The Essentiality of Religious Argument in the Public Square

I just finished my second reading (the first was many years ago) of James McPherson’s outstanding single-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.  The first time I read the book I was primarily interested in his take on the military history of the war.  Was it a close-run conflict?  Was the outcome inevitable?  This time, however, I was less interested in the now-familiar contours of the Wilderness campaign than I was in the social history — how the union came to split apart, how the war aims changed from reunion to emancipation, and how the nation tolerated casualties at a rate unmatched before or since.

In my reading, I was taken by surprise by the intensity of the religious debate and the religious conversation before and during the war — to the point where abolitionists were consistently scolded as religious zealots and fanatics.  And yet that searing evangelical witness eventually won the day, motivating not just union but abolition and — ultimately — the first, halting attempts at legal equality for freedmen.

This historic reality flies in the face of the modern trend of even the most faithful politicians and culture warriors intentionally draining their arguments of religious content — as if there case for life or marriage isn’t truly legitimate unless it can also be made in largely secular terms.  A case in point was Paul Ryan’s abortion response in his vice presidential debate with Joe Biden, where he mentioned his religious faith but mainly grounded his argument in “science” and “reason.”

While I appreciate the effort to make arguments appealing to as many people as possible, I do believe that by abandoning or minimizing the faith-filled argument we’re actually abandoning or minimizing our best, most persuasive case.  Let’s not forget, the call to cleanse our words of religion comes primarily from our most ardent opponents, not from the persuadable middle.  In fact, the middle largely (though passively) resists efforts to drive religion from the public square, disdaining politically correct cleansing of religious symbols and religious language from public conversation.  That’s because the middle is still religious.  They may not be orthodox, and they may not practice their faith consistently, but the language of faith still resonates deep in their hearts and consciences.

After all, when we speak about life or about marriage — and yet leave God behind — we are less than sincere.  I believe an unborn child is an unborn child not because of DNA or ultrasounds but because I know that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” — known by God before we even before we were stitched together in our mothers’ wombs.  I understand what marriage is and should be not by sociological research about child poverty and the psychological effects of divorce but because of the created order and the words of Jesus himself regarding the sacredness of the marriage bond.

We should not leave behind our best — our truest — arguments simply because our opponents rule them out of bounds.  Simply put, spiritual truth is far more powerful than contemporary “rules” of discourse.

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  • Craig

    “I was taken by surprise by the intensity of the religious debate and the religious conversation before and during the war.”

    So what brought about the Civil War should be our model for civic discourse. Really, this should get you an award for satire.

  • David T

    There was a Senate candidate who took your advice. His name was Mourdock. I think you know what happened to him (in a socially conservative state).

  • David French

    Was the problem that he mentioned religion or the substance of the statement that he made? I’d suggest it was the latter.

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  • David T

    The “substance of the statement that he made” was standard Christian theodicy. (No idiotic pseudo-science like that of Akin, which is why Mourdock’s defeat was a much more serious blow to the pro-life movement.)

  • John W. Morehead

    You have articulated something important here in that we need to avoid the various polarizations of either not recognizing any significant differences in religion, or focusing so much on differences that we do so defensively and confrontationally. What is needed is the way of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy where we advocate and model civil disputation without compromise over our very real differences. We will continue to argue over religion, and that’s ok. The challenge is *how* we argue. Thanks for touching on this.

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  • Richard

    Yeah, David, I’m not sure the Civil War is your best example–there was enough inflammatory God talk on both sides, from John Brown on one side to Dabney on the other; perhaps the better example of “God talk” was that of President Lincoln himself. Lincoln used sensible “God talk” as well as natural law arguments to bolster his arguments. And then, we have his Second Inaugural for the ultimate in eloquence.

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