It’s Uncivil

From Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse:

There is a difference, in public discourse, between what is true and what is civil, or what equality thinks appropriate. The issue here is about how the Christian participates in the State.

We noted above that the main function of public deliberation is not to prove that one’s views about the public good are true, but rather to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable.  And to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable is to show that they are justifiable to them.  In order to show that one’s views about the public good are justifiable to your fellow citizens, one must articulate the case for one’s views in terms that do not presuppose one’s own particular moral, metaphysical, or religious commitments.  For your fellow citizen may reject these commitments without thereby disqualifying themselves for democratic citizenship.

An example will help.  Imagine a fellow citizen affirming that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because God forbids homosexuality.  Here, what has been offered is a reason that could count as a reason only for those who hold certain religious convictions.  But free and equal citizens of a democratic society are not required to have any religious convictions at all.  So the justification proposed fails to show that the position is justifiable.  Contrast this with the case of a fellow citizen who affirms that that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because permitting it would weaken the stability of the family, thereby weakening the most basic institution of all human society.  Social stability is a concern for democratic citizens as such.  Accordingly, in response, a critic will challenge the claim that allowing same-sex marriage will undermine the stability of the family, and thus social stability overall.  But the important thing is that the social stability argument proposes a reason of the right kind.  Those who support same-sex marriage cannot simply say in response, “Who cares about social stability?”  They instead need to engage with the reasons offered by the same-sex marriage opponent.  To be sure, we are confident that the social stability argument against same-sex marriage falls short, but that is a different matter from what is now at issue, namely, which reasons are properly public.

We may say that public reasons are of the kind that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unintelligible by democratic citizens.  Thus there is a fundamental difference between a reason such as “The Bible forbids it” and “Equality requires it.”  One who dismisses the former does not thereby disqualify himself for democratic citizenship; one who dismisses the latter does.  Accordingly, a group of citizens that insists on a public policy that can be supported only by means of nonpublic reasons thereby shows disrespect for their fellow citizens.  Put otherwise, to affirm a public policy that cannot be supported by public reasons is in effect to say to one’s fellow citizens “Because I said so.”  And that’s to deny that one’s fellow citizens are one’s equals.  That’s disrespectful.

Indeed, it’s uncivil.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Dan Arnold

    While I think there is something to be said about the idea that civil discourse needs to offer arguments that by their nature apply to the society as a whole, it seems that the author assumes that all religion is inherently private. This, then, automatically marginalizes all religious discourse. Yet some of our nation’s founding documents are based in broadly religious discourse. When the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…,” it is basing equality and rights, not in the state, but in broadly religious terms. My worry is that by marginalizing religious discourse, we eventually undercut the very nature of our freedom, for if our equality and rights are not derived from our creator, the only other alternative that I can see is that they are based in the state. (I can not see equality and rights being based on Nature as nothing in Nature displays this.) If so, then what the state gives, the state can take away.

  • John

    @DanArnold
    Hey Dan, I am trying to understand your comment. You say, “What the state gives, the state can take away.” There are many examples of states who have believed in a Creator yet they take way rights – the rights of African Americans in legalizes slavery in the United States is but one example. Do I understand correctly that an atheist does not have equality or the basis of equality because she does not believe in a Creator. Please help me understand your perspective. I ask as one who believes in a Creator. Thank you.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    He makes some great points. I cringe every time someone uses “God/the Bible says so!” As a reason to do something.

    I think its mire than debatable that “God says so” is even a valid reason for a christian politician (or any of us) to hold a position. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to say that “equality demands it” is a better reason (if thought through with a christ centered mind) than “the bible says so”.

    Again, this idea that God speaks and acts and commands from outside of the world is toxic. If “God says so” we can be sure that there is/was a good reason behind the comand that is in harmony with the natural ways of flourishing of each aspect of creation.

    I think it is Rob Bell that says that, as Christians, we are not in charge of bringing Christ to places that he is absent from, but are tour guides, pointing Him out where He has always been.

  • gingoro

    “Social stability is a concern for democratic citizens as such.” How does one establish what are valid concerns for democratic citizens? It seems to me that this area is where the more difficult arguments lie.
    DaveW

  • Dan Arnold

    John (#2),

    I definitely never meant to imply that only people who believe in a creator have rights or equality. The fact is, in the USA a person has equality and certain rights regardless of whether they believe in any such creator. Somewhat paradoxically, one of those rights is to deny any affiliation with, or belief in, a creator. In theory, these rights are not granted to us by the state, but by our creator, regardless of our personal belief in such a being.

    Now, I fully recognize that Christians (to our utter shame) used the Bible to deny African Americans, Native Americans and others full equality and the same inalienable rights that they declared were granted to all men. But the response to bad religious ideas and language should not be the elimination of public religious discourse, but rather, we should respond with better religious ideas and ideals. This is exactly what Martin Luther King did. But the author of the article seems to want to eliminate religious language from the public sphere altogether because not everybody holds the same religious ideas and some hold to none at all. The intent appears to be to marginalize religion as private, personal opinion with no public implications because some find religious language “irrelevant or unintelligible.” I have substantial concerns about such a view.

    I used the particular example from the Declaration of Independence to support my assertion that religious discourse has an important place at the table. Note that I am not saying religion should have the only seat at the table, or even the head of the table, just that in a pluralistic society such as ours, religious discourse has its place in pubic debate. The belief in inalienable rights is but one example. MLK is another.

    Shalom uvrecha,

  • AndyM

    i don’t know the minutiae of american public discourse but here in the antipodes, the gay marriage debate isn’t being had in the public square on anything so solid as the good of society in general as the feelings of the individual and the desire to be included. debate, civil or otherwise, gets squashed by people appealing to emotion rather than reason.

  • Jerry Sather

    I agree with Dan that this sort of thinking marginalizes or privatizes religious thought, belief and practice. More importantly, if we take seriously the Jesus’ claim to be king of the nations (think N.T. Wright here), how can we not include religious discourse. Has all authority been given to Jesus or not? Now, it is possible that we may be in error about the desires of God, but that is a different from saying we have no voice.

  • Ruth Anne shorter

    Dan, my husband and I totally agree.

  • Marshall

    “But free and equal citizens of a democratic society are not required to have any religious convictions at all.”

    Given that as a major premise, the conclusion that civil arguments are best stated in non-religious terms clearly follows. However some people say “This nation was founded as, and ought to continue to be a nation of Christian or Biblical values.” Religious hegemony, “Christendom”, is indeed a workable political system, but in the past it hasn’t worked out well … hence the Reformation. Religious practice stiffened into political control stifles what we consider valid religious practice: the relationship of the individual soul with its creator.

    “Privacy” is sometimes used by the New Atheists to mean “keep it behind closed doors” but in this context it means “individual” … you have your own personal right to make your own personal decision, such as your private right to decide how to spend your money. The privacy of religion doesn’t mean that religious discourse is “marginalized”, it means that you can decide for yourself what discourse you want to engage in: you don’t need a temple-authorized priest to interpret scripture for you. And that’s the best thing, the right thing, for those who believe “those who have seen me have seen the one who sent me.”

    A Christian value, as I see it: “only those who are not required to have any religious convictions at all are capable of having a correct relationship with their creator.”

  • Jerry S

    Marshall, are you making a “Christianity is not a religion” argument? Your last sentence has me perplexed.

  • Marshall

    Jerry, not at all. I am saying (to overstate slightly) that nothing is so destructive to authentic worship than Establishment. Religious conviction is a gift of the spirit that can never be impressed externally by some civil “requirement”. To say it a third way, Christian values are something that Christians bring to civil conversation, not something anyone would get from civil life.


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