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American Religious Democracy: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics.

AMERICAN RELIGIOUS DEMOCRACY: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics by Bruce Ledewitz. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. 242 pages. Hardcover; $49.95. ISBN: 0275994600.

This book presents a thesis that, if true, would have a positive effect on the politics of this country. Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, makes the claim that in the election of 2004, the American people gave government the permission to endorse religion and that religion in some form would now be the basis of American public life. In that election, voters explicitly voted according to their religious preferences and elected politicians who will echo those preferences; the resulting government policy would then reflect religious values.

Instead of bemoaning the end of secular politics, Ledewitz wishes to celebrate it. He identifies the secular consensus in American politics as forming around the wall of separation, drawing encouragement from the assumed decline of religion as modernization advances. This secular consensus was fortified by a number of Supreme Court decisions that strengthened the wall and reduced the rights of believers. One of its tenets held that the only way a diverse democracy could function would be to have religious viewpoints kept out of the public square: when religious voters decide on candidates or issues they must not let their religious beliefs influence their decisions. How they are to perform this act of dissonance the committed secularists do not explain, but if they are unable to do this, then religious believers have no legitimate claim to input on many public policy questions. This is clearly untenable and, ultimately, undemocratic.

But this secular consensus did not last for a number of reasons, among which was a lack of majority support. Ledewitz claims that America does not need more secularism since a purely secular approach to politics cannot lead to noble goals; he is unconvinced by attempts to develop theories of human rights in nonreligious terms. Instead, he states provocatively that America needs "more and better religion" (p. xvii). What he means is that secular voters must be made to see that they are in fact believers in a religious sense. And while they may not be Christian or Jew, they share with the Christian or Jew a prevailing sense that
 the world has a tilt in the direction of the good that
 is not attributable to the will of human beings ...
 that there is a difference ... between true and false,
 and that these matters are not matters of human
 judgment, but are real and reliable ... (and that)
 the whole universe upholds the righteous ones who
 live by this path. (P. 171)


Ledewitz claims that the majority of secular voters believe these things and therefore could accept a politics based on religious language. In addition, many of the enduring political issues--equality, liberty, justice--draw heavily from older religious traditions, and that in many ways politics and religion speak to the same fundamental questions. The problem with the current version of religious democracy is that it is too one-sided: it is dominated by conservatives aligned with the Republican party, facing a Democratic party that too often purposely shuns religious voters. This is not a recipe for dialogue or good government. What is needed is a rebirth of progressive politics based on religious values, the "promise of our religions ... the transcendent realm ... For without hope of the transcendent, no politics that matters is possible" (p. 165).

On what basis then will the secularists come to embrace religious democracy? According to Ledewitz, they will not embrace a view of religion that is pushed by what he calls the fundamentalists who sometimes speak in apocalyptic terms. A greater focus on the themes of the Old Testament and its emphasis on the here and now, the value of life in this world, and the fact that a people who willingly disdain the divine call for mercy and justice are subject to judgment, can serve to invigorate a politics of the religious left, including those who call themselves secularists. Grounding the calls for justice and the demands to preserve the environment in religious language can facilitate those ends. Once religious language is fully accepted in American public discourse, then we can bid good riddance to secular politics.

This book certainly has appeal to Christians who believe that religion deserves a place in the public square. It makes a solid, well-documented plea for the religious viewpoint being represented. But I am not as sanguine as the author that such a politics is possible. It may be too much to ask for secularists to come to a new view of religion, to shed their view of God as merely a rule-maker overly concerned with sin, and to adopt a view of religion that instead is focused on a general direction of history toward some conception of the good. From the secularist viewpoint, why would religion be necessary to work toward that good? So, while I applaud the author's call for a greater degree of religious values and language in our politics, I am not sure how many will listen to that call.

Reviewed by Steve Montreal, Associate Professor of Political Science, Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, WI 53097.
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Author:Montreal, Steve
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:860
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