Prophets in the Public Square – Part III

Final thoughts from an unpublished talk I presented at the 19th Annual Journal of Law and Religion Symposium at Hamline Law School in 2009.

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As I emphasized in Part I and Part II, religious voices in the public square need to speak authentically.  They also need to find a way to speak universally without losing sight of their own necessary particularity.  These are important religious challenges.

But how should political theory look at all this? Many political and legal philosophers, following John Rawls, have argued that religious voices in the public square need to frame their arguments in terms that are intelligible to the larger overlapping consensus of diverse communities and radically different religious convictions that participate in that conversation. Critics have suggested that this requirement of self-censorship is unnecessary, and unfair and untrue to religious faith. I want to go a step further, and argue that it can also be affirmatively bad for public discourse, and in some ways more dangerous to the secular polity.

To make my point, I want to look briefly, not at the classic works in this ongoing debate, but at a more obscure source, Rawls’s own rediscovered religious writings.

Rawls, it turns out – who knew? – was deeply interested in theology, from his brilliant undergraduate senior essay at Princeton, to his late meditation, not meant for publication, on his own transformed religious convictions, both now collected in a single posthumous book.  In that essay (at pp. 267-68), Rawls says this, which explains as much as anything his views about the overlapping consensus:

We need to consider how the relation between God’s reason and moral and political values may be conceived…. God’s reason is different [from ours] in that its powers far surpass ours…. Yet God’s reason … is the same as ours [including that of atheists] in that it recognizes the same inferences as valid and the same facts as true that we recognize as valid and true. Beyond that we may suppose that God’s reason is consistent with ours; so far as we can comprehend a case, God’s idea of reasonableness and ours yield the same judgment.

Rawls’s conviction that God’s moral reasoning should no different than secular moral reasoning is powerful and even beautiful. It relates to my argument in Part I of this post against what I’ve called cheap prooftexting, for – if Rawls is right – the prooftexter’s invocation of religion adds no substance to the argument, only the threat of religious bullying. For Rawls, it seems, the famous overlapping consensus represents more than the common ground among different sets of deep human convictions, it also reflects the point of connection between the mind of human beings and the mind of God.

But what Rawls ignores is that religious arguments can be transformative; they do not merely give different answers, but ask different questions. They can change the frame of reference of a debate. Rawls might be right that when religious voices play on an essentially secular rhetorical field, their religious identity provides no added value (an economic idea!) to the conversation, and is thus merely ornamental, or an effort to trade on the prestige or authority of religion. But when religious voices in the public square speak from a deeper source, they can contribute in a genuine way to the broader deliberative process. Such genuinely deep religious contributions to public debate are also, perhaps paradoxically, necessarily more modest and less arrogant. There is frankly little as off-putting and even dangerous as a religious speaker who claims that his religious convictions can be defended on purely secular grounds.
But how can voices from different faiths, with radically different deep commitments, speak with each other about great public questions in the same public square? The answer is in the power of metaphorical understanding. When I read Hauerwas, or Pope Benedict, I do not share their theology. But I can be challenged by it, I can find powerful suggestions that dare me to ask difficult questions and to search for adequate responses. What, for example, is the essence of economic life and what is its relation to love and communion? These challenges are worth more to me, standing outside those traditions, than efforts to put a religious sheen on standard secular arguments. Resting merely on the overlapping consensus leaves us where we started. Admitting alien, radical, counter-voices, put forward with grace and humility, wakes up the public square, and can move us ahead.

One response

  1. Reducing religion to “faith” does not advance the conversation, for several reasons:

    1. There is much about religion that is much “practice” and little “faith,” including all the genuflecting, bathing in the Ganges, meditation and cultural Judaism.

    2. Focusing on “faith” necessarily excludes atheists and humanists from the discussion.

    3. Considering mainly differences in “faith” helps the religious and superstitious to ignore the great role that their actual practices and political action play in denying to non-believers their important rights regarding sex, drugs, and rock & roll. We live in a country where atheists do not seek to deny the superstitious their communions and confessions on Sunday, while the superstitious actively seek to deny atheists the right to buy a six-pack on a Sunday morning.

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