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Rights and Obligations: The Role of Religious Arguments in a Pluralistic Democracy

Brendan Sweetman

Professor of Philosophy & Sullivan Chair in Philosophy, Rockhurst University
August 18, 2017

A friend of mine recently told me an interesting story. She was attending the pro-life march in Washington DC in January, and got into a discussion in a local restaurant with a group at a nearby table. One member of the other party asked her why she and her friends were visiting DC, and if they were enjoying themselves. Upon being informed that my friend was in town to attend the pro-life march, several began to berate her for forcing her religious views on others. My friend pointed out that her argument against abortion was not religious but philosophical; she argued that abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, and that it also often causes considerable mental suffering and anguish for the mother, one of the matters she wanted to warn about and help bring to an end. Her critics countered that all arguments against abortion are really religious. Then they told her that they had all attended the earlier Women’s March, in part to protest against people like her. One noted that she had attended the Women’s March to protest the death penalty, while another said that he was objecting to proposed restrictions on abortion freedoms. My friend asked why their arguments on abortion could be aired politically but hers could not. Their answers alternated between the view that her values were “religious,” that her position on abortion was morally wrong, that she was trying to tell others how they should live, and so forth. The exchange was hardly a meeting of minds, of course, but it is instructive with regard to a number of issues concerning religion and politics.

Religion and Democratic Pluralism

The point about this discussion is not the inconsistency of her critics, or the intemperate rhetoric often used as a substitute for argument; it is that their way of thinking about these issues is confused and unreasonable, and must be judged as an outdated approach in the democratic debate on matters of moral and political disagreement as we move further into the twenty-first century. Their approach fails to recognize a key cultural fact: that one of the most characteristic features of modern democratic pluralism is fundamental disagreement between people and groups at the worldview level. It is a fact of modern pluralism that people have different philosophies of life that clash on central questions relating to ethics, politics and the meaning of life, among other defining topics. This disagreement raises a key question: how should we handle matters when people with different worldviews disagree on fundamental beliefs and values, especially at the political level? We must also recognize that this disagreement includes Christians and other religious believers who are at odds with each other. Disagreement is not confined to that between Christians, and atheists or secularists. As examples, Christians disagree among themselves about the death penalty, and they may also generally disagree with secularists about euthanasia, though some Christians also support the legalization of that practice. So all citizens in a democratic context must ask the question: what role should my beliefs on fundamental matters having to do with ethics, law, culture and the direction of society play in politics?

Asking whether religious worldviews should have a role in a democracy is an out of date way of looking at things.

It is often tempting to answer this question by saying that Christians and other religious believers should have no say in politics. This position implies then that if one is a secularist or an atheist one will have free rein in public square debates, which would be a considerable advantage for that perspective! However, we do not have to think very long to see that this common answer to our question is not just unfair but incorrect and confused. Given that secularism is now a major cultural player in modern democracy, not just in the U.S. but across Europe, we must consider all worldviews in relation to the state and not just religious ones. Asking whether religious worldviews should have a role in a democracy is an out of date way of looking at things. It was an interesting question to ask when religious perspectives had cultural dominance, but now that we have secular worldviews that carry considerable influence, and defenders of those worldviews who are often stridently vocal on moral and political issues, wishing to reshape culture according to their vision of the good life, it is no longer fair or appropriate to single out religious worldviews for special discussion and indeed discrimination.

The Nature of Religious Belief

There are two key facts about religious beliefs that are often overlooked, especially by critics of the religious worldview. The first is that such beliefs are reasonable; the second is that they have political implications. To say that religious beliefs are reasonable means that a reflective person can offer reasonable arguments for the basic religious view of the world. Religion is not simply a matter of faith, as it is often portrayed. It is often characterized as being a matter of faith to indicate that it is not based on evidence, or that religious believers do not care about the rationality of their beliefs. However, there is a very long tradition of reflecting philosophically on religious beliefs in the history of ideas, and while an individual believer may not be able to appeal to this tradition (an impractical requirement for most holders of any worldview), nevertheless religious beliefs have been shown to be reasonable by many of the smartest thinkers in history. This does not mean that everyone accepts them of course, but that is not the point. The point is that the religious view of the world is a reasonable worldview, and so therefore has a right to participate in the debates about culture and the meaning of life. Even if one does not agree that the religious view of the world is reasonable, one is not entitled to make this judgment for everyone else in a democratic state.

If certainty were the standard, then nobody could advocate their view at the political level!

The second important point is that some religious beliefs have very clear political implications that religious believers must act on if they are to be serious about what they believe, and if they are to live with integrity. One example is the belief that all people are created equally by God. This belief has obvious political implications for a host of public policy issues, including in employment, education, and other matters of social justice. Martin Luther King frequently appealed to this belief in his quest for equal civil rights for African Americans. A second example is the belief that we are our brother’s keeper. This belief has political implications for social welfare programs, programs aimed at fighting poverty, and other social issues. Such beliefs by themselves do not tell which particular policy proposal to implement—that is something we have to work out in a particular society at a particular time, and there is often disagreement on this matter, including among Christians themselves. But the main point is that if one holds that Christian morality includes the principle that we are our brother’s keeper then this means that one has a political obligation to organize society so that all people are protected and guaranteed basic living conditions in such areas as employment, health care, education, and so forth.

The risk of being wrong comes with the democratic process and is a side effect of the foundational belief that human freedom is an essential feature of human nature.  

Could a religious believer be wrong about his or her moral and political beliefs? Yes, an individual religious believer could be wrong, but then again so might anyone from any worldview! And, as we have noted, people from all points on the spectrum often disagree on what constitutes correct morality. We may approach some of our cherished beliefs in the spirit of humility, but this cannot mean that we must never advocate these beliefs at the political level. We should all humbly acknowledge our own fallibility, while still having the conviction to act upon our beliefs. If certainty were the standard, then nobody could advocate their view at the political level! One of the unfortunate characteristics of the contemporary age is a lack of confidence in human reason to arrive at the truth (a position which now has considerable influence in any number of academic disciplines). Yet, paradoxically, we are very shrill today about telling people what to believe on moral questions or in trying to implement our moral views at the political level in order to shape society and culture by means of them. Indeed, some critics of religious beliefs are fond of appealing to the fallibility of human knowledge as a tactic to undermine the political influence of religious beliefs of which they do not approve (but not beliefs of which they approve), which is an inconsistent view. Fallibility of human knowledge must apply to all worldviews, and have the same consequences for all worldviews, not just religious ones.

The Ballot Box

I do believe that when we present an argument in the public square to support a public policy position that we should try to defend it as best we can with reasonable arguments. We must also remember that we live in a democracy and that pluralist debate assumes democratic values of freedom of expression, willingness to listen to other views, honest debate, and acceptance of various procedures for settling our disagreements. From a practical point of view, we are not likely to reach agreement in our modern pluralist culture on moral and political questions, but the fairest way to settle our disputes in a democratic context is at the ballot box. This is fairer than allowing a small unrepresentative group to decide for everyone, such as university professors or media elites, the Courts, or others who regard themselves as enlightened and who wish to decide for everyone else. Can the majority be wrong? Of course, but then again so can the minority. The risk of being wrong comes with the democratic process and is a side effect of the foundational belief that human freedom is an essential feature of human nature.

About the Author

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