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Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy.

Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy. By Ronald F. Thiemann. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press for the Twentieth Century Fund, 1996. 186p. $17.95.

One of the more notable achievements of the Christian Coalition and other newly emergent religious conservative movements has been the reintroduction of religion and religiously based convictions into U.S. politics. These groups have been so successful in this regard, in fact, that for most citizens--if not for most within the academy--the question is no longer whether religion belongs in the public square but what form this involvement should take. Much of the discussion on this topic has taken place among conservatives, but some within the liberal community also have begun to rediscover the religious roots of their own tradition and to question the strict separationist dogma which has come to prevail in their circles.

This highly readable book by the dean of Harvard Divinity School falls into this category of "revisionist liberalism" and can best be read as a plea to modern political liberals to take religion seriously as an important and positive factor in U.S. public life. Its argument in sum is that the attempt to exclude religion from the conversation of democracy is intellectually insupportable and practically impossible. Thiemann is not unaware, of course, of the potential dangers. He readily admits, for example, that religion has often been a divisive force in politics and that there indeed are compelling historical reasons behind liberalism's attempt to contain religion within a private sphere. Yet, he insists that liberals must recognize that religion has played a crucial role in shaping our political culture, and the attempt to remove it from the public square would not only violate the religious character of the American people but also, given the close connection between religion and morality, undermine our attempts to address the country's crisis of public morality. Due largely to its double-edged character, the question of religion's appropriate role in public life remains, as the subtitle indicates, a dilemma for U.S. democracy. One does not have to share Thiemann's Lutheran background and its highly developed sense of cultural paradox to appreciate the ambiguous nature of religion's public role.

If we are to engage in a serious and much needed debate on the proper role of religion and to harvest its contribution for the renewal of U.S. public life, then Thiemann suggests that we start by clearing away the rubble of First Amendment jurisprudence which has piled up since the Supreme Court's Everson decision fifty years ago. In a couple of tightly argued chapters he helpfully examines the Court's often incoherent and arbitrary rulings, its undue reliance on the metaphor of the wall of separation between church and state, and its uncritical use of such concepts as accommodation and religious neutrality. He sensibly urges us to move beyond these suspect terms and develop a coherent framework that shows how both religion clauses of the First Amendment serve the same end of religious freedom. These clauses, he correctly observes, were not designed to prohibit the expression of religious views in our pluralistic democracy but to prohibit the state from favoring any particular form of religious belief or practice.

The challenge for the liberal tradition, as Thiemann explains in the core chapters of this volume, is to get beyond the wall of separation and the myth of neutrality and espouse a "virtuous liberalism," one that appreciates the need to nurture a robust sense of civic obligation and citizenship. He casts his position as a revisionist challenge to modern liberalism, with its emphasis on government neutrality and secularity and its exclusive focus on individual freedom. Thiemann cautions, however, that this should not be confused with the sectarian communitarianism of people like Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas, which in his view is more effective as a critique of modern liberal theory than as a genuine alternative to liberal political practice. He looks instead to such thinkers as Jean Bethke Elshtain, William Galston, Michael Walzer, and Charles Taylor, who while affirming the centrality of liberal values (individual liberty, equality, and toleration) also recognize the need of democratic societies for a virtuous citizenry imbued with a sense of the common destiny and committed to the common good. In Thiemann's view, religion not only is compatible with this kind of liberalism but also is its indispensable ally.

Thiemann's argument is very powerful but, alas, not quite complete. Unless Thiemann is willing to develop it further, he is not likely to assuage the concerns of those who fear that the reintroduction of religious arguments into political discourse will only revive a kind of factionalism that is destructive of democratic politics. This fear, one should add, is not the exclusive preserve of secular liberals; it exists as well among many religious people and across the political spectrum.

The problem is that while Thiemann has helpfully clarified the distinction between private and public, and correctly shown why religion cannot be confined to the former, he does not adequately define the meaning of the political. Thiemann correctly argues that the realm of the political is not coextensive with the public--a space which is also occupied by the diverse institutions and associations of civil society--but he fails to specify the proper distinction between them. The challenge for any public philosophy, however, lies precisely in drawing this distinction and showing how the state should respond to the built-in pluralism that characterizes civil society. Absent such a framework, one is left without a clear sense of the proper nature and scope of politics and thus of the kinds of questions we can legitimately seek to resolve within the political realm.

In an attempt to make up for the lack of a principled institutional limitation on the political claims of religion, Thiemann turns to a discussion of the degree of certainty which religious believers should ascribe to their core theological affirmations. This question is important in its own right but is largely beside the point. To accomplish the end Thiemann seeks we do not have to convince devout believers of the nonabsoluteness of their faith claims (something which may not be possible in any case), only that the resolution of many ultimate questions falls outside government's limited role. I think Thiemann would agree that our pluralistic democracy would be well served if believers of all persuasions had absolutely no doubt about that.
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Author:Lugo, Luis E.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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