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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Government statements about "true religion"

One of my favorite blogs is run by the University of Wisconsin's Prof. Ann Althouse.  A few days ago, she had a post called "When government says what the 'true religion' is," commenting on Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent statement in the wake of the 7/7 bombings that the "moderate and true voice of Islam" needs to be "mobili[z]ed."  Ann asks, "how can [Blair] say what the true interpretation of a religion is?"  Similar questions were raised, a few months ago, by Eugene Volokh, regarding a proposed sex-education curriculum in Montomery County, Maryland.   The proposed curriculum supplied "facts" -- including "facts" about religion -- designed to counter certain prevalent "myths" about homosexuality.

What should we think of Blair's comments?  On the one hand, it seems hard to deny that liberal governments have a strong interest in the content and development of religious traditions and doctrines.  (I wrote an article about this interest a few years ago).  In fact, it seems to me that liberal governments have an interest in convincing people -- whether they belong to the religion in quiestion or not -- that the religion in question really teaches in accord with liberal values.  After all, religion matters to many people, and it shapes the citizens on whose judgment democratic governments purport to rely.  It is better, then, that religions inculcate some values, commitments, and loyalties rather than others.  As I wrote in my article,"Governments like ours are not and cannot be 'neutral' with respect to religion’s claims and content.  [T]he content, meaning, and implications of religious doctrine are and have long been the subjects of government power and policy. Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching."  On the other hand, there's the longstanding maxim that governments like ours should not -- and perhaps even may not -- take "cognizance" of religion, or "entangle" themselves with religion.

What do people think?  Would it be wise or wrong [or unconstitutional?] for a government to undertake, as a matter of policy, to push the doctrines of a particular religion in a government-approved direction, or to support a particular government-approved faction within a religious tradition, in order to serve what the government regards as the common good?


Posted by Rick Garnett on July 27, 2005 at 02:16 PM | Permalink


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(pardon the late posting of this, i only recently found your blog)

It is true that there is a government interest in choosing to promote or condone certain religions (or individual beliefs thereof) for the "common good." However, i have a hard time recognizing a government interest as legitimate, and also fear that it would too soon turn toward one of the socialist nations of scandinavia.
Having grown up in one of those (with a religious state and education, worse now for the Christians being in power there), i have to say that any gov't interaction with religion is ultimately going in the wrong direction for the gov't. It may be simplistic, but i view this in the same way i view all gov't power: don't declare for yourself any power that you would not later mind having your political opponents having over you.
Because gov't promotion of religious beliefs can be seen as the principle (read: tradition), and not a means for supporting a constitutional principle, it can be utilized to support nearly any kind of religious belief as congruent to the government's "common good." I believe this is approximately what the Bush admin is doing currently.

Posted by: Rachel | Aug 4, 2005 9:29:45 AM


Check out my post on liberal government endorsing "the right kind" of religion.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jul 29, 2005 12:36:24 AM

-- It's not a democracy, it's a republic --

Well actually, it's both. Our "constitutional republic" is a specific form of the generic "liberal democracy." Great post Rick -- quite profound. Look for me to reference it in a forthcoming essay on Positive Liberty.

Posted by: Jon Rowe | Jul 28, 2005 8:02:35 PM

"Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching."

First of all, Bush administration is not wholefully secular as Bush himself is a born-again Christian. Furthermore, it is also conservative politically and socially. Finally, please do educate yourself on what type of government we use in America. It's not a democracy, it's a republic.

Other than that, your blog post makes no sense...none whatsoever.

Posted by: Dan | Jul 28, 2005 4:18:51 PM

In the case of Blair's comments, it would be foolish not to try to reach out to Islamic moderates and to declare them to be the best and true aspect of Islam. I don't think that's even a close call. Political leadership in a time of deadly crisis must be decisive leadership. At the samte time, the Montgomery County policy was over the line. I see no need for a bureaucratic agency to promote certain religious understandings in the service of domestic social engineering. But, like I said, Tony Blair did the right thing and I hope he doesn't slow down.

Posted by: pty | Jul 27, 2005 4:32:23 PM

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