Religious Beliefs in the Public Square? It Apparently Depends…

Consider the case of a professing Christian law professor, by way of a master’s thesis completed at a divinity school and employing extensive biblical and theological argumentation, mounting a case to change an important aspect of public policy. Consider also the state governor, himself a Southern Baptist, not only thoroughly backing said change, but making appeals to garner support that were transparently tied to following Christ. Finally, toss in the fact that the professor’s divinity school and several church denominations also overtly backed the reform.

This the real life scenario detailed in the final chapter of Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism (a book I previously mentioned here). And given all the above, you can only imagine the streams of protest that were let loose by various groups and individuals regarding improper interaction between church and state. Well, as it turns out, you can only imagine them…because they didn’t happen. Baker elaborates:

No legal or academic commentators leaped into the fray to speak of the need for independent secular rationales or for public appeals to be secular appeals. Fears of theocracy simply never played a significant role in the public debate. The ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State steered clear. The governor of the state of Alabama, guided by a professor at the state’s largest law school, worked to redistribute several billion dollars from one group of persons to another because of the moral imperative they saw in Jewish and Christian holy writings. The guardians of secularism did not make enough noise to interrupt the song of cicadas in the warm Alabama nights.

Why? Baker suggests the answer lies in the particular issue involved and a larger double standard. The public policy area in question was the state’s tax code. The plea of the professor and governor was to change it in such a way as to remove the unreasonable burden Alabama had placed on its poorer citizens. Baker goes on:

Intuition check: does anyone think that this story would have been treated similarly by the press and church-state watchdogs if t had involved an equally religious program aimed at hampering the proclaimed injustice of abortion? We know it would have been treated differently. The charge of theocracy would be loud and frequent. Accusations would fly. Turn the facts around again and the crusade is aimed at establishing greater civil rights for illegal immigrants working for low wages in an underground economy. No worries of theocracy. Turn them around again and see religion aimed at solidifying the traditional understanding of marriage. Theocracy threatens again!

Referring to observations by Stephen Carter, Baker sums up the situation this way:

Carter’s main point is that social elites seek to marginalize the religious influence whenever it expresses a worldview with which they disagree. Thus, the left-wing nuclear freeze or poverty rights group speaks in frankly religious terms, and it sounds like music. The right wing abortion protester or marriage advocate speaks, and it is frightening theocracy all over again.

The point is persuasive, and it’s only one important contribution Baker’s book makes to the discussion of religion’s role in the public square. A handful of individual chapters are each worth the price of the book themselves. “The American Model, The American Controversy” offers a compelling examination of the significance of the religious clauses in the First Amendment (with conclusions that were surprising, at least to me). “The Legend of Warfare” examines simplistic myths regarding the relationship between science and religion. And “Secularists Sit One Out in the Bible Belt” further elaborates on the scenario mentioned above.

For anyone who wants to think more about whether and how religious beliefs should participate in the public square, this book is well worth the read.

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