Monday, November 12, 2007

Quote of the Evening

Daniel R. Ortiz, "Nice Legal Studies":
Many traditional liberals believe that keeping the public sphere free of religion is the only way to avoid taking sides in particular debates. Excluding religion does, of course, achieve neutrality among religions because no one of them is allow to participate in -- let alone dominate -- the public sphere. To the religious, however, exclusion certainly does not maintain neutrality between religion and secularism. By denying religion a public say, exclusion hands the field to secularism. Only secularists get to argue the full case for their claims. This type of civility may suppress conflict, then, but not neutrally. It does not respect all views equally or avoid taking a position on them. The secularists win. It is neutral only in the sense that it looks neutral to the majority because it corresponds with the majority's own view about how power ought to be allocated. This is civility's great strength. It allows the majority to think it isn't taking a position, especially since civility demands silence from those who disagree. It is civility's gentleness that allows the majority to overlook its brutal partiality. (11)

Paul Horwitz provides some excellent commentary on the article as a whole. See also my own commentary on civility, here and here (in comments.


Jack said...

I don't disagree with the point about civility excluding dissent but the notion that seculars constitute a majority in this country is completely insane. American public discourse is
dominated by the religous (read: Christians). Fidelity to one creed or another is an absolute requirement for higher political office. Biblical justifications for policies are routine.

The demand that religion be left out of public discourse (which has never been the case in the US, even historically) stems not from the hegemony of "traditional liberals" so much as it is a product of the concern for religious minorities.

When Judeo-Christian (i.e. Christian, as you have pointed out) language dominates the public sphere non-Christians are excluded.
I'd argue this exclusion is greater than the exclusion felt by the religious in a secular society. The former imposes a demand- you must speak to religious concerns. Those who cannot are a priori excluded. In contrast a public sphere in which religion is left out might force the religious to leave out part of their argument but it doesn't exclude them from participating. Moreover, it provides an opening to non-Christians who, while perhaps still restricted, can not enter the discussion.

And its worth noting that appeals to religion principles are unlikely to work if those principles aren't already held by the majority. So religous minorities aren't going to benefit much from a non-secular public sphere. Only the Christian majority will.

PG said...

When Judeo-Christian (i.e. Christian, as you have pointed out) language dominates the public sphere non-Christians are excluded.

I think the kind of Christian language used is relevant. The Rev. MLK Jr. used a lot of religious references, metaphors, and analogies because he was a minister and he was a) representing a Christian-dominant group (African Americans) and b) he was trying to tie their concerns and humanity to that of the dominant white majority.

However, I don't feel excluded by MLK's language because one could agree with the underlying argument without believing in God at all. Indeed, the civic, secular religion of the U.S. (as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc.) demands that one believe in equality and so forth. So the phrase "all God's children" doesn't bother me when used in the public sphere.

What does bother the hell out of me are arguments that rely entirely on shared religious belief, such as whether everything in the Bible is true and is a guide for how we ought to live. If someone's argument for why homosexuality is wrong is "Because the Bible says so," then that's an argument that has no place in the public sphere. It does exclude all of us who do not adhere to a Biblical tradition. It has no secular aspect. If that's the best argument someone has, quite frankly that person has nothing worthwhile to contribute to the public sphere and should stick to speaking up only among other Bible-believers, who at least will have a chance at changing the person's mind because they can argue whether the Bible actually does say that. I am not a Biblical scholar and therefore it would be disrespectful and pointless for me to try to argue with such a person about whether his interpretation of a sacred text is correct.