Chains of Persuasion: a Symposium about Religion and Democracy, Part 1

Ben Hertzberg, an old friend of By Common Consent, has generously agreed to participate in a symposium about his book, published late in 2018, Chains of Persuasion: A Framework for Religion in Democracy. It provides a fascinating, dense, and serious theoretical analysis of how religious believers (he focuses on Mormons and Muslims in particular, but his arguments are applicable to all) can, and should, argue about morality in a pluralistic democracy like the United States. This symposium–which will run through the blog this week–will consist for three short reviews of the book, after which Ben will respond. The first review is provided by Michael Austin, a BCC permablogger and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana.

In some ways I am—and in some ways I absolutely am not—the right person to review a book like Benjamin R. Hertzberg’s Chains of Persuasion: A Framework for Religion in Democracy. Let me explain.

I constitute what might be described as an “end user” of Hertzberg’s argument. I am a practicing Latter-day Saint who occasionally contributes to political debates through blog posts, op-eds, several trade books for non-specialist readers. I have also recently been part of the leadership team of a local, politically active interfaith organization, that takes public stands on issues that affect our shared values. In this context, I was the primary author of a statement opposing the current administration’s policies on immigrants and refugees on primarily religious grounds. As a board member of a local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, I have written frequently about the value of secularism.

I am, in other words, a profoundly conflicted religious person trying the best that I can to be part of a secular civic community. I am not, however, a trained philosopher or political theorist. I don’t know most of the sources that Hertzberg uses or the historical arguments he references. I couldn’t pick John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas out of a police lineup. So, reading this book was both wonderful and distressing. Wonderful because Hertzberg speaks eloquently and thoughtfully—and with profound insights—about issues that I care about deeply. Distressing because it is clear in reading the book that it is part of a very long and very important conversation that I have never been part of before.

If I understand it Hertzberg’s argument correctly—and I very well may not (see above)—it goes something like this: All of us are situated in a multiple discourse communities—groups of people that we influence and are influenced by. These communities overlap with other communities, and different people can be members of the same community in different ways. For some people, one or more of these communities may be religious. What we call “public discourse” occurs within and across these various discourse communities—including the religious ones—and shapes different people’s opinions through different combinations of persuasive acts. Persuasion is as messy and inexact as any other activity that mainly involves human beings.

For Hertzberg, this model of public discourse becomes a way to talk about the really important problem of how to incorporate religious voices into the public sphere. This is not an easy question, as religion often demands adherence to non-negotiable propositions that can be fundamentally at odds with the ideals of deliberative democracy. The standard solution to this problem in liberal democracies has been to erect a Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between a person’s religious beliefs and the reasons that one gives in political debates. One can believe all sorts of things in the religious sphere as long as one only uses “public reason”—or arguments based on premises that do not require any particular religious belief—in the public sphere.

This has often been my own approach. I write from time to time as a practicing Latter-day Saint and make all sorts of religious arguments. But nobody who picks up one of my political books without knowing who I am would have any idea that I am anything as disreputable as a Mormon. I very consciously avoided using a religious perspective in those books because I wanted them to influence debate in a public sphere that is not only not Mormon, but also very suspicious of Mormons on both theological and political grounds. I give lots of reasons for lots of things in these books, but none of them are reasons that either require or prohibit any particular religious perspective.

That is one way to do it. But, Hertzberg suggests, the principles of democratic legitimacy do not require me to leave my beliefs at the church door when I enter the public sphere. Because of the wide, messy overlap in chains of persuasion, there are ways that religious people can participate in political debates as religious people without advocating a desert theocracy or Sharia Law—which is where the slippery slope usually slips to in discussions about religion in democracy.

Let me give an example of how I think that Hertzberg might see this working. Like just about everybody else, I believe some weird things that don’t always make sense when compared to the other weird things that I believe. For example, I am both a practicing Mormon and a strong advocate of the pro-choice position on abortion. These positions involve a fair amount of cognitive dissonance that I have worked through to come to a stance that makes sense to me.  Some of this working through has involved uniquely Mormon assumptions about things like  agency, pre-existence, the purpose of mortal life, etc. When I advocate for my position in public forums, though, I never mention these things—because, well, they are weird, and not really relevant to public policy debates as I have always understood them. They do not constitute “public reason.”

But what if public reason is not the right framework to use because the “public” is messier and more chaotic than most theorists believe? What if I made an argument in favor of abortion rights in, say, a local op-ed or a national blog post that specifically referenced my own religious beliefs? Lots of people would just ignore that part, but some portion of the audience would be Mormon, and some portion of those would be open to persuasion. Some other portion would be Christian and would see similarities between my own faith system and theirs. And some other portion still would have religious beliefs analogous enough to my own to allow for productive engagement.

This is one way that specifically religious arguments might combine with other arguments—some religious and others not—to become part of the huge bran tub that “the public” draws from to create arguments, positions, and, eventually, policies. And none of this would be coercive or illiberal or an attempt to establish one religion at the expense of another.

For me, at least, this is the most important insight in a book that is full of important insights. And it makes Chains of Persuasion the rare academic book that can actually answer the question, “why does this even matter”? I am usually quite skeptical when somebody tells me something like “this is how religion should interact in the public sphere” because I know that there is no way to make either “religion” or “the public sphere” do anything at all. They just don’t move by anybody’s design. But they are subject to same kinds of “chains of persuasion” that Hertzberg describes in this book: academics read the ideas and teach them to their students, some of whom will go to law school and become judges and legislators and opinion makers who may, in time, use this framework to articulate and create better policies that give people of faith more freedom to participate in civic life as people of faith in ways that do not endanger the liberal, secular state. And that, I believe, would be a good thing.


  1. I can certainly relate to having one set of responses that I would give in a church setting, and another set in a secular setting. I like the idea of learning a way to be able to harmonize those ideas more fully. Thanks for the review.

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