In today’s Wall Street Journal, William McGurn praises Senator Barack Obama for a speech that he delivered two years ago on religion and public life. In the speech, Obama rebuked liberals for pushing religious opinions out of the public square. Obama’s take on religion sounds pretty positive, and McGurn’s take on the speech is therefore pretty upbeat as well. You can read Obama’s speech here: “One Nation . . . Under God?“
I remember when Obama delivered that speech, and I remember that despite its rhetoric it actually suggests a way of engaging in the public discourse that would silence religious opinions in the public square. Here’s the relevant passage from Obama’s speech:
“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
In other words, Obama supports the right of religious people to have religious opinions. But when religious people bring their opinions into the public square, they must argue from the premises of secularism. Obama privileges secularism by laying groundrules that exclude religious arguments at the outset.
I think this is a mistake and would recommend instead the prescription that Dr. Albert Mohler gives in his new book Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth. In chapter 4, Mohler sets forth “Five Theses” concerning Christian morality and public law (pp. 23-27). His theses are decidedly non-Rawlsian, and they are right on the money. Here they are:
1. A liberal democracy must allow all participants in the debate to speak and argue from whatever worldviews or convictions they possess.
2. Citizens participating in public debate over law and public policy should declare the convictional for their arguments.
3. A liberal democracy must accept limits on secular discourse even as it recognizes limits on religious discourse.
4. A liberal democracy must acknowledge the commingling of religious and secular arguments, religious and secular motivations, and religious and secular outcomes.
5. A liberal democracy must acknowledge and respect the rights of all citizens, including its self-consciously religious citizens.