The Great Divorce

Church and State – distinct and never the twain shall meet; or so runs the standard line.

However, the broadly accepted conceptual resources underpinning liberal democracies are more flexible in this area than might be expected; cries for ‘fairness’ and ‘rights’ and critical assessment of arguments may be found in the stables of the Church as well as her ascendant opponents.  A helpful account is found at the SEP, but here’s how I interacted with it in my small postgrad philosophy class today, in summary:

Robert Audi (The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship – Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer, 1989), pp. 259-296) advocates the separation doctrine; firstly, that the State should in a free and democratic society, neither establish a church nor impair religious liberty. Fair enough and jolly good.

This separation of Church and state may be limited in order to protect important human rights, e.g. in prohibiting some religious practices. What counts as a compelling reason for such a limitation is of course contentious, but this is also fair enough in principle.

Audi (who, it might be noted, is himself actually a Christian) advocates three principles in expounding the separation doctrine – the ‘libertarian’, ‘equalitarian’ and ‘neutrality’ principles; briefly, that people should be free to practice any religion (within some limits, as above), that different religions should be treated equally by the state and that religious groups should not be favoured in any way by the State simply for being religious (the State ought not promote religion).

While these are hardly the axioms they are often assumed to be in the modern discussion, it is what Audi takes to follow from them that I will challenge – in some ways, these principles may need to consequently be adjusted for a coherent theory, but I leave that project up to political philosophers.

It is taken to be true that just as the State ought not interfere with Religion, the converse also holds true and as such, for instance, preaching ought not take on a political spin. This is a difficult line to run, for Audi recognises that “a Hitler” ought be opposed from the pulpit as well as from the benches of parliament. But if it is true of the moral evils of the Nazis, why not lesser evils of other regimes; and why can the virtues of some politicians not be extolled in sermons? In morality there is surely not a simple dichotomy between “Hitler bad – oppose him; others not that evil, so don’t say anything!” While I will not rehearse the arguments given for the standard line, they are I think found wanting.

Audi proposes the concept of “secular reason” with such things being approximately: reasons, the normative force of which, do not depend on the claims of religion. In espousing secular reasons, he advocates ‘the principle of secular rationale’ – that policies should be promoted according to secular (non-religious) reasons. While people may support policies for religious reasons too, what is said in the public sphere should be secular. The policies Audi is concerned with are those which restrict human freedom, but this is quite broadly conceived, such that these are quite a wide range of policies!

Further, the even more restrictive ‘principle of secular motivation’ is proposed – that one should not advocate conduct-restricting policies unless sufficiently motivated by purely secular reasons. Religious motivation may be involved in some way, but the motivation provided by secular reasons should be enough, we are told to justify advocating the policy and to do the work of convincing others.

There are serious difficulties with this line, now in various related forms the standard one in liberal (i.e. mainstream) political philosophy.

*If I must, for the purpose of public policy, divest myself of religious beliefs, I will as a religious believer end up being morally required to advocate and support policies that I disagree with on a fundamental level.

*There is no guarantee that a bare secular reason will be satisfactory for a religious person assessing policy proposals. Why this asymmetry in who is guaranteed satisfaction in policy discourse?

*Philip Quinn (Political Liberalisms and their Exclusions of the Religious, Presidential Address to the Central Division of the APA 1995), notes that verbal conflict in a democracy (within some limits) is a mark of health, rather than necessarily to be avoided – we shouldn’t articificially attempt to create harmony at the cost of some contributions to the discussion.

Audi’s position regarding the role of religious reasons is subtle, but seems to be rather restrictive and not the best fit for a modern liberal pluralistic society. In conclusion, I’d like to see a good argument for why some controversial   contributions to political discourse (i.e. religiously motivated and/or argued ones) should be excluded while others (‘secular’ ones) are not!

Thanks to and for ideas which sparked off some of the things mentioned here, particularly Matt Flannagan for recommending resources on the topic.


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