What Role Should Religion Play in American Politics?

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[We’re happy to publish this guest post, written in response to “Reconciling Religion and Politics in Post-Obama America,” by John Griffin.]

In his March 20 post, David takes on a hot topic of late: whether religious views should be granted a more prominent and respectful place in American political discussion.  David’s answer – from his opening account of a God-fearing African American taxi driver to his warning that “failing to validate” religious voices will lead to social fragmentation – is an emphatic YES.  Without a place for such expression, David argues, the public sphere would become exclusionary and – with respect to fostering social cohesion – ineffective.

Historically, David would seem to be arguing the obvious. After all, religious elements have always played a major role in American politics, and to deny them significant voice ignores history and reality.  It turns out, for example, that one of the most religious groups in the American polity – measured by church attendance, prayer and members’ own self-identification – is African American Protestants, also one of the most loyal Democratic voting blocs.  Why then should those who champion progressive causes and view such groups as important political allies go to such lengths to exclude religious views from political discussion?

It turns out there are good reasons – or, at least, reasons that seem convincing to many well-meaning participants in American politics – to marginalize religious voices from political discussions.  In one such view, giving competing religious views a place in politics often leads to irreconcilable moral conflicts, which tend to degenerate into the exercise of force by favored groups over disfavored groups.  If the public sphere is to be a place of reasoned collaboration rather than open brawl, so the argument goes, then religious viewpoints can play at most only a very modest role in public discussion.  Another, related view highlights the inherent irrationality of religious experience: in this perspective, minimizing religious participation in politics increases the role of reasoned argument in the pursuit of the public good.  Because religious truths are based on inherently private experiences, they are publically unknowable and therefore bog down the already tenuous process of reaching public consensus.  A third viewpoint points out that religious groups are often themselves exclusionary, and so if political institutions are to be inclusive and help reconcile social conflict they must be religiously neutral, that is, they cannot be laden with terms that by their nature defeat such an end.

Those who advocate for more prominent religious voices ignore such views at their peril.  While it is true that religious experience is an essential lens through which millions of Americans view questions of right and wrong in politics and other spheres of public life, failing to address the concerns of those focused on the pitfalls of religiously-based politics only reinforces their worst fears.  How then to show that giving prominent public place to religious voices need not lead to increased conflict, crippled process, or exclusionary politics?

In principle, the best way forward is by expanding the ways in which we accommodate different moral viewpoints in politics – so-called principles of accommodation.  We can permit greater moral disagreement about public action by developing greater moral agreement about how to disagree about such action.  For example, we can demonstrate greater reciprocity with those who have divergent viewpoints, forbearing now with the assurance of receiving support for desired outcomes later.  Over time, habits of reciprocity can help groups with different moral viewpoints not only co-exist but flourish together.  At the same time, we should always be searching for ways to identify and minimize principles of preclusion – ways in which, knowingly or unknowingly, we may shut out from the public process viewpoints different from our own.

In practice, expanding principles of accommodation requires seeking a genuine understanding of viewpoints that may reflect a different moral compass than our own; recognizing and acknowledging the good faith beliefs of others who may hold such views; and – within certain limits – not imposing our own preferred outcomes on others.  All of this requires those with religious viewpoints to mix actively with others not of the same faith, including the large and expanding group of “nones” – those who place significance on their spiritual lives but do not identify with any particular religious denomination.  If instead religious groups emphasize deepening their “strong ties” with those of the same faith and do not grow their “weak ties” with those not of the same faith or of no particular faith at all, they forego the opportunity to strengthen norms of accommodation through reciprocity and everyday cooperation.  They risk becoming marginalized.

Can such a politics of accommodation be realized in our current environment?  Many think not.  Given current partisan hype and the routine way in which our most prominent public voices – on both sides of the political spectrum – routinely denounce opponents with demeaning, hyperbolic vitriol, it is often hard to discern an alternative.  Today, political and intellectual leaders seem motivated to sow conflict.  Reconciliation doesn’t attract as many clicks or eyeballs.

And yet political winds do shift, and in my experience many Americans grow weary of the constant distortions and acrimony.  Eventually, I believe, this era of pitched strife will draw to a close.  When it does, those who have made it a practice to understand and accommodate a diversity of political and religious views – in speech and habit – will be in a position to lead.  Let us each pray such a day will come sooner than later.

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Endnote:

In this post, I drew generously on the ideas of Josh Cohen, Amy Gutman, Dennis Thompson and others who have elaborated a theory of so-called “deliberative democracy.”  For more on the potential problems arising from religious participation in democratic deliberation, see Gerald F. Gaus’ essay “Reason, Justification, and Consensus: Why Democracy Can’t Have It All,” in James Bohman and William Rehg, ed., Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics (MIT Press 1997); “Moral Conflict and Political Consensus” in Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton 2004); and Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement (Belknap 1998).  For more on the varying religiosity of different groups in the American polity and the trend toward “nones,” see Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon & Schuster: 2010).

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