Religious matters are increasingly in the news. There are the controversies over abuse in the Catholic Church, eruptions of European anti-Semitism in the wake of Arab-Israeli violence, and solemn arguments about the nature of Islam in the wake of 9-11, among others. By and large, the American media has treated such events as interruptions of, or departures from, an otherwise secular understanding of the world.
Religious matters are increasingly in the news. There are the controversies over abuse in the Catholic Church, eruptions of European anti-Semitism in the wake of Arab-Israeli violence, and solemn arguments about the nature of Islam in the wake of 9-11, among others. By and large, the American media has treated such events as interruptions of, or departures from, an otherwise secular understanding of the world. That perspective, I submit, is dangerously misleading, because it ignores the escalating clash of worldviews in our increasingly global village.
In a recent issue of the Hedgehog Review, Robert Bellah argued for the existence of “cultural codes” embedded in national cultures. Those codes shape behaviors, and—however transformed over time—are ultimately derived from religion. As one example, Bellah describes a colleague’s study of differences in nations’ approaches to environmental protection; those countries most protective of the ecosphere all shared a distinctly Protestant heritage. Catholic, Jewish, and Confucian/Buddhist countries framed environmental issues in a different, more limited fashion.
Humans seem to require coherent belief structures through which we order our lives, and through the ages those structures have generally been religious. Even the most secularized among us have absorbed religiously-based beliefs that have been transmuted into the “cultural codes” Bellah references.
In the United States, our most contentious public policy debates have been those that implicate our very different beliefs about the ultimate ends of human existence: abortion, the death penalty, stem-cell research, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage. Less obvious, but no less influenced by our deepest convictions, are political positions on crime and punishment, the economy and the environment. The recent policy debates around Charitable Choice and the President’s Faith Based Initiative are a case in point: constitutional constructions aside, the arguments proceed from very different beliefs about the nature of moral responsibility. Is poverty a sign of individual moral defect, requiring a transformation of personal values? Or are the causes institutional and societal, in which case the answer lies in job creation and social service programs? Different theologies, different answers—and different policy prescriptions.
In religiously diverse countries like the United States, where the Constitution prohibits the privileging of one religious belief over others, or of religion over other belief structures, we must bring what John Rawls has called “public reasons” to our policy disputes. That is, we argue in secular, generally acceptable terms for policy prescriptions that may have very particularistic theological underpinnings. In the process, untidy as it may be, we not only fashion rules most of us can live with, but to some extent we also moderate and transform the beliefs of those who participate. The process is a dialectic.
Needless to say, theocratic nations come to the policy process—and the international community—from a dramatically different perspective. What are the political realities of a world in which no one theology, no one “code,” is dominant? How do we maintain civility among nations with incompatible visions of the good life, the meaning of virtue, and the nature and value of liberty and human rights?
If we are to chart a path in such a world, we would do well to study both the successes and failures of America’s experience with religious diversity. We can begin that study by discarding the notion that the First Amendment somehow operates to divorce public policy formation from religious belief. Only when we have a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which religious belief frames policy options and shapes political behaviors will we be ready to think about constructing a world in which we can live peacefully with our deepest differences.