The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


     As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
--Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed 1796, ratified 1797.

The Democratic Party of the United States has recently come under attack by a number of pundits as a "secular" party--one that derives much of its support from folks that don't go to church much (if at all), and one that tends to run candidates that don't discuss their faith openly. I (along with most liberals) don't find this trend disturbing--indeed, we find it entirely in accord with America's long tradition of separation of church and state.

To understand why we have such a tradition, it's important to remember that the founding fathers were Englishmen, with a rich sense of the debacle that state control of religion had created during the reign of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Moreover, the Union was to be of states with a variety of religious traditions: Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, and so forth. The first amendment allowed the states to unite without a messy, destructive fight over which faith would become the "official" doctrine.

Have two hundred years of official governmental neutrality on religion crippled American Christianity? If anything, the opposite is true. America is easily the most religious first-world nation. Indeed, this is true even after forty years in which the first amendment has been interpreted more strictly than ever before (for much of our history, many individual states used the school system to teach a sort of generic Protestantism--this was the origin of the outstanding system of Catholic private schools in this country.)

Official secularism is no threat to religion in this country. Instead, it leaves religion free to persuade (judging by the results, religion can be very persuasive indeed).

Where do secularism and religion collide? I can think of four main issues: prayer in public schools, religious displays on public land, abortion, and homosexuality ("blue laws"--laws enforcing public morality--would once have been a fifth, but I believe a general consensus has emerged against these). I'll talk about each specifically in future posts. In general, though, liberals believe that preventing religion from entering the public sphere protects its ability to work privately.


Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

Perhaps I am pre-empting you here - you said you would discuss collisions in subsequent posts - but it seems to me that as long as religion exists in society, secularism is at best unworkable and at worst completely meaningless. To illustrate the problem, suppose some religion X asserts that abortion is morally equivalent to murder because God says so. Suppose a follower of X is elected president, and subsequently seeks to make abortion illegal.

Should we pretend his belief doesn't exist for the sake of separating church and state? Should the president sit idly by while - from his perspective - millions of unborn children are murdered? He cannot hide from his belief because his belief is a political belief, as much as it is religious.

I am unfamiliar with the American system, but in Britian if the government want to pass legislation, it is formulated then voted on in Parliament. If it gets through Parliament it goes to the Lords, and if it gets through there it becomes law. Essentially, if the majority want a law to be passed, it will be. Secularism is neither here nor there. Why? Because how do you distinguish a secular law from a non-secular one?

1:01 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

I think you have a mistaken idea of what secularism means.

Secularism doesn't mean that no laws inspired by religious ideas can be tolerated; that would be madness. It does mean, however, that wherever possible one should attempt to find nonreligious grounds for proposals.

In your specific example of a politician wanting to outlaw abortions, nothing would or should stop him from proposing such a law (or, in the United States, constitutional amendment; abortion is currently protected by constitutional caselaw.) The key issue is how the law is debated. If the argument is "abortions are morally wrong, and outlawing them is the best way to prevent them," then we have the basis for a reasoned debate. To my mind, at least, secularism simply means that the argument must never be "Abortion should be illegal because it is a sin." We must never lose the distinction between "sin" and "crime."

Yes, I'm arguing for government to remain basically pragmatic. I think that the alternative is a worsening of what the US seems to be sliding towards--politics as a series of power-plays between opposing blocks that barely speak to one another.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

Thank you for your response. I hope I'm not abusing your comment space - if you don't want to discuss this further (your blog has the potential to collapse into endless debate) then feel free to ignore this.

I think that any argument of the form "We should ban X because religion Y says it is a sin" boils down to an argument that attemps to justify belief in religion Y. But what's wrong with that? By demanding that all debate be secular, it's as if you're saying religious considerations exist on some other plane that is beyond reasoned debate. It might be the case that many religious people acknowledge their beliefs are entirely based on a sort of personal faith; but many don't, and think, for example, that creationism is a more rational explanation for life on Earth than evolution. And I doubt they would consider their religious convictions any less pragmatic than secular convictions. Afterall, what could be more pragmatic than trying to get into Heaven?

It isn't obvious, to me at least, that an argument of the form "We should ban X because it is immoral" is any more open to reasoned debate than an argument of the form "We should ban X because religion Y says it is a sin". Of course you might be less convinced by arguments attempting to justify religion Y, but then it's your right to vote against it. And all we have is a system whereby the majority rules, and secularism is... well... I don't know what secularism is.

5:44 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

Oh, no, by all means--that's not an abuse of my comment space! I like debates--they force you to think your positions through properly.

I'm not arguing that either, "We must ban X because it is a sin," or, "We must ban X because religion Y thinks it is a sin," is particlarly amenable to rational debate; obviously neither is. What can be debated rationally is, "Given agreement that X is morally wrong, how can we reduce the problem? Should we ban X, make obtaining X more difficult in some other way, or provide service Z which is likely to reduce the rate of X?"

It isn't obvious that widespread agreement as to a problem is equivalent to widespread agreement to criminalization. In the case of abortion, for example, I believe there is widespread agreement that abortions are morally questionable, at the very least. On the other hand, in 2003 only 22% of Americans (according to a CBS poll) believed that abortions should be banned.

There's a real debate to be had about what can best be done to reduce the abortion rate. (In my personal opinion, the sharp increase in the abortion rate since the end of the economic boom suggests that what we're seeing is people making a marginal living having abortions when faced with the prospect of a child driving them from near-poverty into the real thing. If that's the case, something like subsidized daycare would probably do more good than a ban on abortion.)

8:09 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

I agree with you that the question of whether or not X is immoral (or a sin) is separate from whether or not we should make X illegal. Most religious people can deal with this in most cases. The reason being that from their perspective, it is far better that people live without sin because they want to live without sin, not because they are forced to by the state-- they'd rather you were God-fearing than state-fearing. But where the sin is severe enough to be morally equivalent to murder, and where failure to do anything to curb the sin is itself a sin, then I think religious people find their beliefs necessarily become political.

Suppose we have a situation in which religion Y not only asserts that X is a sin, but also that it is a sin for the state to let X go unpunished. What are followers of religion Y to do about this? The argument becomes "The state should punish X because religion Y says so". The secularist argues that such a position is beyond reasoned debate, but again it boils down to an argument over whether or not we should believe religion Y, and it isn't obvious to me that there's a problem with that.

Your article suggests secularism arose in an attempt to avoid the problems associated with state control over religion. In the past, the problem with such governments seems to have been a refusal to question certain doctrines because they were religiously entrenched: the world is flat, catholics are traitors, such and such is heresy. You don't prevent that kind of problem by prescribing what constitutes rational debate-- that's exactly what you're trying to avoid. If people want to propose laws based on religious convictions, and want to use religious arguments in an attempt to justify them, then I don't see how you can get around that without imposing your own religious (or secular) convictions on them. Do you nip their proposals in the bud by banning religious argument from public debate? How do you make secularism a legal requirement without compromising democracy?

6:13 AM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

I think you're conflating the two distinct types of secularism that exist in the United States.

On the one hand, there's the secularism that's enshrined in the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...This is a relatively weak form of secularism, but it has the full force of law behind it. It is this that prevents public schools from making prayer part of a curriculum, prevents the United States from being a "Christian Nation," and generally restricts the government to "ceremonial deism." (That is, "In God We Trust" on the currency is acceptable; "Jesus is Lord" would not be.)

On the other hand there's the tradition of secularism that I was referring to. I'm not suggesting enshrining it in the law; that would be wildly impractical, for all the reasons you suggest. I am nonetheless proud to live in a country whose constitution makes no reference to God whatsoever (except obliquely in the above text, where it permits free worship). That was hardly an accident. I rather miss the country where a President once proclaimed:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.It's almost inconceivable to imagine a modern candidate saying such a thing, as John Kennedy did in 1960. That's a very great shame.

12:40 AM  
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