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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is public reason a two-way street?

We pay a lot of attention, at least in the academy, to how religious believers engage the political arena.  We would prefer that believers put their views into language that is accessible -- not necessarily agreeable -- to non-believers.  (E.g., we frown on "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," but are willing to discuss "Children are more likely to flourish under the care of a father and mother.") In this past campaign season, the more pressing issue was the reverse: how should the political arena engage religious believers?  Romney's apparent need to satisfy a theological litmus test in order to maintain political viability ("I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind") was just the beginning.  Whether it was folks taking political potshots at Obama based on the tenets of black liberation theology, or at Palin based on the spiritual warfare prayer said over her, or at Mormons based on their support of proposition 8, I sensed a troubling eagerness to pierce the public reason veil when the object of criticism was the religious believers themselves.  Yes, when religious folks jump into the sandbox, they're bound to get dirty.  But just as we're concerned that believers' invocations of divine authority or revelation as the basis for political action tends to be divisive and potentially marginalizing, shouldn't we also worry that building political arguments based on a political actor's religious identity poses similar threats?

Obviously I'm not talking about legal norms here; I'm talking about what should be viewed as best practices in a democracy that takes the concept of public reason seriously.  (Maybe we don't yet take it seriously, so I suppose my question is more aspirational than descriptive.)  If we think that Mormons were wrong on proposition 8, and we want to communicate that fact, shouldn't we drive the arguments with ideals that engage our listeners as citizens (equality, the social functions of marriage, inclusiveness) or as spouses (the centrality of marriage in our own lives), rather than as people who share our disdain or skepticism toward the religious believers in question?  For example, the commercial depicting two tie-wearing Mormons barging through the front door of a lesbian couple's home and ripping up their marriage license seems ill-designed to persuade Mormons.  Its more likely objective was to remind Californians that it's those odd proselytizing Mormons who are behind the prop 8 campaign.  If we think that Rev. Wright is a legitimate campaign issue, let's talk about his policy stances that could be attributed to congregation members; let's not focus on the perceived strangeness of the theological claims.

I recently wrote a short essay on this point for Commonweal (subscription req'd, unfortunately) but I'm not sure if I've gotten the point quite right yet.  My basic question: if we expect religious believers to use public reason when they enter the political arena, how should public reason commitments shape our response to those believers? 

Posted by Rob Vischer on February 5, 2009 at 11:45 AM | Permalink


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I'll take this rare opportunity to note that I am in basic agreement with both Rick and Patrick.

Posted by: JP | Feb 6, 2009 11:38:11 AM

I would think that, in principle at least, there is nothing wrong with a politician making a decision based on her religious views (or the meaning of life or the nature of absolute value), but rather, from a Rawslian perspective at least, the problem is the inability to argue with others in public fora in a manner that lacks appeals to reasons unavailable to others (perhaps there is some threshold here, although precisely where it is I don't know). Thus, if the aforementioned decision contains premises or principles not simply or solely of sectarian or dogmatic provenance and which are therefore accessible to others, then the precise and particular reasons or motivations for a decision or vote are beside the point. For example, one could come to endorse a human rights law predicated on recognizing the (inviolable) dignity of the human being but arrive at that decision from, say, religious premises unique to one's own worldview, for instance, the Buddhist belief that human beings have the potential for Buddhahood ('awakening,' 'enlightenment,' nibbana). On this conception, human beings are set apart from and are in some sense "above" non-human animals on the one hand, and 'gods' on the other. Jews and Christians might speak of the uniqueness of human beings owing to the fact that we are said to be created in the image or likeness of God. Each of these specifically religious beliefs could (and in fact has) serve as (a) premise(s) to arrive at the conclusion that human beings possess a dignity unique to them as a species from which the notion of human rights are derived (as such a notion is, at least in the founding declarations or principles for same). (It does not necessarily follow from this that we need be dismissive of 'rights' of non-human animals or are indifferent to their suffering, etc., for we could arrive at conclusions of that sort by pointing out the relevant similarities between human and non-human animals, and such an exercise is not in any way contradicted by our other kind of boundary marking).

Thus, our hypothetical Buddhist or Jewish legislator may be motivated by her specific religious beliefs to make a decision or to vote a certain way (say, for human rights legislation), yet their respective worldviews contain assumptions or premises that could be said to be generalizable in a manner that can be detached from their specific worldview origins and orientation. Thus they are open to persuasion by publicly accessible reasons but only because at some point those reasons link up with premises or principles (beliefs) found within their specific religious tradition or worldview. In short, we should clarify specifically why "there is a serious and legitimate worry about politicians making decisions for no other reason than their religious views," for that worry is owing to the fact that such views may be wholly bereft of reasons or principles that others can share or endorse, that is to say, that have no life outside a particular worldview. Is that the case with Mormons here? (FWIW: I voted against Prop. 8)

As to abortion, I don't think all of the arguments against same need be unique to religious worldviews as long as the fact remains that for both moral and legal purposes, as Neil MacCormick has noted, "the question of the moment of conception of the personate existence of a human being is a difficult and disputed one." Recent developments in medical technology have raised numerous ethical and legal questions "that reflect a profound uncertainty as to how exactly, and with what consequences, the commencement of [personhood] ought to be dated in the case of human beings as 'natural persons.'" MacCormick cites an ancient yet "still sound and relevant" doctrine from civil legal systems to the effect that "one who is about to be born is to be treated as if already born whenever that is to his or her advantage" (Englis tr. of Latin maxim). MacCormick proceeds to tease out the possible legal implications that would be in consonance with at least the spirit of this principle, including duties owed both to and toward the foetus, in which case it might be said that "some minimal form of [personhood] [MacCormick uses the term 'personality,' the connotations of which are confusing on this side of the Atlantic] exists from the moment of conception." Consider what MacCormick now has to say:

"What does not follow is that the same rights need hold in favour of the foetus against all parties to the same extent, in particular against the putative mother [the expression owing to cases of surrogacy, etc.]. Thus it is neither illogical nor conceptually absurd to insist on the rights of the foetus as against third parties while permitting (under certain conditions) the procurement of an abortion at the instance of the putative mother. Whether this solution is morally right or wrong is a matter of acute contemporary controversy. A part of this controversy surrounds the issue whether it can be right to demand prevention of harm to a being which may in some circumstances be lawfully deprived of life."

MacCormick proceeds to argue for a conditional right of the woman to procure an abortion despite according a minimal conception of personhood to a nasciturus (and thus the rights and duties that follow therefrom). He understands this as formulating a possible "middle way" between a view which sees human life as beginning at birth, with "all the normal human rights to life and protection from harm vest in the neonate morally as they ought also to be recognized legally," and the Catholic view in which such rights would be said to date from conception. Nonetheless, I think the questions that arise here are not specific or unique to the Catholic tradition or religious worldviews as such and thus are amenable to the conditions of public reason and argument (or 'public reason norms').

In the end, all that is asked of us is that the law answer questions in terms expressible through reasonable principles as to the commencement, endurance and end of personhood!!!

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 6, 2009 10:50:33 AM

I am probably not the best person to answer the question since I do not regard public reason as a "best practice" although it is often a prudential one (at least if not augmented by the exclusion of "highly controversial science" which seems to me a prescription for public paralysis on a number of issues, including same sex marriage). Widely shared religious convictions (and, in America, there are a few) can be the basis for political transformation as occurred, in part, during the American civil rights movement. Because I suspect that those widely shared beliefs are rather general ones and have been translated into secular form (even as their survival may be furthered by a religious underpinning), my guess is that the value of a generalized appeal to religious values (as opposed to appeals to specific constituencies) will be rather limited.

Because of that, my view would be that it is normally not wise, from a tactical, moral or civil peace perspective, to criticize candidates based upon their religious identity or to insist that they affirm some particular religious identity. I can nevertheless imagine that there are cases in which the religious identity of a candidate may raise legitimate questions, although this was not true with respect to Romney, Obama or Palin. On the other hand, if a candidate is a Christian Dominionist, I may want to know that.

While I agree with Rob that the Prop 8 campaign targeted Mormons as Mormons (there was, of course, no comparable ad going after, say, black evangelicals who also violated the norms of public reason), I disagree that the controversy about Rev. Wright was aimed at his religious identity. As a political conservative, I think that there is much to admire in black liberation theology even as I ultimately conclude that it leads to a distorted view of both society and the economy of salvation. The problem with Rev. Wright was not his theology but the political views that he espoused from the pulpit and Obama's response (or lack of a response) to them.

Posted by: Rick Esenberg | Feb 6, 2009 9:59:41 AM

Fair enough. I might be interpreting these ads colored by my beliefs about how politicians and voters make decisions: in reality, it seems to me, there is a serious and legitimate worry about politicians making decisions for no other reason than their religious views (consider the opposition to stem cell research, which is totally unjustifiable except under some religious view), and, in fact, everyone knows that the Mormon church opposed gay marriage for wholly religious reasons. If you share those beliefs (which you need not share, though I think you'd be more correct to do so), then it's easy to see things like the Mormon ad as simply pointing them out. (See also clarification and response here about the wide view of public reason.)

I confess that I do think that opposition to same-sex marriage itself defies public reason norms, for reasons roughly analogous to the arguments about abortion (summarized in Samuel Freeman's recent short book on Rawls, as opposed to the big book, and developed in a couple of papers by Josh Cohen whose names and locations escape me, but if you really care, I'll dig them up). If we exclude not only comprehensive doctrines but also highly controversial science from public reason (as Rawls suggests we do in Political Liberalism, using the example of controversial economic theories of general equilibrium) then not only are the religious and comprehensive moral objections to gay marriage out, but also the objections rooted in dubious (read: controversial) science about, e.g., child-rearing. And then are there any arguments remaining?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 6, 2009 2:16:48 AM

Great points, Paul, but I think I need some more convincing. The prop 8 Mormon ad did not say anything about the reasons behind the Mormons' opposition to SSM, so the only way the ad could be interpreted as objecting to the Mormons' defiance of public reason norms is if opposition to SSM itself defies public reason norms. And certainly, some of the criticism of Obama and Palin's "pastor problems" suggested policy implications, but some of it was focused explicitly on the perceived strangeness of the religious beliefs. This was most pronounced, I think, in the internal GOP debates about whether Romney, a Mormon, could be elected -- e.g., Huckabee made some supposedly ad lib comments poking fun at the beliefs. I would never suggest that public reason demands that we not talk about religion, but I think it does suggest that there are ways of talking about it that are better than others, and I'm trying to articulate what the criteria might be for making those distinctions.

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Feb 5, 2009 9:58:39 PM

For example, the commercial depicting two tie-wearing Mormons barging through the front door of a lesbian couple's home and ripping up their marriage license seems ill-designed to persuade Mormons. Its more likely objective was to remind Californians that it's those odd proselytizing Mormons who are behind the prop 8 campaign.

Rob, to the extent this is objectionable, I don't think it comes from public reason. Quite the contrary, this seems to be an instantiation of the ideals of public reason in the form of a criticism of the mormons for not following it.

That is, the message this commercial transmits, at least to me, is the following: "These Mormons aren't motivated by public reasons in opposing gay marriage, nor are they offering public reasons in political discourse on it. To the contrary, they are motivated by, and offering, non-public religious reasons. Naughty, naughty Mormons." And it's very hard to see how there's an objection out of public reason to that.

The same goes for Obama and Palin. The idea of public reason is absolutely not that citizens ought not think about religion at all. It's about the kind of reasons that citizens and politicians ought to offer one another for certain kinds of law and policy ("constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice," in Rawls's terms). Criticism of a religious politician based on the worry that he or she might make policy for inappropriate religious reasons (which I take to be the worry behind both Palin and Obama) is perfectly consistent with that.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 5, 2009 8:33:00 PM

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