The Corner

The Secularism of a Religious Country

Is it okay for a politician to argue in favor of his policies on, say, taxes or global warming, by saying that God favors these policies? Professor Hunter Baker of Houston Baptist University, in his new book The End of Secularism, gives a bracing answer: “Christianity is plural within itself and is not today likely to steamroll anyone on anything. No elegant political philosophies or legal rules are needed to police the boundaries of religious and secular argumentation. The focus should be on the wisdom and justice of particular policies, not on the motives for the policies. An endless fascination with perfecting the way we form our reasons for policies, religious or otherwise, leads to absurdity and arbitrary decisions.”

I think there’s wisdom in this, and it suggests to me why, in America, church-state separation has worked out better in practice than it has in theory. To the extent that politicians eschew religious rhetoric, they do so less out of Rawlsian principle than out of pure practicality: Voters, even (perhaps especially?) in an 80-percent Christian country, view the religious professions of politicians on the stump with great skepticism, and no politician wants to look phony. The politician will therefore use more romantic-emotional and secular-rational arguments for his policies, and the voter will decide whether these policies are consonant with the voter’s own most important values — which are, very often, shaped by religion. Religious values can thus play an important role in creating policy, without running afoul of the Constitution’s guarantees of a non-sectarian government.

Professor Baker writes that “secularists ask that individuals with religious reasons pretend to think and act on some other basis.” This is, of course, an illegitimate request and should be resisted. But when religious people make secular arguments in the public square, I don’t think most of them do so out of a desire to hide their religious sentiments. They do so because they are meeting their brother where he is — and using the arguments they think are most likely to convince him. In any case, kudos to Baker for a fascinating and thought-provoking book.

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