Can the West survive without religion?


Religion is special!  As such, it should be accorded a special place in the lives of nations as well as in the lives of individuals.  These assumptions were foundational to the vision of the American Founders and, accordingly, they were enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …”


In recent years, however, these foundational ideas have been challenged on a number of fronts.  Almost exactly one year ago (January 20, 2012), the bishops of the Catholic Church proclaimed as “literally unconscionable” the Obama administration’s decision to require that virtually all health plans include sterilizations, abortifacients, and contraceptives.  Timothy M. Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated that “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”


The same dilemma is currently faced by businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College.  In a recent article in Christianity Today, “Honoring Faith in the Public Square,” Wilfred McClay points out that the healthcare mandate also cuts against the faith commitments of many other religious groups, from Mormons to Muslims to Jews to Sikhs.  At stake is what’s often referred to as our “first freedom,” freedom of religion.


Controversy about religious liberty or the place of religion in American public life is not new, McClay reminds us.


It runs through much of American history, taking on different guises and embracing different antagonists and issues at different times.  But it has achieved a unique importance and potency at this historical moment, when we are more intent than ever upon upholding the principle of neutrality in all things. What is so special about religion, that it should receive any “special privileges”?  Why should we regard a church or other religious association differently than we regard any other social club or cultural organization?  Why treat the rights and expressive liberties of religious adherents any differently than we would treat those of other individuals?


McClay responds to such questions by offering five arguments—plus one—for why religion should be given deferential treatment—treatment that entails respect for particular religious and moral convictions as well as religion per se.  These are not the only arguments that can be made, by McClay’s own admission.  But they are the kind of arguments that should be persuasive, or at least plausible, to many who are skeptical about a public place for religion.


1.      Our Tradition


First, there is an argument based on America’s historical and constitutional roots: Our founding tradition links religion, and the active encouragement of religious belief, to the success of the American experiment. The Founders had diverse views about a variety of matters, very much including their own personal religious convictions, but they were in complete and emphatic agreement about the inescapable importance of religion. …


2.     American Pluralism


[T]he very fact of … diversity itself leads to a second argument for deference to religion, an argument rooted in American pluralism: The free flourishing of diverse religious identities provides a powerful source of moral order and social cohesion. … A society flourishes best when the moral communities within which consciences are formed—churches, synagogues, mosques, and the like—remain healthy. In America, the national purpose rightly understood ought not to undermine such particular affinities or purposes, but to strengthen them. …


3.     Human Nature


A third argument for religion’s special place is anthropological: Human beings are naturally inclined toward religion. We are driven to relate our understanding of the highest things to our lives lived in community with others. Whether our “theotropic” impulses derive from in-built endowment, evolutionary adaptation, or some other source, the secular order ought not to inhibit their expression. …


4.     Social Benefits


A fourth argument might be called the “meliorist” argument: Religion deserves an exalted place in American life because of the extensive good works religious institutions reliably perform.


5.     Ultimate Meaning


Last but not least, there is the “metaphysical” argument: Religion should have a high place in public life because religion is humanity’s single most important body of reflection regarding the ultimate meaning of the universe and the proper conduct of human life. It is often said that religious freedom is the “first freedom,” since it provides the grounding for all our other rights, and empowers us to seek and embrace the truth about our existence, and to live our lives in accordance with that understanding. …


But there is even more to the metaphysical argument. Indeed, there is a growing recognition that religion serves as an indispensable bulwark for human dignity. In our postmodern world, immense bureaucratic governments and sprawling global corporations, answerable neither to democratic restraints nor any well-established code of behavior, threaten to devour both liberty and dignity.


Beyond these five reasons why faith should have a place in the public square, McClay raises an even deeper issue that must be addressed.


Can our freedom itself, and more generally the rights-based liberalism we have come to embrace in the modern West, survive without the Judeo-Christian religious assumptions that have hitherto accompanied and upheld it?


Interestingly, the arguments of two thinkers—an atheist and a skeptic—are offered by McClay in response to this question.


Though himself an atheist, the Italian writer Marcello Pera has argued that … it is impossible to uproot such ideas as human dignity from the Christian intellectual soil in which, historically, they were nourished. It’s a dangerous illusion, he says, to imagine that modern liberal values can be sustained apart from religious presuppositions about the nature and destiny of man.


[Thomas Jefferson said that] “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” … Jefferson was saying that the very possibility of liberty itself, the liberty of every man and woman, depends upon our prior willingness to understand liberty as a gift of God rather than a dispensation of man.


The tone as well as the content of Dr. McClay’s article is important.  He gives us reasons that reasonable unbelievers should be willing to consider.  And he does so in a way that avoids the polarizing rhetoric of the culture wars.  This essay is a valuable primer for those of us who would engage wisely in this critical debate, the consequences of which will determine the future of our Republic.



Wilfred McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  Honoring Faith in the Public Square” was published in the November 2012 issue of Christianity Today.



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