try to answer. Because these so-called “religious positions”, as I have mentioned already, are often defended by arguments that are public in their quality and do not rely on crude appeals to holy Scripture or religious authority, it is not precisely clear why a public argument that is informed by a citizen’s religious belief violates the Constitution while a contrary public argument that is informed by a citizen’s secular belief does not.”

At the conclusion of the chapter, Beckwith offers the following:

Bible laid open across American flag“Secular liberalism cannot remedy the deep philosophical conflicts that percolate beneath the political debates in which Christians have become vibrant participants. For its application results in what [Frank] Canavan calls the pluralist game, a bait and switch in which a religiously neutral public square that respects pluralism is promised so that our legal regime may avoid the imposition of any ‘sectarian’ or ‘religious’ dogma. But that is not what is delivered. What arrives is a legal regime that is no less sectarian than any of the ‘religious’ views it was intended to sequester. As we have seen, secular liberalism presupposes and entails its own understandings of liberty and the human good that answer precisely the same philosophical questions that the so-called sectarian views answer.

Consequently, contrary to some depictions of Christian involvement in politics, such religious citizens seem not to have inserted themselves into the public square because of a desire to ‘force their morality on others’ (if we use the common pejorative description). Rather, they have become politically active for the purpose of resisting what they believe are understandings of the human person that are contrary to human dignity and thus the common good.”

What do you think? I thought this was a pretty good examination of the issue — intellectually rigorous, yet not overloaded with theology, philosophy, or political theory that might scare off a layperson like me. I haven’t quite finished the book, but I do feel confident in recommending it to Christians and non-Christians alike. Oh, and the chapter on “The Separation of Church and State” was very informative and eye-opening! This is good stuff. I may need to check out more books in the series….


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