W4 reader Mike Dagle has set up a new blog called "Being Appeared to Bloggishly." I wish I'd thought of that blog name myself.
His first series of posts (here, here, and here) concerns the use of religious beliefs in politics. Mike is definitely more conversant with the literature on all this than I am, and so I will confine myself to dealing with what I might call a "generic naked public square" (GNPS) view as he helpfully summarizes it, rather than attributing this view to any particular writer. Mike summarizes the GNPS principle (which he opposes) as follows:
Since we ought to respect our fellow citizens we should give them reasons for limiting their autonomy that they can accept from their own perspective. Some sort of public justification is required.
What I would like to do is to throw out some possible interpretations of the GNPS principle and to point out that they are either false or else, in the case of the last one, plausibly true but applicable to rule out religious beliefs in the public square only if we grant an invidious and highly questionable assumption.
So, without further ado, let's give it a whirl:
GNPS interpretation attempt #1: Since we ought to respect our fellow citizens, we cannot use any reason for putting a law in place, where that law will limit our fellow citizens' freedom, that our fellow citizens are likely to reject from their own perspective.
The obvious problem with this principle is that we can easily define "perspective" in such a way that it will be impossible legitimately to pass any freedom-limiting laws with which anyone disagrees. Suppose that my "perspective" includes the belief that recycling is stupid and harms the environment rather than helping it. In that case, I will not accept as a reason for recycling laws the premise, "Recycling is good for the environment." If you just have to take my perspective as a given and go from there, you cannot pass recycling laws, because I won't grant your premises for them from my perspective. And so forth. And this will be true even if the person's perspective is highly unreasonable and contrary to all sorts of public evidence.
GNPS interpretation attempt #2: No a priori truths can be used as premises for freedom-limiting public policy if a questioning citizen would at some point be asked to grasp such a truth in an a priori fashion, because asking this is not giving public argument.
This version of the principle seems obviously false. If the value of pi is relevant to setting engineering standards, for example, then it is certainly legitimate to use that fact in setting public policy, even if some people are unable to understand mathematical truths and ask for some sort of empirical argument for them that cannot be given. A less abstract problem with such a principle is the very real possibility that some (all?) ethical and metaethical truths may be a priori, and that arguments on ethical matters may have to terminate with such propositions which the interlocutor has to grasp for himself. Even a utilitarian has some such principle regarding the ultimate value of (for example) maximizing happiness for the greatest number.
GNPS interpretation attempt #3: (This one is related to #2.) We should show our respect for our fellow citizens by not assuming the absolute wrongness of any particular action. Deontologism is unfair. Only utilitarian reasons count as "public reasons" for public policy.
Do I really need to say that this is baloney? After all, even someone who dislikes religion in the public square may well have his own idea of things that are intrinsically wrong--lynching black people or murdering homosexuals, for example. There is absolutely no principled reason to treat "public reason" as synonymous with "utilitarian reason," yet I have a hunch that it isn't so very uncommon to find people doing so.
GNPS interpretation attempt #4: In order to show respect for our fellow citizens, we should not use any premise as a basis for setting or advocating public policy if the majority of our fellow citizens are not capable of fully understanding and accepting the argument that supports this premise.
This version of the principle would rule out our asking the citizenry to accept the opinion of experts on all manner of issues, from engineering to medicine to economics, so it seems quite unreasonable.
GNPS interpretation attempt #5: To show respect for our fellow citizens, we should not use religious beliefs as premises to support public policy, no matter how well-supported the religion in question might be by evidence.
This version of the principle attempts to rule out the applicability of public reason indirectly through its support of some particular religion. But that seems arbitrary. If the point is just supposed to be that some good argument for the premise in question must be available for those who are capable of following it and interested enough to look into it, then there seems no principled reason to limit the length or direction the argument takes. Why couldn't one say that a proposition is defensible "publically" by way of public reasons for the religion which, in turn, supports the premise in question, which premise in turn supports the public policy in question?
All of this brings us, finally, to the only version of the GNPS which seems to me even remotely plausible:
GNPS interpretation attempt #6: To show respect for our fellow citizens, we should not ask them to accept as reasons for public policy propositions which are irrational to hold.
Now, I can accept this principle. It even seems to have some relevant applications. I think it's irrational for Muslims to believe that dogs are unclean.Therefore I think it would be outrageous for Muslims to press for laws outlawing dogs or limiting the places where people could take their dogs on the basis of this irrational aversion to dogs, which also happens to be religious. (See here for one manifestation of Muslim aversion to dogs in Iran, here for one in Minneapolis.) I think it's irrational for Muslims to think that it's immodest for women to roll their sleeves up to their elbows, and therefore I think it's absolutely outrageous for Muslim female medical students in the UK to be trying to get out of scrubbing to the elbow before performing medical operations. And so forth.
But this version of the principle can be used to exclude religious beliefs generally from the public square only granting the further assumption, which of course I think false, that all distinctively religious beliefs are irrational to hold.
Now, I should say in the name of full disclosure that to some extent this debate seems to me more theoretical than practical. I say this because I happen to think that most of the propositions that people think require "religious premises" to support them actually can be seen by the natural light in one or more of its manifestations--empirical information, a priori knowledge, etc. So, while you can know by revelation that a homosexual orientation is objectively disordered, I don't think that's the only way you can know it, which obviously has relevance for the question of whether I think the non-Christian on the street ought to share my views on civil unions and the like. To see that abortion is murder does not actually require special revelation; neither does seeing that born-child infanticide is murder. And so forth. Things have gotten to such a pass that I recall seeing (I don't have the link now) a story about a new pro-pedophilia political party in Holland that claimed that laws against pedophilia were "imposing outdated religious beliefs" on the pedophiles of Holland. The worst thing is that some people might have been convinced by that.
So I think Christians should probably not be too quick to grant that their social views are defensible only religiously. But many of these views of course are defensible religiously, and sometimes this fact, together with the central role that a Christian upbringing has played in cementing them in people's minds, makes Christians overly diffident in promoting them in the arena of public policy. The most that I can say about that is that Christians should also refuse to grant that their religion is irrational.