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January 19th 2009 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Reclothing the Naked Public Square

We are often told that religion and politics don’t mix. But it is usually the irreligious who make such claims. Secularists generally do not want people of faith to have any input into the political process. But given that the majority of the world’s population is religious, it is reasonable to expect religion to inform and flavour the political debate.

We are often told that religion and politics don’t mix. But it is usually the irreligious who make such claims. Secularists generally do not want people of faith to have any input into the political process. But given that the majority of the world’s population is religious, it is reasonable to expect religion to inform and flavour the political debate.

There are at least three ways in which religion can influence and interact with politics. One is the sacred public square model, in which religion takes over the public arena. This theocratic model is best exemplified in the Islamic view of religion and politics, in which there is no sacred/secular distinction.

Another model is the naked public square (the phrase coming from Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away earlier this month), in which religion is decidedly and deliberately absent from the public arena, being a privatised faith relegated to the purely personal sphere. This is what the secularists and atheists are gunning for.

Finally there is the civic public square model, in which competing religious belief systems are allowed to slug it out, intellectually and ideologically, in the public arena. In this model various religious arguments are made, and may the best man – or religion – win. That is the model argued for in a recent book by American philosophy professor Brendan Sweetman.

In Why Politics Needs Religion (InterVarsity Press, 2006), Sweetman claims that all religions have a right to enter the social and political debates of the day. Modern pluralism is not threatened or harmed by allowing religious argumentation about current social debates. In fact, it is strengthened by it.

He insists that all worldviews have a genuine place in the democratic process, and that non-religious positions promote their own worldviews, just as the various religions do. Indeed, he demonstrates that even secular humanism is a worldview and a religion.

A worldview, says Sweetman, is a philosophy of life, dealing with such issues are the nature of reality, what it means to be human, and how we think about right and wrong. It also contains certain life-regulating beliefs. Clearly the major world religions deal with such considerations, but so too does secularism and humanism.

And all worldviews have a faith component. That is, not all of their claims and beliefs can be fully and absolutely proven or established, so there is a belief commitment. Every worldview, even the secular worldview, has this faith component.

Philosophical naturalists, for example, have a commitment to the belief that all that matters is matter. It is not something that can be proven with absolute certainty, but is instead a philosophical presupposition.

There is nothing wrong with having such faith commitments, Sweetman suggests. We all hold to some beliefs without absolute surety, but we have substantial and reasonable grounds for holding to such beliefs. Thus religious folk can have strong, probable and rational grounds for holding to various beliefs, just as secularists do.

In this volume Sweetman spends a fair amount of time demonstrating just how secularism is in fact a worldview, even a religion. He shows how these secularists are not just against certain things (religion, God, the supernatural, etc.) but in fact have many things they are positively promoting and advocating, such as their philosophical naturalism, their materialistic reductionism, and so on.

Moreover, many secularists want in fact to establish a “seculocracy”. They want to see established by law their views on a whole range of issues, be it evolution, moral relativism or a fully naked public arena. These goals can be clearly seen in the various Humanist Manifestos that have been produced (1933, 1973 and 2000).

Sweetman next argues that if secularism is as much of a worldview and a religion as is Christianity, then both should be treated the same: both should have equal access to the public square, and both should be allowed to set forth their case, and let the people decide which is the preferred option, at least on various public policy issues.

But secularists do not even want the debate to take place. They act as if they alone should have exclusive access to the public arena, and that all religions must be privatised affairs, with no influence whatsoever in the social and political spheres.

But Sweetman says that all worldviews should have this access to the public sphere. He teases this idea out by looking at several contentious debates, such as the abortion issue, and shows how in a pluralistic and democratic society, those with religious convictions can just as properly, and reasonably, put forth their case as the secularists.

Indeed, as the author argues, politics needs religion. If the state is to treat its citizens fairly and equally, then it must create a level playing field in which all religions and worldviews are allowed to flourish and promote their vision of the public good.

It is possible that secularism might prevail. Or some religion, like Christianity. But that is what a democracy is all about, letting the people decide what set of core beliefs and values they wish to model their nation on. A fair and democratic political system will allow vigorous debate on the issues that concern its citizens, and not allow one group (increasingly in the West, the secularists) to have an unfair monopoly over the public arena.

This book deserves wide reading, if we are to forestall the secularists from cutting off the much needed debate on the important issues of the day.