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Divine Intervention

What religion means to politics, and vice versa.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By FRANCIS J. BECKWITH
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Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics
by Robert Benne
Eerdmans, 128 pp., $14

Jerry Falwell

Jerry Falwell

Eduardo Sverdlin - UPI / Newscom

Although virtually all Americans would agree that the idea of the separation of church and state is a good thing, what exactly it means is a hotly contested question.

For some, it means that the government and religious bodies are autonomous entities that ought not to exert power over each other in the areas over which each has appropriate authority. Others extend the idea of separation to include not only institutional limits but also a severance between the government’s lawmaking powers and religiously informed policy proposals. So, for example, a law that prohibits embryo-destruction research would violate the separation of church and state, since such a law is informed by a sanctity-of-life ethic derived from a particular theological tradition. Thus, the only legitimate policy on this matter that the state may enact is one whose advocates are not motivated by their religious beliefs.

Notice that the latter understanding of separationism is not concerned with the actual content of the religious citizen’s policy proposal, whether or not he or she has offered a cogent argument that is rationally defensible. Rather, this form of separationism amounts to a metaphysical exclusionary rule that a priori bars as illegitimate a cluster of policy proposals without regard for the quality of the cases offered for any of them. Their secular contraries are not subjected to this philosophical apartheid, even though they offer answers to the same questions and rely on beliefs no less contested than their so-called religious counterparts.

Consider, again, embryo-destruction research. One side claims that the embryonic human being is a full-fledged member of the human community, identical to its postnatal self, and thus possesses the same moral worth and intrinsic dignity throughout its existence. The other side denies this, arguing that embryonic human beings lack some characteristic or property that would make them moral persons and thus subject to the usual prohibitions against homicide. Although the religious citizen is motivated by what his theological tradition teaches, that tradition is itself a consequence of an extended argument over time, no different in character from its secular counterpart. For the secularist’s position is shaped by certain inherited beliefs acquired during his academic and cultural formation that are central to his intellectual tradition. These beliefs in metaphysics (nominalism), epistemology (scientism), and religion (subjectivism) are, like the believer’s beliefs, the result of an extended argument over time.

In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics, Robert Benne provides a clear and compelling brief for just this sort of religious citizen (and the ecclesial community to which this citizen belongs). And he does so with great care and insight. Director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Benne focuses on American politics and Christian participation in it. Although he does mention a few non-Christian groups, his purpose is to offer Christians and their detractors a way of thinking about religion and politics that addresses some of the concerns that many believers and unbelievers have expressed over the past three decades since the ascendancy of the Religious Right.

After the short introduction, in chapters two and three Benne distinguishes two sorts of positions on the relationship between religion and politics—separationism and fusionism—both of which he argues Christians ought to reject. As for the first, there are at least two varieties. One sort—championed by writers as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Damon Linker—views the participation of religious citizens in the formation of policy as deleterious to democratic liberalism, if the policies these citizens propose have their genesis in their religious beliefs. Benne convincingly rebuts this claim by showing that to actualize this separationist prescription would, in effect, limit religious liberty in ways inconsistent with the promise of the American Founding. (This is why John Rawls’s “political liberalism”—the liberation theology of the secular class—is a project subversive to liberal democracy, since it privileges what it claims it does not privilege, understandings of reason, liberty, self-governance, and philosophical anthropology that are intrinsically hostile to the principles of the American Founding. And it does so on the basis of rather flimsy arguments.)

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