The Corner

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Coffin versus Parker


Shannen Coffin takes issue with Kathleen Parker for writing this: “How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments.”

I agree with aspects of what Coffin says. For instance, I think there’s nothing wrong with having a presidential debate in church, though of course the quality of the debate will depend, as always, on the quality of the moderator, and it would be wise to avoid churches led by firebrands. (I am not implying that Rick Warren is a firebrand.)

Coffin seems to be taking Parker as saying that religious people should never talk about their religious commitments in political discourse. If that is what Parker meant, then I also disagree. But I think there’s a more charitable and sensible reading of her column today, which is this: Religious people should not appeal to religious claims in justifying their positions unless they are also prepared to justify their religious claims.

Coffin writes: “At bottom, the fundamental problem with Kathleen Parker’s argument is that it leaves to Kathleen Parker the decision as to what is too ‘oogedy-boogedy’ for the public square. . . . Parker . . . has failed in intelligibly defining a standard.”

But the politician who says merely: “Such-and-such is desirable because [insert religious claim here]” has failed intelligibly to justify his putative justification.

Justification necessarily comes to an end. (This is a comment about the structure of our thoughts, not about what is the case in the world.) Where it ends in a claim your interlocutor already accepts, it will help him see things your way. Where it doesn’t, you will need to give him something more.

I think what’s right in what Parker says is that religious conservatives would be wise to be mindful of this, and to choose their rhetoric accordingly.