Religion and the Norms of Political Discourse:

Northwestern University Law Professor Andrew Koppelman has an insightful post on the role of religion in political discourse. To avoid confusion, it is important to emphasize that neither Andy nor I are proposing government censorship of speech that violates the norm we advocate. The principles we embrace should be promoted through social norms, not government coercion:

A noteworthy development in liberal political theory over the past 30 years or so has been the claim, by such distinguished thinkers as John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Stephen Macedo, David Richards, Charles Larmore, Samuel Freeman, Richard Rorty, and Robert Audi, that in a liberal democracy, political discourse must rely on arguments that are not sectarian and can be assessed in terms of commitments that all citizens can share....

This claim has elicited a bitter response from religious thinkers, who have argued that this deprives politics of important moral resources and denies them the right to state what they believe. This response, which has not slowed the production of these liberal theories of public discourse, gives rise to a puzzle: why did the liberals converge on and keep producing new articulations of a proposal, in the name of social unity and comity, that was so widely received as an insult? ....

I suspect that the answer has something to do with norms of civility that developed in the United States throughout the twentieth century. It is now well settled that it is impolite to challenge someone else's religious beliefs. Religion is private. Even if you think your neighbor believes really stupid stuff, it's not nice to say so.....

This formula works only so long as neither of you offers a religious argument that is supposed to govern something that will affect both of you. Suppose, for example, that you propose that homosexual sex be criminalized because it's an abomination before God. How am I to respond? If I disagree, my obvious answer is to say that your religious beliefs are wrong. By hypothesis, that is what I really think. But it's impolite to say that. So I have to twist around to find some way to say that your views ought not to govern political decisions, without having to say that they're false. These political theorists have been doing the twist.

Their strategy has been a disaster, because it has produced the opposite of what they have hoped. A doctrine grounded in universal respect has left a lot of actual citizens feeling profoundly insulted. This suggests that the norm of politeness needs to be revisited. As soon as A invokes religious reasons for his political position, then it has to be OK for B to challenge those reasons.

I agree with Andy's argument. It is reasonable to have a social norm against criticizing others' religious beliefs in political discourse (though not necessarily in nonpolitical debates about the validity of religion itself). However, that norm must be suspended in cases where one side to a political debate is using religious claims to defend its public policy positions. Thus, for example, Mitt Romney's Mormonism should not be an issue in the presidential campaign unless he or his supporters try to use Mormon doctrine to justify his policy ideas or aspirations to office.

It is true that criticisms of religion-based public policy arguments can sometimes descend into bigotry. But the only alternatives are either to give religious policy arguments an exemption from the scrutiny received by secular ones, or to exclude religion-based arguments from public debate entirely, as the liberal theorists Andy rightly criticizes seek to do.

How does this relate to my own earlier-stated views on prejudice against atheist candidates for public office? Very simply, atheist candidates should be evaluated on the same criteria as theistic ones. If an atheist candidate and his supporters offer purely nonreligious arguments for their positions, then his or her atheism should not be an issue, any more than Romney's Mormonism, or JFK's Catholicism. If, on the other hand, the atheist candidate claims that atheism provides justification for his policy ideas, then that atheism becomes a proper subject for public scrutiny. In my view, of course, atheism does not in and of itself lead to any determinate conclusions on public policy issues. One can be a liberal atheist, a conservative atheist, a libertarian atheist, and so on, without in any way contradicting atheism itself. However, atheists who claim otherwise should be treated in public discourse the same way as theists who make similar arguments based on their religious beliefs. A claim that atheism strengthens the case for Policy X can legitimately be met with the response that atheism is itself incorrect.