Timothy Keller, in his book, The Reason for God, notes that although many continue to call for the exclusion of religious views from the public square, such a demand is itself a religious one. As we celebrate America’s Fourth of July, we must remember the significant way that Christian principles have guided American ways of thinking throughout history, as well as defend our right to share our faith in public situations.
Influential thinkers such as John Rawls and Robert Audi have argued that we must not make a moral position in public political discussions, unless it has a secular, nonreligious grounding. They believe that religious views should be excluded from public discourse because otherwise such discussions will be too divisive, or they will exclude nonreligious people from the conversation. In 2006 a number of scientists and philosophers such as Peter Singer, E.O. Wilson, and Daniel C. Dennett signed “A Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism,” which called on the leaders of our government “not to permit legislation or executive action to be influenced by religious beliefs.” Philosopher Richard Rorty argues that he is not ideologically opposed to religion per se, so long as it is kept in the private sphere.
But, is this line of reasoning sensible or even correct? Are religion-based positions merely sectarian (divisive) and controversial, while secular reasoning for moral positions are universal (uniting) and available to all? Stephen L. Carter of Yale concludes that it is impossible to leave religious views behind when we do any kind of moral reasoning at all: “Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital.”
Carter can respond like this because religion is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing. Thus, secularism is a “religion” in that it contains a master narrative; it is an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things. Call it a “worldview” or a “narrative identity” if you desire, but the person who thinks that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and therefore you must do what makes you happy now because after you die you just rot, is expressing a set of faith-assumptions about the nature of things. Everyone operates out of some kind of faith (be it religious or secular), so what gives the secularist the right to speak in the public square while the religious person must be muzzled? Moreover, whose viewpoint do you think helps humans the best?
One look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) or Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) indicates the timelessness of God’s ethics as expressed in the Bible. We should not keep quiet about that!
Happy Fourth of July,
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