Left-Wing Religious Fanatics

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Volokh furtively places a headline about religious fanatics over a post about the National Council of Churches' advocacy for environmental concerns. He waits until the end to bring it back to the headline's subject, but he's absolutely right. If it's wrong to use religious motivations to support laws, then it's wrong for the National Council of Churches to be a voice amid those that should influence law. I think this is a reductio of such a principle. The founders advocated laws against murder on the basis of religious principles. Is that wrong? Whatever the Constitution requires in religion-state relations, it doesn't require the absence of religious considerations in people's motivations for laws. Yet there's a double standard when conservative religious groups advocate laws, since no opposition ever surfaces with liberal religious groups that do so.

Update: Oops. I forgot the link. Here it is.

5 Comments

Any group (religious or secular) may argue for a particular political position. The crucial point is that their arguments must be secular.

I'd be no more inclined to allow "God wants clean air" arguments to influence public policy then I would to allow "God wants us to ban abortions", etc.

I disagree with you. If we followed your advice, we'd need to throw out the Constitution, which was based on Christian principles even if the primary leaders of those who crafted it weren't really Christians. The religious arguments aren't going to convince secular people, but I see no reason to ban them from influencing the thought of the people who are voting and the thought of the people they're voting for. The first amendment certainly doesn't prevent this sort of thing, at least if you go by intent, since the very people who crafted it had religious motivations for wanting it in the first place.

Also, religious arguments aren't as crass as the two you gave (which raise epistemological questions about coming to the knowledge of what God wants). They sometimes have their foundation in principles not everyone will agree with (e.g. the personhood of a fetus) that the people advancing the cause happen to believe, but that doesn't mean it's as basic as "God hates abortion, so we should stop it". Along the way there are other intermediate conclusions that secular people can, and in many cases do, affirm. I think an argument against abortion can be made on secular premises, and that would be why a secular person might oppose it. That doesn't mean it's wrong for me to oppose it on grounds having to do with revealed spiritual principles in scripture.

Fair enough, I must concede that as a non-American (I live in New Zealand) I'm not particularly concerned about matters to do with your constitution & its various amendments.

But, as a general principle, I do think it inappropriate for overtly religious beliefs to stand as premises in an argument about (secular) politics.

The example you give about the 'personhood' of a foetus is (prima facie) perfectly secular, so it is quite acceptable. Problems would only arise if public advocates sought to support it by appealing to overtly religious considerations (eg what the bible says, or what god has "revealed" to certain special someones), or unnecessarily restricting a general notion (such as 'personhood') to certain religious specifications (such as 'ensouled').

[An individual's reasons for accepting a secular premise may be religious, as you point out. I do not have any problem with this, and to oppose it would be ridiculous and unenforcable anyhow - the internal motivations of others are inscrutible. That does not mean we should encourage public demagogues to engage in such rhetoric.]

I do not expect to change your mind, however. I just wanted to point out that a principled liberal position can avoid the "double standard" you complain of, even if our answer heads in the opposite direction to yours.

Oh, I should clarify that I am NOT advocating any sort of coercive restrictions on free speech or public advocacy here.

I'm recommending social, rather than legal, disapproval.

So I wouldn't try to make you throw out your consistution anyway. Nor would I throw priests in jail for lobbying abortion issues (do I really need to say this!?). I just think overtly religious arguments should be "frowned upon", is all. And then ignored ;)

Oh, I'm aware that a principle liberal position can avoid the double standard. I just don't think the average American liberal does so. I think you're more willing to consider these arguments secular than the average American liberal, who seems to think that personhood of a fetus simply is a religious premise, figuring that no one would think such a thing without being told it by a religious authority. It's somewhat rare when I see an American liberal admitting that someone can hold these views on philosophical grounds, and this is true even among philosophers.

It's even harder to find an American liberal who admits this with the homosexuality issue, especially among philosophers (even though there's a strong natural law tradition in the history of the subject, one not basing any of its conclusions on biblical texts). The view I can respect is the view that such secular grounds aren't convincing upon close examination. I don't have much patience for those who simply say that it's not a secular reason at all.

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