Freedom From Religion | The Nation


Freedom From Religion

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Two Christian intellectuals have been key figures in developing that language. Richard John Neuhaus, now editor of the "theocon" journal First Things, wrote what might be considered the pro-church movement's canonical work, The Naked Public Square, which appeared in 1984; Yale law professor Stephen Carter published his influential book The Culture of Disbelief in 1993 and recently came out with a new polemic, God's Name in Vain. While their politics are different--Neuhaus is firmly on the right, Carter a cautious mixture of socially conservative and liberal impulses--they agree that a public role for religion is essential to American democracy. Both argue that secularism thwarts the will of the great majority of Americans who believe in God, that there needs to be a prominent place for institutional religion as a check on state power and that the main purpose of the First Amendment's establishment clause is to protect the church from the state, not vice versa. Together they have changed the debate by challenging secularism on its own moral ground, as the defender of democratic values.

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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The Naked Public Square was Neuhaus's response to the emergence of the evangelical Christian right and the resulting liberal panic: He agrees that the movement is dangerously authoritarian but proclaims it an inevitable reaction to the relentlessly antireligious program of the secular elite. Secularism, he maintains, is itself an antidemocratic, indeed potentially totalitarian pseudo-religion whose institutional form is an ever-expanding state that confuses its own aims with transcendence. Carter's complementary view is that secularists, in opposing any government accommodation to religion, trivialize people's religious convictions by treating them as a matter of choice rather than an absolute commitment. (His examples range from the Supreme Court decision that Native Americans cannot violate drug laws by using peyote in religious rituals, to rulings that Jehovah's Witnesses cannot prevent hospitals from giving their children transfusions, to the voiding of a law that denied civil divorces to Orthodox Jewish men who refused to give their wives religious divorces so they could remarry.) As he sees it, defining religious freedom as purely a matter of private conscience rather than public recognition forces the believing majority to suppress the most essential part of themselves in their public lives. This trivialization, he argues, hinders the church's proper role as an independent, prophetic voice challenging the hegemony of the state.

These arguments confuse democracy with populism and show little concern for the rights of the minority of unbelievers, who are regarded not as dissidents but as powerful agents of the state. For the neoconservative Neuhaus, what's oppressive about the state is precisely its intervention on behalf of individuals--like homosexuals objecting to discrimination or opponents of publicly sponsored Christmas trees--who do not want to be subjected to "the beliefs, symbols, and rules of the majority culture." Carter, meanwhile, proclaims religion to be the source of movements of the oppressed: In a rewriting of history characteristic of antisecularists he equates the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and the black church. (What about A. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Jim Forman--secular activists all--and such non-church-run organizations as the NAACP, CORE and SNCC?)

But in demanding that state and society defer to the absolutism of religious devotion, Carter gives the game away, for as many devout believers will admit, there is an inherent tension between religion and democracy. The authority of the biblical religions--which are the main subject of this debate--is embedded in sacred texts, religious laws and ecclesiastical hierarchies that claim to transmit absolute truth and serve the will of a Supreme Being. Democracy, in contrast, depends on the Enlightenment values of freedom and equality, which are essential to genuine self-government. In a democracy, truths are provisional and subject to debate--which doesn't mean arbitrary, only arguable. A society grounded in democratic principles can neither restrict people's choices because they don't conform to religious truths nor give them privileged treatment because they do.

The democratic spirit does encourage respect for acts of conscience--whether by recognizing them legally, as with conscientious objection, or by limiting penalties for nonviolent civil disobedience--but it can't extend respect only to acts mandated by a belief in God or condone acts that violate others' rights (like denying one's child life-saving medical treatment). Nor, even with the laudable intention of helping desperate Jewish women, can it threaten men with loss of their civil right to a divorce because they refuse to participate in a religious ritual. As for laws that capriciously interfere with personal freedom, the answer is to fight the law, not to carve out a religious exception: Members of the Native American Church should be permitted to alter their consciousness with peyote, but so should everyone else. (In this regard, Carter makes a valid point: It's usually minority religions whose pleas for exemption from burdensome laws get brushed aside; laws that would burden mainstream religious practice don't get passed in the first place.) If believers feel that their faith is trivialized and their true selves compromised by a society that will not give religious imperatives special weight, their problem is not that secularists are antidemocratic but that democracy is antiabsolutist.

Insofar as religion is a matter of personal conscience and identity, a means for individuals and congregations to pursue life's ultimate questions and their vision of a transcendent reality, religious freedom is not only compatible with democracy but essential to it. Among those who favor a secular society, many are believers. Many other secularists, in an age influenced by psychedelic drugs and Eastern spiritual disciplines, value the freedom to pursue their own versions of transcendence, which they may or may not define as religious. The conflict with democracy arises when organized religion pursues its interests as a social and political institution.

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