Why politics needs religion – Sweetman

By Brian Edgar

It has long been argued that most secularist attempts to remove or restrict religious dialogue from the public arena are based on a misunderstanding of the true nature of a ‘secular’ society.   But in Why Politics Needs Religion Brendan Sweetman, Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, argues that these anti-religious sentiments are not so much a misunderstanding of the concept of secularism as an essential dimension of it.

He believes that the concept of ‘secularism’ as a strategy for pluralist societies is now so compromised so that it is no longer able to represent the view that the public arena accepts both religious and non-religious viewpoints while refusing to preference one above another. For Sweetman ‘secularism’ refers to ‘the religion of secularism’ which is the naturalistic, atheistic, humanism of  an otherwise diverse group of thinkers united simply in their conviction that religious belief has no place in the public square.

But secularism’s anti-religious sentiment and its political implications are structurally equivalent to Christianity’s metaphysical beliefs and religious practices, and so both Christianity and secularism qualify as worldviews with conceptual frameworks of ideas composed of an ‘outer edge’ (justification and structure) and a ‘center’ (practices and content).  In this way Sweetman sets out to establish the ground rules for a debate between worldviews in order to engage and defeat this virulent form of secularism.

In the process of demonstrating the structural equivalence of the two approaches Sweetman makes rationalist (and potentially problematic) definitions of ‘faith’ and ‘belief’.  Faith is defined in terms of the level of rational, evidential, objective certainty required to accept something as true. Faith means ‘holding a belief for which the evidence is less than one hundred percent certain or decisive’ (p.39).  Such a definition allows the holding of all sorts of beliefs (virtually anything at all, I would suggest) to be defined as having ‘faith’.  The only criterion being a degree of uncertainty. Worldview are thus ‘faiths’ because they hold to beliefs which are not provable.  The advantages of this are firstly, that with some prodding, secularism is forced to examine its own uncertainties, and secondly, that Christianity and secularism are able to engage each other as competing worldviews on the same rational, territory.

Sweetman’s aim is very positive. He wants Christianity to rationally engage secularism while avoiding subjectivist and relativist tendencies, and he is convinced of the intellectual and rational superiority of Christianity.  Consequently, he is certain that if disputes between these two worldviews are settled by appeal to objective reason and empirical evidence that the Christian faith will win.

The issue of the persuasiveness of theological arguments in public debate is certainly a relevant issue but an Enlightenment-like confidence in the objectivity of reason is assumed and questions of the possibility of different traditions of rationality are not addressed. Moreover, the implications for a biblical understanding of faith as trust in God, when faith is required to appeal for verification to an external court of rational appeal, are not explored.

This rationalist definition of faith also has implications for the way that ‘belief’ is categorised in terms of ‘lower-order’ and ‘higher-order’ beliefs. This distinction, it is argued, is helpful when adjudicating between competing worldviews in the public square. These different levels of belief are distinguished by the amount of faith required to subscribe to them. A lower order of belief ‘usually requires faith’ (raising the question of belief without faith?) but is ‘based mostly on reason and evidence’ and so is appropriate for use in public debate as it is more likely to be regarded as reasonable by others.  A higher order belief requires more faith as it is rationally less certain, and thus should not be used in public debate.

There have previously been other categorisations of theological belief, such as the distinction between ‘dogma’, ‘doctrine’ and ‘opinion’.  For example, the doctrines of creation, salvation, and resurrection are generally considered more central than whether communion bread should be leavened.  But such distinctions have usually focussed on the relative centrality of the doctrine to the overall scheme of theological thinking. Sweetman’s distinction between higher and lower hinges upon the rationality of the belief according to an external, rational standard.  Thus Sweetman says of some higher-order beliefs, “it might take a great deal of faith to subscribe to a particular belief, and because the degree of faith required is very high, this may weaken one’s commitment to the belief” (p.53)   Some will reckon that treating faith and reason like water and air in a glass (the more water, the less air) is unsatisfactory.  Sweetman is implicitly raising, in a very serious manner the same question addressed by Charles Dodgson when Alice claims, “one can’t believe impossible things!”  and the Queen responds, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

After the first three initial chapters which deal with worldviews, secularism and religious beliefs, Sweetman addresses the arguments that are used to keep religion out of politics.  His close, analytical style demonstrates the inadequacy and the undemocratic nature of successive arguments. He argues that ‘any type of suppression of a view before a public debate is held violates the basic principles of democracy, especially of freedom and equality.  It is a violation of democratic principles if A decides in advance that B’s view is irrational, and so B’s view should not be part of any public discussion…. this is why it is wise for any worldview to allow a significant realm of free speech in a democratic society, a realm where minority, controversial, even objectionable views can be introduced publicly.” (p.109)  He relates these arguments to John Rawls’ political liberalism and then discusses the way in which religious arguments can be introduced into the public arena before applying the argument to serve several controversial issues including school prayer, euthanasia and other moral issues.

Exactly what religious arguments can be raised in the public arena? This is a critical question and Sweetman returns to it towards the end of the book. Generally, says Sweetman, an argument in the public arena is considered religious if it is derived from a text such as the Bible, the teaching of an institution such as the church, a profound personal experience, a religious tradition or a direct appeal to faith alone.  Sweetman agrees with the secularists who say these ought to be kept out of the public arena, although he places two conditions on this. The first is that they can be introduced providing one is prepared to debate the rationality of the source rather than simply appeal to them as authoritative (although he also says, ‘it is crucial to recognise that is not necessary for me to convince the secularist that religious belief is rational in order for religious beliefs to have a role in politics; all that is necessary, is that I hold that they are rational.’ (p.107)). Secondly, he excludes religious arguments on the condition that secularists exclude their own beliefs which come from the same type of sources.

Sweetman then also adds a further qualification for Christians.  He proposes that specifically religious arguments ought not to be introduced into public debate unless they are defended by rational arguments which have the potential to make them persuasive to non-Christians.   He argues that one cannot reasonably expect from different traditions and cultures to be persuaded by arguments based on Christian sources.  This means, as noted previously, that one can only introduce lower order beliefs into public debate. That is, those that are justified by appeal to rational argument.  Apart from the problem of identifying which beliefs are higher and lower (if there is a dispute he believes that discussion should be a part of the public debate) it means omitting those things which are at the heart of the Christian faith. For instance, an argument which is based on the resurrection of Jesus is inadmissible.  His point about the difficulty of persuading people with such arguments and the benefits of some form of common, rational argument is well made. The difficulty is that many a Christian rational argument (whether concerning action on climate change or capital punishment) is inextricably intertwined to a high-order belief (concerning, for example creation or redemption).

The queries noted here should not detract from the fact that Professor Sweetman has undertaken a through and detailed treatment of the arguments involved in considering the relationship of faith to politics, especially as it occurs in the North American scene. In so doing he has made a significant contribution to public theology.

This review of “Why Politics Needs Religion: the place of religious arguments in the public square” by Brendan Sweetman,   first appeared in Evangelical Review of Society and Politics: an interdisciplinary journal for the Christian analysis of social and political issues, Vol.1, No. 1, (February 2007) 82-85.

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