Religion Currently Poses Less Danger to Democracy Than Other Social Movements

In my last post, I described why religious sentiments can help democracy produce public goods and beneficial reforms. Of course, religious sentiments are not the only kind of attitude toward the world that can rally citizens for the public good. The environmental movement has tapped into the sense of wonder about nature and propelled needed regulations against pollution. The human rights movement has battled entrenched dictatorships across the world.

But to mention these other social repositories of public regarding sentiments shows how foolish, arbitrary, and even bigoted it is single out organized religion as an inappropriate influence on politics. An environmental movement which sets a transcendental value to preserving species and other wonders of the world is not different in kind from religion. Those with knowledge of ancient religions in fact can see it as a form of pantheism in modern garb. Historians chart the human rights movement to Christianity’s insistence that we are all children of God.  Democracies need all the help they can get, including religion, to muster the better angels of ourselves for the sacrifice that sustains a politics focused on common goods.

And these other public regarding movements remind us that it is not a sound argument against the use of religious sentiments that some people abuse them for evil. There are environmental terrorists. Some environmentalists also harm the interests of people in the developing world by disregarding the importance of economic growth. It is true that religion sentiments may not be wholly rational and therefore not easily refutable by reason alone but neither is the awe at sublimity of nature at the heart of environmentalism or the conviction that men are endowed with inalienable rights.

To be sure, if unchecked, religious groups may try to use the state for their own benefit. That is why it is wholly consistent to welcome religion in the public square and yet favor constitutional structures, like the Establishment Clause, that prevent the state from providing aid for particular religions. This constitutional provision has the added benefit of redirecting the energies of organized religions from seeking benefits for themselves to  reinforcing the sense of self-sacrifice so often absent in politics. Would we be able to frame constitutional provisions to prevent other groups pursuing noble ends from transforming themselves into government rent seekers! Because of the Establishment Clause, under the current conditions of American democracy religious organizations pose less of a threat to sound governance than many of these other groups.

The key to creating a successful politics is not to eradicate deep human impulses from political life, but to harness them for the public good. We should prevent religion from receiving special privileges from the state but then welcome religion back into public square as catalyst of a politics that is more than the sum of individual calculation. Whatever the ultimate validity of its claims about heaven, religion can help us transcend self-interest in ways that are necessary for citizens to flourish on earth.

Reader Discussion

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on February 20, 2018 at 13:42:23 pm

1. What is McGinnis saying? Perhaps he could clarify his thesis by defining “religion” and “public square” for purposes of this discussion.

But perhaps not; maybe McGinnis is making a point about the ambiguity of the term “religion.” I read McGinnis to say that some people raise objections to “religious” social movements that they do not raise with respect to “secular” movements, and that this distinction is unjustified. If the objectors were to define what they mean by “religion,” they might find that either their distinctions are arbitrary, or that plenty of apparently “secular” movements qualify as religious.

Here’s the policy question: Is avoiding “religious entanglements” a sufficient governmental policy goal to justify discrimination on the basis of religion, even when applying an otherwise facially neutral policy? In Locke v Davey (2004), SCOTUS said yes: The Court upheld a state offering scholarships to students for any purpose at all—other than the study of devotional theology. But in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2016), SCOTUS said no: The Court struck down a state statute that subsidized the cost of making playgrounds safer, but excluded subsidies for religious school playgrounds.

People sometimes employ the word “secular” (contrasted with “religious”) to mean “neutral.” But there is no such thing as “neutral” in the abstract. Compare: What is the slope of Mount Everest? The question has no meaning: You can only find a slope at a specific point—and then, relative to a specific direction. If you walk a path around Everest that maintains the same altitude, you can argue that Everest has no slope—in that direction.

Likewise, you can only judge neutrality relative to a specific set of criteria. To ensure that government avoids discrimination, government needs to identify the bona fide criteria it seeks to promote with the policy, and courts need to judge 1) whether the criteria are bona fide governmental purposes, and 2) whether the policy is well designed (or even narrowly tailored) to achieve those purposes.

In this framework, religion is not a substantive concept. Rather, “religion” is the label we give to any policy that government adopts that is insufficiently related to a bona fide governmental purpose. Government prohibition on murder? Sufficient tie to bona fide governmental purpose—ergo, not “religion.” Government recognition of male/female marriage but not same-sex marriage? Insufficient tie to bona fide governmental purpose—ergo, “religion.” The extent to which these policies can be traced to a specific religious text is irrelevant to the analysis.

I don’t mean to be naive about the threat of religious entanglements. Here in the US, I suspect that much of the support for school vouchers is really about rent-seeking—affluent people seeking subsidies for sending their kids to the religious schools that they are already attending. But, that said, these parents are merely seeking the same subsidies received by parents who send their kids to public schools; that is, they’re merely seeking equal treatment. Heck, we could characterize the Civil Rights Movement as an exercise in rent-seeking—specifically, people seeking EQUAL rents as other Americans. What’s wrong with that?

Arguably, the appropriate policy would be to provide the equal subsidies—and to have a sufficient tax level to finance this kind of equality (a/k/a “checkbook libertarianism”). But if we live in a society in which people are unwilling to provide government with sufficient revenues, I can’t be surprised that many people would regard vouchers as low on the list of priorities for educational spending.

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on February 20, 2018 at 13:46:05 pm

2. The foregoing notwithstanding….

McGinnis also makes the argument that “religion” is necessary for social cohesion. In that case, arguably the Law of Necessity trumps all other considerations—including considerations of individual liberty. Maintaining religion becomes a bona fide governmental purpose.

It is sometimes argued that Christianity undermined and displaced the Roman Empire. But I believe a more contemporary view is that at Rome declined, officials noted the growing cohesion of Christians and decided to try to graft that onto the state. Likewise, many secular-ish dictators—Saddam comes immediately to mind—embrace populist religion when threatened. Like patriotism, religion is the last refuge of scoundrels. But when you’re down to your last refuge, the Law of Necessity trumps other considerations.

To my mind, this Law of Necessity was the strongest argument against same-sex marriage: Marriage is a crucial building block for stable families, which are crucial for social stability. Marriage, and stability, have eroded among the working class—a demographic that also expresses the least tolerance for homosexuality. To achieve the necessary goal of shoring up marriage among the working class, we must sacrifice the individual liberty rights of homosexuals. It sucks, but society is simply too fragile to take this next step for civil rights. The few must be sacrificed for the good of the many.

Again, I generally favor checkbook libertarianism. Libertarianism is a philosophy for rich societies—societies that can afford to honor individualism while maintaining social cohesion. But wealth is fleeting. Thus libertarianism, while desirable, is always the first thing on the list of values to throw overboard when the seas get rough.

The society that is in real peril is the society that, when confronted with rough seas, opts to keep libertarianism and to throw social cohesion overboard instead. With this in mind, I will be interested to see how future historians regard Trump’s tax cuts.

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on February 20, 2018 at 15:25:51 pm

"With this in mind, I will be interested to see how future historians regard Trump’s tax cuts."

Yeah, well - I will be interested in seeing how future historians view The Trumpster's SPENDING - not tax cuts.

Income and expenditures are TWO SEPARATE activities.

Perhaps, the Trumpster should heed your advice regarding "rough seas" and start to throw out quite a few pages from the libertarian checkbook.

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on February 20, 2018 at 16:58:42 pm


Is that what the Black Panthers call their religion? I think I prefer Black Liberation Theology. "Pantheism" is just to close to "Pansi-ism"--the ethic of being a pansy.

Also, protestant christianity is the only religion that promotes classical liberalism. There's no classical liberal strand of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Wiccan (that is, there are no major classical liberal movements in the middle east, India, China, or New England).
A few Jews have been classical liberals, but it seems to be exception, not the rule (like Von Mises, Rothbard, Friedman, Rand, Volokh, Haidt, etc.). Most Jews aren't classical liberals--think Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, etc.

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on February 20, 2018 at 17:39:51 pm

[P]rotestant christianity is the only religion that promotes classical liberalism. ([T]here are no major classical liberal movements in ... New England).

That might surprise the people of the Free State Project, who selected New Hampshire as the most promising state for libertarians to move to.

A few Jews have been classical liberals, but it seems to be exception, not the rule (like Von Mises, Rothbard, Friedman, Rand, Volokh, Haidt, etc.). Most Jews aren’t classical liberals–think Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, etc.

Oh? And would we say that most Protestant Christians are classical liberals? That might surprise Lord Acton, who remarked, “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differed from their own….”

Much depends on how one defines "classical liberal." Would Jefferson--a slave-owner--count as a classical liberal? Would Adams? (Oh, right, that whole New England thing....)

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on February 20, 2018 at 20:29:16 pm

Hmmmm! The Acton Institute appears to differ with Moses (see below) and affords some credit to the Catholic church for free markets. In fact much early work on "market pricing" mechanisms was done by Catholic monks, etc.
So at least in economic sphere, those "papists" were ahead of the *classic* liberal crew.


"Capitalism, it is usually assumed, flowered around the same time as the Enlightenment–the eighteenth century–and, like the Enlightenment, entailed a diminution of organized religion. In fact, the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was the main locus for the first flowerings of capitalism. Max Weber located the origin of capitalism in modern Protestant cities, but today’s historians find capitalism much earlier than that in rural areas, where monasteries, especially those of the Cistercians, began to rationalize economic life.

It was the church more than any other agency, writes historian Randall Collins, that put in place what Weber called the preconditions of capitalism: the rule of law and a bureaucracy for resolving disputes rationally; a specialized and mobile labor force; the institutional permanence that allows for transgenerational investment and sustained intellectual and physical efforts, together with the accumulation of long-term capital; and a zest for discovery, enterprise, wealth creation, and new undertakings.

The Protestant Ethic without Protestantism

The people of the high Middle Ages (1100—1300) were agog with wonder at great mechanical clocks, new forms of gears for windmills and water mills, improvements in wagons and carts, shoulder harnesses for beasts of burden, the ocean-going ship rudder, eyeglasses and magnifying glasses, iron smelting and ironwork, stone cutting, and new architectural principles. So many new types of machines were invented and put to use by 1300 that historian Jean Gimpel wrote a book in 1976 called The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages.

Without the growth of capitalism, however, such technological discoveries would have been idle novelties. They would seldom have been put in the hands of ordinary human beings through swift and easy exchange. They would not have been studied and rapidly copied and improved by eager competitors. All this was made possible by freedom for enterprise, markets, and competition–and that, in turn, was provided by the Catholic Church."

And there is more, much more for those with eyes to "read."

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on February 20, 2018 at 21:21:25 pm

Professor McGinnis uses mystic phrases---“the sense of wonder about nature” and “children of God”---to try to convert the physics of pollution and the physics and psychology of racial discrimination into mysteries on par with the divinity of God.

Most egregious is his dysfunctional, pandering statement, “Democracies need all the help they can get, including religion, to muster the better angels of ourselves for the sacrifice that sustains a politics focused on common goods.” Only statutory justice, the developed American republic or equal, can promise a better future. Democracy brings chaos and dysfunction, as we observe daily.

The “common goods” phrase is obsolete: Clearly, the individual needs compressive safety and security. Many relatively permanent groups---people who think crime pays, the evil throat-cutters and random bombers, and the Alsinsky-Marxist disrupters---will never collaborate for civic morality, where “civic” means people leaving a connection or transaction in mutual justice. The dissident individual will always try to oppress the civic person.
Religion may be relegated to its proper place: the minds, hearts, closets, homes, and assemblies of believers. Each Christian may accept that to be civic citizens he or she must accept their human authority to use their life-time energy collaborating for fidelity to the-objective-truth. The-objective-truth exists, and humankind’s opportunity is to discover, understand, and benefit.

Opinions about whatever may control the-objective-truth and what an individual’s destiny may be are OK for the individual as long as he or she does not try to impose opinion as competition with the-objective-truth. Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge) was right to say his worship of his God is valid, but he was uncivic to disparage my trust-in and commitment-to the-objective-truth. I think McGinnis is in Polanyi’s camp.

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Phillip Beaver
on February 20, 2018 at 21:28:42 pm

"That might surprise the people of the Free State Project, who selected New Hampshire as the most promising state for libertarians to move to."

New York state alone has 13x more people than New Hampshire. If the one kid in the back of the class of a 14-person classroom was black, would you say there was a large representative black population in the classroom? Or would you say that black kid was the exception to the rule that the class was all-white?

"Catholicism believes in free markets"

Tell that to the socialists in all Latin American countries who listened to the pope criticize Trump.

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New Hampshire is smaller than Seattle
on February 21, 2018 at 10:35:47 am

You know the old questions?

Does a bear go in the woods?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Yes to the former.

Arguable, at best, to the latter; and he displays a remarkable ignorance of the teachings of his predecessors, the Catholic notion of subsidiarity, and the scholarly works of innumerable priests, monks and lay teachers over the course of previous centuries. No, this pretentious pontiff displays all the arrogant obtuseness of his mentors - the Liberation Theologists of the original Black Robes - the Jesuits.

I would not look to this pointy hat for an understanding of what Catholicism has to say about free markets or liberalism.

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on February 21, 2018 at 14:18:16 pm


McGinnis also makes the argument that “religion” is necessary for social cohesion. In that case, arguably the Law of Necessity trumps all other considerations—including considerations of individual liberty. Maintaining religion becomes a bona fide governmental purpose.

Over at First Things, R.R. Reno offers some related thoughts:

The symbolic beginning of our Heraclitean [decentralizing] age was the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Three years earlier, after a decadelong struggle against economic depression and on the eve of a global war, the Supreme Court had decided Minersville School District v. Gobitis, ruling that the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag at the beginning of the school day. That decision reflected the consensus of the time, which was one of consolidation, or as Justice Felix Frankfurter put it, encouraging the “cohesive sentiment,” which he held to be “the ultimate foundation of a free society.”

In the Barnette decision, the Court reversed itself, ruling that children should not be forced to salute the flag and recite the pledge. The majority opinion rejected the use of coercion to achieve social unity. With a totalitarian enemy clearly in view, the majority opinion explicitly warns against nationalism as a danger to be guarded against. As Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” This swing from worries about insufficient solidarity to the dangers of compelled unity was a harbinger of the consensus to come. The postwar consensus has a center-left and a center-right inflection, but in both instances it gives priority to deconsolidating, deregulating initiatives that loosen the constraints the body politic puts on us.

* * *

Supreme Court justices weren’t the only ones worried about the dangers of over-consolidation. As World War II ended, Karl Popper published The Open Society and Its Enemies and Friedrich Hayek The Road to Serfdom. The two authors had different views on politics, but they were united in their anxiety about the threats posed by a superordinate, consolidating Leviathan. Liberal commentators of the 1950s wrote books such as The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man, lamenting soul-sapping conformism. The 1950s also saw William F. Buckley Jr. contrast collectivism with individualism in God and Man at Yale—an indication of the breadth of the emerging consensus for deconsolidation.

* * *

The main elements of the postwar consensus were not in themselves wrongheaded. Economic deregulation was a fitting imperative some decades ago. The same can be said for anti-discrimination and its efforts to deregulate culture. These efforts remain useful. We should continue to repeal bad regulations and work against unjust discrimination. But a political consensus establishes priorities, and the priorities of the postwar consensus are out of sync with present realities. Today, our problems almost all flow from too much flux and too little fixity.

Thus, Reno argues, the pendulum has swung too far in favor of decentralization, and we need a return to “fixity” a/k/a religion.

As ever, I find Reno’s diagnoses incisive and persuasive—and his prescriptions laughably vague and doubtful. In a 3600-word essay, what remedies does he propose? He acknowledges the importance of economic and cultural deregulation, and of anti-discrimination policies. But he argues that they have gone too far—without acknowledging that people have raised the same objection to those same policies since the end of WWII.

And Reno decries our current politics, saying, “The puerile hats and vulgar language evoked an aging generation’s belief in the power of transgression….” But of course, he’s not describing Trump; he’s describing the Women’s March. Because people marching for women's rights are promoting special interests, not national interests, and thus erode social cohesion--or something like that. Always interesting to see the things that people decry, and the things they are willing to overlook, in the interest of religion.

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on February 21, 2018 at 16:50:51 pm

Ok, Reno isn’t the only one arguing that things may have gone too far. I just read another political analyst making a similar argument.

According to this analyst, democratic pressures result in ever growing expansions of freedom and every growing emphasis on equality. Both shame and privilege decline. In the streets, the rich mingle freely with the poor and try to blend in. The foreigner and the citizen receive equal treatment. Patriarchy is dismantled. (“We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality, and the free interaction of men and women....”) Family hierarchies are inverted, as are classrooms. (“[T]eachers ... are frightened of the students and pander to them, [while] the students mock the teachers.”)

Multiculturalism and sexual freedom result in a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.” Establishment values cede to popular ones. Views and identities become so diverse that citizens can no longer comprehend each other. Clearly there is no kowtowing to authority—let alone to political experience or expertise.

Who is this insightful analyst? Socrates, as depicted in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, circa 380 BCE.

In short, while I find Reno’s essay thought-provoking, is there really anything new in it? Or does it simply reflect the artfully crafted anxieties of an intellectual threatened by change?

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on February 22, 2018 at 09:59:26 am


Interesting, indeed!

Re: court Cases cited:

The Court was, I think, correct in supporting the Witnesses refusal to take the pledge. Yet, we (you?) appear to mischaracterize the role McGinnis, and others to include all modern Churchmen (islam excluded) anticipates for religion in the public square. Recall that some commentators have described the role of religion as the "invisible hand" NOT the mailed fist of government or Church hierarchy; and much like Adam Smith's invisible hand it ought not be (nor can it be efficacious) mandated by a higher authority, i.e. "the gubmint." Rather, it should serve the same purpose as those rules, norms and customs one understands to govern market exchange. Yes, there is a repository of positive law governing / supporting that exchange in the marketplace; but, does one actually consult the Statute Book prior to engaging in each exchange? Similarly, does one need, as a matter of course, to make reference to some religious text, for the full spectrum of human intercourse? Admittedly, there may be some who are so inclined - but this is rare. The reality is that people meet, exchange ideas, perceptions thoughts and generally behave in a manner that is almost intuitive, impelled to a large extent by the foundational morality / ethics that they have incorporated. It is undeniable that much of that which has been incorporated flows from religious precepts and moral teachings - even when one may be unable to identify it as such.
Yet, there is no need to compel by government sanction (or prohibition) any citizen to expressly state or make reference to any religious precept / teaching when the citizen is engaged with others. The expectation is that, this republic having been intended for a religious people (paraphrasing the Framers here), citizens will restrain themselves, will comport themselves in a manner consistent with those (originally) religiously inspired / prescribed standards.

Can the citizenry be expected to behave in a similar fashion without reliance upon these or comparable religious precepts? Can they find some unifying sentiments? Arguable. current observations cast some doubt upon such an assertion. As Socrates observed, the many colored cloak makes it difficult for citizens to comprehend each other. What is worse today is that they also appear unwilling / unable to temper their own desires / behaviors / prejudices in an attempt to assure that their own visions are fulfilled. Would a recognition of one's own limits, inspired, perhaps, by a personal humility consequent to a religious disposition temper or moderate the current tensions?

I don;t know. I suspect that, were it NOT government sanctioned, it would, at a minimum, not exacerbate the tension and discord.

As to whether "there is anything new in it?" - I think the answer is YES. This may be the first time that social comity is being tested without a countering but underlying religious sensibility to temper the factions. Neitzsche is correct: God is Dead. WE did kill him. And we must be careful as we stare into the VOID - for not only does it stare back, it may very well suck us in!

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on February 22, 2018 at 16:50:12 pm

I do believe that your instruction, "Religion may be relegated to its proper place: the minds, hearts, closets, homes and assemblies of believers ..." is, from your point of view, well-meaning. It would however require a form of evisceration.

Yeast, when combined with water, flour, salt,and oil, produces a new thing: bread dough. Once the yeast has combined with the other ingredients, it cannot be removed.

Faith, seriously lived, is like that. It cannot be set apart in a closed section of one's heart and mind. No closet, home, or assembly of other believers can temporarily contain it; save it, so to speak, to be "put on" again, as one puts on a article of clothing. Faith produces a new thing.

You will need some type of camp, perhaps of a humane variety, or a ghetto of one kind of another, if you insist on separating people of faith from those who consider themselves in possession of the only truth. Or you could try "brain-washing" techniques. I have heard that produces excellent results. An old movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" provides a glimpse of its effects.

Control of other's minds and hearts is a recurring human desire and temptation. It has a very long, tragic history.

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on February 22, 2018 at 17:23:30 pm

"Control of other’s minds and hearts is a recurring human desire and temptation. It has a very long, tragic history."

The exception, of course, is for those such as the Beaver who is clearly in possession of the *objective-TRUTH*.

Hey, BTW, I thought ground-hog day had already passed. why is the Beaver popping his fuzzy, Oops, I must have meant "furry", head out now.

Shall we endure six more weeks of the Beavers wintery "blasts"?. Oh mon dieu!!!!

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