The Public Octagon

This post started out as a comment on John C.’s excellent post from three days ago, but as my comment grew in length, I decided, with apologies to John, to write a follow-up post.

John addressed the familiar complaint which is often voiced by conservative religious people, including many LDS people, that they are being denied a fair hearing in “the public square”, whatever that is.  The idea, as I understand it, is that in the cacophony of competing voices  in our society today, the religious voice is being shouted down.   John correctly identified the immediate problem, which is that we have no satisfactory answer to the question:  What is religion?  Many of the people in the First Things/Square Two crowd have tried to get around this problem by saying, for purposes of the public square, that all systems of belief qualify as religions, including secularism and atheism.  I think that approach is wrong for two reasons:  It is a tactical error, and it is fundamentally dishonest.

It is a tactical error because it forces us to compete on somebody else’s terms.  We will never prevail in a secular discussion because sooner or later we need to retreat to faith claims and testimony.  We would be better off to acknowledge that right up front and then appeal to the idea that religion deserves to be respected because it is good for the social order.  This was the view that was held by both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and neither of them could be described as pious.  (And it is also worth thinking about what we mean when we say that the founders were more religious that we are today.  Thomas Jefferson edited and published his own version of the bible from which he removed any mention of the divinity of Jesus and miracles.  Let’s see a show of hands from everybody who thinks somebody could do that today and still be elected president.)

It is dishonest because we don’t really want just to be heard, we want to be agreed with.  The complaint only comes up when people don’t accept our arguments.  And it is also dishonest because we ourselves don’t think that all religions are created equal.  Here is a partial list of authentic religions the public square complainers don’t care about:  People who worship Vishnu, native Americans who use peyote in their ritual, people who would seek to institute Shari’a law, and adherents of the church of the High Holy Snakehandler.   When we claim to speak on behalf of religion, what we really mean is our religion.  It would be refreshing if we would drop the pretense.

Finally, I think the public square is an inadequate metaphor.  It calls to mind a genteel New England town hall meeting where everybody gets a chance to say what’s on his mind and then goes home happy.  But nobody is going home happy now, so I think it would be better to think of the rough and tumble sorting-out that is going on in our public life in Ultimate Fighting terms.  It is a zero sum game where there are winners and losers.  You are probably going to take a few roundhouse kicks to the head, and you should understand that before you even get into the octagon.  And nobody likes a sore loser, so you can’t complain afterward that the fight was rigged or that the ref wasn’t fair.  But the main reason we need to stop our everlasting kvetching about the public square is because the first rule of the public square is that you don’t talk about the public square.

Comments

  1. I don’t want to live in your Octagon.

  2. Not sure about your last paragraph (you seem to be describing the postmodern marketplace of ideas — great paean to the free market though) but I agree that there are major problems with our discourse these days about the Founders’ faith or piety.

    What we see (I suppose this has actually been a long-standing trend) is certain groups claiming for the Founders’ an Evangelical Christianity that to the best of our knowledge they simply did not espouse. And it is unclear what the Mormons who jump on this bandwagon think is to be gained by joining the contemporary Evangelical creedalists in this particular campaign, considering that Mormonism is not considered a valid religion in this worldview.

    But as a substantive matter, as you allude in the post, neither Thomas Jefferson nor most of the other influential Founders subscribed to fundamentalist Trinitarian creedal beliefs. A large percentage of them were verifiably deists who based to their aristocratic classical education of the Enlightenment period were as well versed and as much influenced by (perhaps moreso) Greek and Roman thought and philosophy as by the Christian Bible. To the extent that they prayed, it was most likely to an abstract, deist Supreme Being only vaguely resembling the Judeo-Christian “One God”.

    True to the Enlightenment principles on which their educations and lives were based, the Founders constructed a form of government and society that they viewed would be much better than a Christian state — they enshrined Lockean Toleration combined with the Natural Rights Triumvirate of Life, Liberty and Property (modified slightly to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Jefferson’s gloss, of course) in a new political system that drew from the best philosophical Enlightenment learning of the period. Their intellectual genre was that of the English enlighteners who had endeavored to constructed coherent philosophical and moral systems without inherent reference to a specific God or any God (while not denying the existence of the same) — in the interest of working toward a pluralistic society that would enable the highest degree of freedom of conscience.

    In this regard, as a quick and readable summary, I found Peggy Fletcher Stack’s recent article on the Founders’ Faith to be very insightful: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/faith/49829475-142/nation-christian-founders-says.html.csp?page=1

  3. I completely with your premise “we don’t want to be heard, we want to be agreed with.” My sentiments exactly. That’s my perfect world.

  4. While the “public octagon” made me chuckle, the use of the term public square is more a response to left-leaning thinkers like Habermas who use the term heavily. We could instead use the “political realm,” though I think there is a concern the this becomes too formal. Anyways, I think the term has great value and I do not want to ditch it because of the way my foes use it.

    I think that these conservatives are not really arguing for a conservatve/christian voice in the public square, but they are arguing the the square/octagon itself is conservative and Christian. Secular liberals like me should be begging for entrance instead of setting the guidelines. To funny thing, for me, is that is how it works in the actual public square…what they want is for religious conservative to take pride in it and not to apologize. Liberal egalitarians like me might have a decent amount of pull within certain academic circles, but we really have little to no impact in American society.

  5. Mark Brown says:

    Ardis/John,

    The reason I went to the Ultimate Fighting example is because I think this is exactly how people who complain about the public square now see it. We have moved beyond public debates where you win some and you lose some. The arguments are now cast in apocalyptic terms.

  6. We shouldn’t confuse religious values with theology. The point is not that Jefferson et al espoused a particular theology but that they believed that God, not government, was the author of liberty. Jefferson’s version of deism was a bit more complex than the dictionary definition of deism, but most people who graduated from the eighth grade understand that he was not an evangelical Christian.

  7. most people who graduated from the eighth grade understand that he was not an evangelical Christian.

    It would be very interesting to see just what the new Texas textbooks are to say about Jefferson and the Founders in relation to the establishment of a “Christian state”.

  8. There is no “Jefferson et al” when it comes to discussing their views on such matter. While Jefferson grounded right in divine creation in the Declaration, he did so because he was following the well known and well liked argument of John Locke. He adopts a more social conception of rights…rights gounded in democracy and not God later in life and I believe this was like his personal perspective all along.

  9. john f,

    Discussion of Jefferson is not allowed.

  10. Why? I don’t get that at all. My first comment notes Jefferson’s debt to Locke.

  11. Mark Brown says:

    most people who graduated from the eighth grade understand that he was not an evangelical Christian.

    madhousewife, I think you are an optimist. I am quite certain that many of the people who send me emails, including many evangelical Christians and LDS people, think that Jefferson and others held religious views very similar to their own.

  12. john f.,

    I meant that Jefferson has been banned from the Texas schools. More Jefferson the better on the thread, I think.

    I fully agree that Locke strongly influences the Independence movement. However, I think they more beyond Locke by the time of the Constitution. Even Jefferson’s Note of Religion is far more radical than Locke’s letter on toleration.

  13. Both Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson abandon their Lockean roots in favor of Rousseau-like thinking later in their lives. I invite all to follow.

  14. re 12, I see what you mean.

  15. How funny that Thomas Paine seems to be Glenn Beck’s favorite Founder — I wonder whether he really knows much about him aside from a few catch-phrases?

  16. In the case of certain public policy questions, our right to participate as a religion (or for explicitly religious purposes) in public, political fora has been subjected to a kind of conceptual slippage with, I think, problematic implications. We’ve been talking about having a right, as a religion, to participate actively in public debates and political processes, to have a voice, even an explicitly religious voice, in the public sphere. We’ve defended our right to seek to shape public policy according to norms and ideals that are expressly drawn from religious tradition. But then we’ve also described undesired political outcomes in terms of eroding or disappearing rights. In other words, we’re really describing two kinds of rights:

    1) our right to participate equally in public policy debates and political campaigns, even when that participation and the outcomes toward which we work are motivated by explicitly religious concerns. This right is framed both as an individual right and a “religious right”, i.e. a right that belongs to a religion as a legally definable entity.

    2) our right, as religious individuals and as a religion to live in a society that values our traditions and teachings, to exist in a non-hostile environment. This right is articulated more implicitly, usually in the form of claims about what is at stake in, say, campaigns to prohibit gay marriage. We claim not just a right to act, but a necessity to do so, because if, for example, gay marriage is legalized, the result will be a normalization and acceptance of gay relationships that will push the Church’s position on the morality of homosexuality further to the margins, making us increasingly susceptible to the perception that we are intolerant and/or bigoted.

    So we have a right to make our voice heard by participating in public, political processes—as a religious group—and we have a right to live in a society defined by our desired political outcome (no gay marriage). Our religious rights, then, are abrogated not just by efforts to prevent us from participating in this or that campaign but by the very prospect itself of our losing that campaign. We don’t just have a right to participate. Our right to participate is implicitly defined as our right to win. If gay people win the right to marry, they are our enemies because they (and their allies) are thereby violating our right to keep that right from them (and secure our position as a religion that teaches that homosexuality is immoral without seeming intolerant, abnormal, bigoted, out-of-the-mainstream in the process).

    The (legitimate) right to seek desired policy outcomes bleeds conceptually into the (illegitimate) right to have those outcomes. This is a right that our recent discourse claims not just for us but for all religions. This kind of thinking—the implicit assumption that certain groups within a pluralistic democracy have a right, by virtue of being religious alone, to demand and to perpetually achieve certain policy outcomes, and that their basic rights are violated by the enactment of contrary outcomes—constitutes, in my personal opinion, a real danger to free society.

  17. john f.,

    A student once told me that Beck admits to disavowing both Paine and Jefferson after they were influenced by the French. It is a good think Beck never went to college. He may have encountered French ideas.

  18. re # 17, absolutely speechless.

  19. “This kind of thinking—the implicit assumption that certain groups within a pluralistic democracy have a right, by virtue of being religious alone, to demand and to perpetually achieve certain policy outcomes, and that their basic rights are violated by the enactment of contrary outcomes—constitutes, in my personal opinion, a real danger to free society.”

    Brad, I agree. It is also a difficult argument for me to deal with because it implies a certain rejection of democracy. It is not saying that democracy should be limited by individual right, but that democracy should not produce outcomes that rights-bearers disagree with. I am pretty sure, that if this is the case, everything that the Utah legislature does is violating my rights.

    In this context there is often an assertion made that gays are claiming a radical conception of rights. If that is the case, they are not the only ones.

  20. t is not saying that democracy should be limited by individual right, but that democracy should not produce outcomes that rights-bearers disagree with.

    Well, not any rights-bearers, just certain rights bearers (i.e. religions, presumably conservative ones that fit within something vaguely describable as a “Judeo-Christian tradition”…).

  21. I think the biggest problem is that the secular town square has taken upon itself the duty of defining what religion should or should not be — and that amounts to a “death kick” (in Mark’s octagon) when it come to developing public policy.

  22. Jack,

    The problem is that citizens and not religions should be developing public policy. Can citizens be religious? Absolutely. Can citizens demand that other citizens adhere to their belief system, or else? Well, they can, but they should not expect to be taken too seriously.

    My favorite part about religious groups playing the victim card is that they…won. I seem to recall that Prop 8 passed.

  23. Our right to participate is implicitly defined as our right to win. If gay people win the right to marry, they are our enemies because they (and their allies) are thereby violating our right to keep that right from them

    You know, one day my kids were fighting in the car (actually not one day, but almost every day). One of them was insisting on a right to look out any window of the car (by turning his head). The other was insisting on a right to not have the other child “using” her window (looking out it).

    Some rights just seem more reasonable than other rights.

  24. I wouldn’t say that the secular town square itself has defined what religion should or shouldn’t be so much as certain religions/religious actors have used the town square as a forum for flogging others into submitting to a particular vision of what religion is or should be. “Secular” is by no means irreligious. Rather it is a framing of the public, the political, the collective that sets a certain highly defined space for the religious. Secular religion is private, interiorized, belief-based, mental. In other words, virtually all modern “religions” are secular entities, even in all their compelling religious vitality (Mormonism surely fits this description, at least since some Christians decided to bring to bear the power of the state in order to define marriage in such a way that being a certain kind of Mormon and living in a free, pluralistic society were no longer compatible options). “Religious” and “secular” are not opposing or oppositional entities; they are co-dependent, mutually constituting forces in the modern, Western world.

  25. “You know, one day my kids were fighting in the car (actually not one day, but almost every day). One of them was insisting on a right to look out any window of the car (by turning his head). The other was insisting on a right to not have the other child “using” her window (looking out it). ”

    Cynthia,

    Sounds like you are raising some good Americans. My foster kids (12 and 13) have decided that my wife and I saying “no” is a violation of their rights. I have informed them that they have certain rights, but not always that one that they claim.

  26. Ha! The “it’s a free country!” thing is as classic as “I know you are but what am I?” in the pantheon of child retorts. I bet few kids get as thorough an exposition of their error in reasoning than yours though, Chris!

  27. Mark,

    John addressed the familiar complaint which is often voiced by conservative religious people, including many LDS people, that they are being denied a fair hearing in “the public square”, whatever that is. The idea, as I understand it, is that in the cacophony of competing voices in our society today, the religious voice is being shouted down.

    I don’t know who’s voice is being shot down. My religious voice certainly is not being shot down by anyone.

  28. “we don’t want to be heard, we want to be agreed with.”

    And death to anyone to disagrees with us or discriminates against us!

    I’m generally shocked at how the church I grew up with — that was weird and unchristian and something not to be trusted — suddenly changed into a church that has a slick PR machine and whose members get offended when they aren’t automatically embraced with wreaths of flowers, if you will… For me, it’s like Prop 8 restored the order of what should be…

  29. madhousewife, I think you are an optimist.

    You know why I have these conversations with you, Mark? You are the only person who ever calls me an optimist.

  30. Man! I write cool posts.

  31. Wes Brown says:

    It seems to me that people aren’t attacking any more harshly than in the good-ol’ town square days. Some debate transcripts and Mark Twain quotes were razor sharp and downright mean. If anything, conversations about relevant issues have lost their teeth because, as the famous quote goes, “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into”. People parrot what they hear on the radio. In most cases when I offer a contrary view during a conversation, it is met with silence or extreme defense. Perhaps the violent hypersensitivity in ‘the forum’ these days comes from insecurity regarding the reasons behind our views.

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