Chains of Persuasion: a Symposium about Religion and Democracy, Conclusion

Ben Hertzberg concludes our symposium by responding to the previous three reviews. Benjamin Hertzberg is a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He lives and works in Northern Virginia.

Read the reviews by Michael Austin, Simone Chambers, and Russell Arben Fox

Humans like to think that we are special. This drive is so powerful that it lies behind most religion’s cosmologies, the accounts they give about the origin and purpose of the universe. The Christian version of this story is striking because it is paradoxical: humans are low and fallen and yet also at the center of time, the universe, and everything. Creation, incarnation, and apocalypse are all driven by God’s inscrutable desire to save us wicked beings from ourselves.

I think a similar paradox lies at the heart of most contemporary disagreements about religion and politics. No matter whether people think religion is good or bad for politics, everyone agrees that religion (whatever religion is) is crucial. The one constant in popular debates about religion and politics is religion’s specialness. What if we approach religion and politics without this presupposition? What if we instead think of religion as ordinary?

One of my goals in Chains of Persuasion was to go through several different philosophical approaches to democracy and show that there is no need to carve out special exemptions or categories to deal with religion. Whether you want to talk about democracy in terms of deliberation—the attempt to persuade fellow citizens with arguments—or in terms of the benefits its decision-making processes offer its citizens, or in terms of the practices and civic virtues it demands, you can speak cogently about religion without too much theoretical innovation. The contribution of the book doesn’t come from great theoretical creativity; the contribution comes from approaching debates about religion without the presumption that religion must be Good or Evil. Religion is just another facet of humanness. It’s ordinary.

All three of my BCC reviewers respond to the theme of religion’s ordinariness in different ways. Michael Austin finds it liberating (how thrilled was I to read this response!). Simone Chambers believes it prevents me from seeing some of some religions’ potential contributions to politics. Russell Arben Fox wonders what the implications of Mormonism’s ordinariness are for domestic politics in the U.S.

Michael Austin is right when he claims that a main point of my work is to explain how arguments that rely on premises drawn from citizens’ religions join the “huge bran tub” that the public draws on to persuade each other of the policies they prefer. The upshot of this conclusion is that religious premises participate in democratic persuasion in just the same way as any other premises do. Religious premises are ordinary.

Because of religious premises’ ordinariness, they can influence democratic debate in just the same way as other premises. As long as the people who adhere to religious premises aren’t coercively intervening in the persuasive process to ensure that “the right” arguments win (through force, threats of force, manipulation, suppression, etc.), then their arguments get a hearing in the same was as any other argument. No special concern needed, just like there’s no special concern needed when people draw on premises that don’t come from religions to argue for policy, provided that they don’t use force, threats of force, manipulation, or suppression to ensure that “the right” arguments win. And I agree with Michael that this is a liberating conclusion. Religious people sometimes feel ashamed of the influence religion has on their political beliefs; they conceal that influence. But if I’m right, there’s no moral reason to do so. Be honest and open when your politics depend on your religion. Who knows whom you might persuade?

Simone Chambers is worried that my commitment to religion’s ordinariness prevents me from noticing ways that religion might contribute to politics. She rightly notes that for me, “the positive contribution that religion can make to public debate has nothing to do with the religious character of the contribution;” instead, that positive contribution is a function of whether or not the arguments persuade people, or the perspectives contribute to the diversity of views available to the public. For Simone, the problem with this criterion is that “religion can add more than diversity,” and that there is some “qualitative,” not just “quantitative,” loss to democratic political life that would arise should we lose religious perspectives.

For clarity’s sake, I want to enumerate what I think a society looses if some group of religious citizens were to completely withdraw from politics:

1. The society loses the specific moral and political perspectives that religious tradition (in all its diversity) offers public life.
2. It loses the sociologically situated feedback of that religion’s adherents, hampering the society’s ability to gather accurate information about the consequences of its policy choices.
3. It loses the potential political applications of the virtues and practices that religion inculcates in its adherents.

Just as Simone alleges, everything on that list applies to citizen groups who we don’t think of as religious. If feminists were to suddenly withdraw from politics, society would similarly loose the specific moral and political perspectives that the tradition of feminism (in all its diversity) offers public life, the sociologically situated feedback of people who identify as feminists, and the potential political applications of the virtues and practices feminists strive to inculcate in themselves. When you ask how you should evaluate citizens’ actions in a democracy, religion and feminism (and many other traditions and identity categories) are not relevant factors in the question. They’re all ordinary.

Simone, I believe, wants religion to represent ideals that are beyond the realm of “modern secular society,” and that cannot be fully assimilated into the theories we use to think about modern secular societies. She wants religion to be special. I avoid making such claims because I think it’s impossible to explain how the category religion can be special in a way that’s consistent with the features of the items that we want to put in that category. I’ll try to explain that overly philosophical sentence with an example:

If you’re a Christian, what makes “religion” special might be the claim that God is outside of and above normal human concerns and that your religion, therefore, deals with matters of eternal importance. Politics is just about our earthly life; “religion” is about our eternal fate. But that account of religion’s specialness can’t apply to many other things we think of as religion. Many people who identify as Christian don’t put too much stock in the idea of an afterlife. That view is even more common among Reformed Jews. And it’s not an essential feature of Confucianism or some approaches to Buddhism (both of which don’t rely on the existence of a transcendent God, either). Are Confucianism and Buddhism not religions, then, because they don’t have a commitment to an afterlife or God that transcends earthly concerns? Belief in an afterlife or God can’t therefore be the feature of religions that makes them special, because it doesn’t apply to everything that we put in that category.

Here, you’ll just have to take my word that other similar attempts to specify a special-making feature of everything we want to call religion fall apart, too. If you’re curious about these issues, I cite much of the relevant research in the introduction to Chains of Persuasion.

Russell Arben Fox also wonders about the implications of religion’s ordinariness, though he couches his question with specific reference to Mormonism. He asks “Are we Mormons …institutionally stuck in the middle—too dominating to be justified democratically on the local scale, and no longer unique enough to be democratically helpful on the national one?” Given the conclusions of Chains of Persuasion, this is just the right question to ask. The question asks Mormons to think through the political implications of their ordinariness. It’s quite ordinary for a religious group to be too dominating on the local scale to be democratically justified and not unique enough to be democratically helpful on the national.

How might further accepting their ordinariness change the way Mormons engage in politics? It could lead them to avoid rhetoric that assumes their own specialness. Powerful Mormons often speak in ways that suggest changing moral norms are a disaster because they mean abandoning the special, religiously grounded ones they imagine have long been the foundation of social relationships. But moral norms change all the time. And human societies dispute those changes. Such changes and disputes aren’t apocalyptic; they’re ordinary. And powerful Mormons could make life much easier for the church they lead and the people they influence by accepting that ordinariness.

Jesus, incidentally, wasn’t too fond of people who thought of themselves as special. He called them hypocrites and spent his time with people whom society reminded daily just how ordinary they were. Thinking of yourself as special is closely related to all sorts of nasty kinds of politics: nationalism, theocracy, and aristocracy all depend on claiming that my group is special, and your group is not. Humans may like to think of themselves or their groups as special, but that doesn’t mean it is right.

The challenge, both politically and personally, is to accept our own ordinariness. To be OK with our own decentering. We’re not at the center of the universe, and that’s OK. We’re not at the center of politics, and that’s OK, too. It’s not only OK, it’s liberating. Recognizing our ordinariness allows us to get on with our deep aspiration to live together in ways that let us to live with ourselves.


  1. Josh Booth says:

    Ben, this is a really interesting perspective. It got me thinking more deeply about some of my usual knee jerk reactions.

    Case in point .. This evening while my son was randomly pressing numbers on the remote control, I saw a few minutes on a Christian network. It had a white, male Christian talking about how oppressed he is.

    As is my custom, my response to that tired refrain was to roll my eyes. It is hard to really get worked up over the oppression of white male Christians in America.

    But on reading this, I started to think a bit about that. I wonder how Mr. WMC would feel differently if we generally took Ben’s perspective and treated religious perspectives as “ordinary.”

    On one hand, maybe he’d feel less oppressed. Maybe there is a legitimate concern that religious perspectives are generally considered illegitimate in public policy debates. For a person whose perspectives are colored by religion, that could indeed feel oppressive. Maybe having his arguments simply being treated as ordinary is exactly what he wants and needs.

    On the other hand, I’m not convinced Mr. WMC will be content with simply having his ideas being one legitimate part of a pluralistic discussion. I suspect he feels his arguments, coming from god and all, deserve a more privileged status.

    Anyway, I don’t have any new insights that haven’t already been discussed… But thank you for giving me an opportunity to think about this more deeply.

  2. Ben Hertzberg says:

    Josh: thanks so much for your comment. I think you’re exactly right. All religious folks should want is for their views to be thought of as ordinary. Unfortunately, many won’t be satisfied with that offer!

  3. “All religious folks should want is for their views to be thought of as ordinary.”
    But in the cases of at least the orthodox Mormon and orthodox Roman Catholic versions of Christianity, the specialness, the non-ordinariness, of their powerful leaders’ claims of authority is part and parcel of their views. It seems they do not see themselves as the people who think of themselves as special and whom Jesus called hypocrites, but as those who were called out of the ordinary and chosen (made special by the king) — consistent with Matthew 22:11-14. I guess it is ordinary for people to think they are special, but I don’t think that’s quite what you’re getting at.

    “…powerful Mormons could make life much easier for the church they lead and the people they influence by accepting that ordinariness.”
    But would they have any church to lead or people to influence if they gave up the claims of unique (special/not ordinary) authority from God and of continuing revelation [for the whole world] in the context of that authority? Perhaps you mean they could accept ordinariness in the context of political interactions in a pluralistic democratic society, while still maintaining specialness in their priesthood functions and moral and cosmological revelations. I once asked someone more acquainted than I with some of those powerful Mormons, why they apparently couldn’t see a distinction between what positions they believe they should take within their church (or even in preaching to the world) and what positions they should attempt to push on a pluralistic society, most of which does not believe in their positions or their special authority. I was told those powerful Mormons don’t live in a pluralistic society.

  4. Ben Hertzberg says:

    JR: And there’s the rub. Powerful Mormons need to accept that they *do* live in a pluralistic society. But you’re right: I meant that the most religious people can hope for is that society will view their arguments as ordinary when it comes to political discussions. They can’t expect everyone to view their arguments as special or authoritative. If they do, that amounts to asserting their authority unilaterally over others; it violates those other’s status as free and equal citizens.

  5. Loursat says:

    The U.S. Constitution, like many other constitutional documents around the world, gives special consideration to churches and religious belief–something that Latter-day Saint leaders often rely on in their rhetoric about religious freedom. There are several reasons for this special consideration. One of the most important reasons is one that we don’t hear about much, and one that should inspire some humility and restraint among us religious folk.

    In an era when Europe was suffering through generations of horrendous religious wars, Enlightenment philosophers suggested that it might be better to separate churches from governments. The idea was that if governments didn’t sponsor churches, and if different churches were treated more or less equally under the law, then religious conflict would be less likely to ignite war. Religion is too passionate and inflammatory to institutionalize with political power. Thus, this reason to set religion apart under the law is not because of religion’s indispensable value and wisdom, but rather because religion presents special dangers to social peace.

    I believe that religion does have indispensable value for society. But if we’re seeing clearly, we will never forget that religion is also always a smoldering pile of red-hot embers. This structural plan for cooling off religious disputes was a good idea 400 years ago, and it’s still a good idea now.

    From this point of view, it seems to me that being an ordinary participant in politics is a good thing for churches, because it means we are bridling some of our worst tendencies. Contributing to the success of democratic society is a worthy ambition for anyone, including churches and people of faith.

  6. Ben Hertzberg says:

    Loursat: thanks for your comments. We end up in a similar place even though we take different paths to get there.

    I think your comments highlight some of the reasons why thinking about religion as special leads to problems and has the potential to undermine the conclusion you affirm.

    For example, while you’re right that the constitution does call religion out as special in the first amendment, over the years since the founding the US legal system has expanded the protections offered by the first amendment to people who’s views aren’t “religious.” So I can get a conscientious exemption from required military service if I’m a Quaker or Mennonite or a member of a traditional “peace” church, but I don’t have to be. I can just affirm that my moral commitments lead me to pacifism even though I don’t believe in God, and I still qualify for the exemption. And denying it to me because I happen to be an atheist and don’t have a “religion” surely isn’t correct. So I think the first amendment protections you laud above are best understood as protecting some category bigger than what we think of as “religion”: maybe conscience works, maybe moral liberty works. But it’s about our respect for those things, not “religion” specifically.

    It’s also the case that the post-Reformation settlements you referenced took very different forms in different parts of Europe. In the U.S., we have an institutional separation between churches and the state. But in the UK the Churches of England & Scotland remains established, and there are established churches in many Lutheran countries as well (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc.). I don’t think folks in those countries have less moral/religious liberty than Americans do; in some ways they may have more. And that may suggest important institutional options for polities that need to institutionalize moral & religious liberty in a context of religious traditions (like some accounts of Islam, for example) where public institutions and religious ones are understood to be necessarily connected. If we insist that American-style church-state separation is the *only* way to solve religious conflict or institutionalize religious/moral liberty, then we’re closing off potential options far too quickly.

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