Chains of Persuasion: a Symposium about Religion and Democracy, Part 2

Our second review of Ben Hertzberg’s Chains of Persuasion is provided by Simone Chambers, professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. Read the first review here.


This is a wonderful book that moves the debate about religion and politics forward in all sorts of interesting and helpful ways. Rich with illustrations, short case studies, and real world challenges, the argument is also philosophically sophisticated, analytically rigorous, and right on the money in so many of its conclusions and judgments.

There are four main building blocks to Hertzberg’s framework: a modified Rawlsian idea of public reason; an innovative adaptation of deliberative democracy, a Deweyan ‘epistemic’ argument, and finally a discussion of the citizen virtues needed to navigate the challenges that religious pluralism pose for a liberal democratic order. Each of these four deserve an in depth analysis as does the way Hertzberg puts them all together into a coherent, comprehensive, and finely crafted picture of how we should be thinking about religion in the public sphere. But in my contribution to this forum I focus on the Deweyan epistemic argument, and suggest that it does not exhaust the ways that religious arguments can substantively enhance public debate and democratic outcomes.

In chapter 3, “Assessing the Consequences of Religious Inclusion,” Hertzberg looks at democratic procedures from an instrumental point of view and asks whether religious input positively or negatively contributes to good policy outcomes. Contrary to widespread assumptions of many liberal secularists, Hertzberg concludes that religion can and often does make a positive contribution to policy outcome. Hertzberg is staking out an important position here that goes significantly beyond the normative (sometimes called intrinsic) arguments for including religion in public debate that rely on the claim that excluding religion is unfair and treats religious citizens unequally. Hertzberg of course also endorses the normative position but notes that one can hold the normative position even if one thinks that on the whole religious arguments detract from good public discourse.

In order to see the instrumental value of religious arguments Hertzberg suggests that we need to step back from particular policy disputes and look at the sorts of information citizens need to participate in democratic decision-making processes. Here we want citizens to have reliable up-to-date information, not be dominated by any group of elites, and to be able to draw on a wide variety of diverse forms of experience and expertise. On this Deweyan view, diversity of input to the broad decision-making processes in democracies (and this would include informal face-to-face conservations between citizens all the way up to debate and discussion in legislative assemblies) is particularly important for a good policy development process and problem solving. Different types of people (identity diversity) who think differently (cognitive diversity) make for good problem solvers. If we were solving math problems, then generally you want math experts (but even here you might want math experts who thought in different ways). But the problems that democracies face are not confined to any one field and are often unpredictable. Under these conditions one wants a general condition of diversity of input. On this view then one can evaluate religious contributions as either enhancing the diversity of identity by bringing in new voices or enhancing cognitive diversity by bringing in new ways of thinking.

I am very sympathetic to this way of about thinking about the instrumental value of democracy. Furthermore, I think that Hertzberg is correct to say that religious arguments often (but not always) contribute to the type of diversity that is outcome enhancing. But what I want to point out is that on this view the positive contribution that religion can make to public debate has nothing to do with the religious character of the contribution or argument. Religions can contribute to identity diversity if they contain diverse ethnic and identity groups in exactly the same way as secular civil society organizations do. On the cognitive diversity question one might think that Hertzberg might identify something substantive about some religious arguments that enhances public debate; but he does not. It is the simple fact of diversity not the content of that diversity that matters.

One way to get at what I am trying to highlight here is through a counterfactual thought experiment. Imagine a world in which religious arguments disappeared from the public arena. What would have been lost or gained? One of the many important contributions that this books makes is to say that too many liberals think that all that would be lost are conservative voices pushing against inclusion and expansion of civil rights. But Hertzberg is saying, that is empirically false and epistemically blind because there are many different types of religious contributions and their multiplicity enhances debate. But on Hertzberg’s account the loss would be in a sense quantitative not qualitative. If religion disappeared from the public sphere we would have less diversity. But I want to suggest that some religious contributions may serve to enhance the cognitive content of our debates beyond diversifying those debates. For example, it may be the case that Aboriginal spirituality, ideas of transcendence, or a Buddhist picture of the human condition add an enlarged perspective to public debate the loss of which would represent an impoverishment of the resources at our disposal for thinking about our most pressing problems.

My point is that the reliance on Dewey and the formal diversity condition risks assimilating democratic discourse too closely with scientific discourse and enquiry. I want to suggest that we can draw resources from religion (and art) from which to think about, say, climate change as well as transnational moral obligations the value added of which is independent of or perhaps in addition to the diversity enhancing element of these arguments. For example, Aboriginal spirituality and ideas of the sacredness of nature are perspectives that can enlarge secularist thinking about the world and our relation to it. My point is not to criticize this book nor to suggest that Hertzberg should have talked more about the way religion as an aesthetic or transcendent discourse can enrich public debate in modern secularist societies. It was only to note that religion can add more than diversity.


  1. Jared Livesey says:

    From the reviews, this book seems to be downstream of the actual debate, which is on these questions “since religion is false, why give it place in public discourse? What can fools and knaves contribute to discussion of policy issues?”

  2. But that’s not the actual debate, Jared–if, that is, by “actual debate” you mean “the debate being had by people familiar with the relevant political and legal scholarship,” which clearly is where Ben is coming from. If, on the other hand, by “actual debate” you mean “stuff that people yell about on Twitter” and/or “stuff that overworked TAs toss out to get arguments going in Philosophy 101 study sessions,” then yeah, you may be right.

  3. Jared Livesey says:


    I freely concede that one alters one’s rhetoric depending on the audience. “War for oil” does not quite carry the persuasive impact of “securing our energy independence,” yet in the appropriate context, they are the exact same thing.

    Our first reviewer takes pains to explain:

    [N]obody 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.

    He doesn’t want to be deplatformed as a religious nutter, and who can blame him? Nobody likes being silenced for stating or defending one’s beliefs.

  4. Jared, it was just that objection that I hoped to address in the chapter Simone is reviewing here. What reasons might a citizen of a democracy have for valuing contributions to public debate that are based on reasons she thinks are false? The view I defend in this chapter is one answer: democracies need information about the consequences of their policy choices for all parts of the population. Some groups in that population may only be able to frame their objections in terms of beliefs most people think are false. But the falseness of the views to which such groups appeal doesn’t necessarily undermine the value of the information their objections or concerns communicate.

    If you’re involved in making policy that everyone will have to live with, it’s foolish to ignore what people think about that policy just because you think they’re wrong or their views are false. Knowing what people think is still crucial.

  5. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Jared clarifies one of the problems of having religious people included in the debate, they are so certain of other peoples understanding, and what motivates them.
    In Australia there is a debate about religious freedom, and free speach. One of our best rugby players, has had his $4million contract terminated because he continues to send out tweets about how other people, including gays are going to hell. He was a mormon, but his father started a church, and he is now part of that. He started a go fund me account to fund the legal cost of suing his previous employer. His name is Israel Falou. The Australian Christian Lobby is now collecting money for him. They are framing it as his employer attacking his religious freedom, go fund me also attacking religious freedom, and commentators also attacking christianity.
    I think religion has a credibility problem. It is usually associated with conservative thinking. It often claims to be the victim, when all that is being questioned is removing past privelidge. It continues to insist on imposing its beliefs on others. It calls those who don’t agree, either sinners, or deluded by satan. End of discussion. Note some of the righteous comments you get on blogs on BCC. Who would want their input?

  6. Geoff, from an admittedly great distance, the Israel Falou case seems a rather complicated one, and I’m not sure how well it maps onto Ben’s argument in this book. The dispute right now in Australia over Falou seems to be about Rugby Australia firing him, the ACL defending him, and basically a whole lot about religious discrimination and hate speech. But the tweets in question–that “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” are all going to hell–were all obviously about testifying; clearly he wasn’t actually engaging in attempts to persuade others of anything (and if he thought he was, he has an incredibly stupid understanding of democratic engagement). Whereas Ben’s book is all about actual democratic persuasion. I suppose one way in which that argument is relevant, though, is that is shows the need to clarify what kind of things different kinds of speech do. I don’t disagree that Christian tradition has centuries of history of “imposing its beliefs on others” (as have most other religions as well); but is it the case that tweets broadcasting one’s beliefs are, in fact, an example of “imposing” beliefs? If the speech isn’t actually attempting to do anything tyrannical or undemocratic, but rather is just witnessing to (highly unpopular and even inflammatory) beliefs, then you’re last question–“Who would want their input?”–is actually a pretty hard one. If you, like Ben, really do accept the ideal of reasoned discourse, then arbitrarily declaring some acts of weird religious witnessing as worthless and unworthy of input potentially undermines the whole rational persuasion project.

  7. Jared Livesey says:


    From the viewpoint of setting policy (I. E., maintaining and exerting power to impose one’s will upon the populace as a whole), the information communicated by objectors to one’s policies is indeed valuable.

    Its value is not in helping form a compromise with the objectors as to what policy shall be, for there is no compromise between false and true (eg., the germ theory of disease is either true or false, evolution happened or it did not, embryos are property or they are not, &c.). It is valuable in giving one information as to how to undermine their objections, how to overcome them, how to marginalize them, how to ostracize them, how to exclude them, how to silence them, how to eliminate them – or how to credibly threaten such. And if none of that can be done, then one changes policy to accommodate them, for above all, one must maintain power.

    From that perspective – maintaining and exerting power (I. E., setting and enforcing public policy) – knowing what people think is crucial indeed, for one cannot – must not – let opponents gain sufficient power by their arguments to undermine one’s ability to set and enforce policy. That would defeat the whole purpose of seeking for power.

    That’s the value of the information of which you speak.

  8. Jared Livesey says:

    Indeed, the debate over whether to exclude the religious from public policy discussions is probably already settled in the affirmative; the question now seems to be how to exclude them. Doing it in such a way that they go away of their own accord would be best, from the perspective of perception management and public relations. One might start accusing them of hate speech, racial bias, privilege, or baseless moral absolutism to encourage them to keep their false opinions to themselves and away from policy discussions or else suffer demotion in the social hierarchy.

    Making believers see a need to remain in the closet or else lose social prestige and power – as your first reviewer explicitly does – shows that it’s working.

  9. Indeed, the debate over whether to exclude the religious from public policy discussions is probably already settled in the affirmative; the question now seems to be how to exclude them.

    I do not agree at all, Jared, that such accurately describes actual democratic debates taking place anywhere in the United States today, nor that such is a presumption implied by Ben’s book.

  10. Jared Livesey says:


    I acknowledge your disagreement. You need not agree.

    Not all debates are democratic. One of the purposes of silencing one’s opponents is to avoid democratic debate. If by force, fraud, or rhetoric one excludes a viewpoint from consideration, one has already won.

  11. Michael Austin says:

    I am not inclined to believe that a decision has made to exclude religious people from public policy debates at a time when almost half of the states in the US have passed or are considering total- or near- total abortion bans, a dozen or so state legislatures are considering bills to teach biblical creationism in science classes, the President of the United States has announced that the Bible should be taught in public schools, and members of the United States Senate say openly that we don’t need to worry about climate change because Jesus is coming soon. That’s not how exclusion works.

  12. Jared Livesey says:


    That you choose to maintain influence over public policy and remain in the closet rather than stand as a witness of God in all places and at all times speaks more clearly about your understanding of the true state of affairs than your list of anecdotes.

  13. Ben Hertzberg says:

    Jared: it’s always easy to beat one’s chest with firmness of conviction that you know the truth, especially when you assume that your audience will grant you such self-righteousness because they share your views. Then when one tries the same approach with people who don’t, and they disagree, somehow it’s always their fault. They’re the wicked ones. And so one shouts into the whirlwind, ignored but nonetheless convinced of one’s own righteousness.

    Perhaps there’s no compromise between truth and falsehood. But none of us have the capacity to be certain which side of that divide our current views lie.

  14. Michael Austin says:

    Jared, I acknowledged in my review that I “stayed in the closet” with my religion, not because my view was excluded, but because I thought it would be less persuasive, both to non-religious people and to evangelicals who are unlikely to be persuaded by Mormons about anything. But I acknowledged this to admit that I was wrong and that I felt liberated by Ben’s clear arguments about the way that “chains of persuasion” actually work. I do not intend to be as silent about my faith in the future because Ben’s argument persuaded me that I don’t need to be.

    But it was never about exclusion. I have never thought that the views of a Latter-day Saint, or any other religion, were excluded from the public sphere. There are all sorts of rhetorical positions that are not excluded from public debates that are, nonetheless, not very persuasive. The freedom to speak does not come with the right to be believed or taken seriously. One has to earn these things.

  15. Jared Livesey says:


    The decision to adopt the belief that nobody can know anything – agnosticism – tends to hinder or prevent the search for truth. Agnosticism would also seem to hinder or prevent reality-based policy from being formed, if it is consistently held by the decisionmakers.


    Good luck.

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