Friday, November 30, 2012

The Neglected Connection

There are many reasons why the unity of the church is an important concern.  It has been oft pointed out that Christ has called his church to be one, that we are to be united together in one mind and one judgment and there are not to be divisions among us (1 Corinthians 1:10-13), that there is one church, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6), etc.

However, there is another reason why the unity of the church is a serious imperative for us that I have not so often heard discussed.  (Perhaps this is simply because I have not been listening to the right conversation; but, nevertheless, from what I have heard I think this issue deserves greater emphasis.)  That reason is the connection between the unity of the church and the success of the mission of the church to evangelize the nations.

Christ has commanded his people to "go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).  And he has promised that in doing so "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."  The Scriptures promise that the preaching of the gospel will be accompanied with success.  The one who promises to be with us is the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been granted.  We are not to go out preaching the gospel expecting only a few among the nations to be converted, while the majority of the earth goes on in paganism.  Rather, the testimony of the prophets is that the coming of the Messiah would mean the conversion of the nations.  The whole of the earth has been granted to Christ as his inheritance (Psalm 2, Psalm 110).  His kingdom, when it comes in the time of the Roman Empire, will grow to fill the whole earth (Daniel 2:31-35).  It is like a mustard seed that starts out small but grows into a large tree, or like leaven which works its way through the whole of the dough (Luke 13:18-21).  Christ is reigning with all authority and he will continue to reign until all his enemies are under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).  We look forward to his future reign over the entire earth (Revelation 20:46), when he will have conquered all nations by the sword that comes out of his mouth, his holy word (Revelation 19:15, 21).  God has given us the enormous (and undeserved) privilege of being his ambassadors, the ones who preach the gospel which goes forth with power for the overcoming of the nations.

In Christian history, we have seen these promises at work.  Christ's disciples started out a small group of unimportant men in Judea.  For hundreds of years, they were persecuted not only by the Jews but by the mighty Roman Empire.  The Empire commanded them to submit to Caesar as the ultimate Lord, but the church refused, instead demanding that the Empire submit to Christ as the ultimate Lord.  Who would we expect to have won this contest?  Humanly speaking, the church had no chance.  But by God's power and grace, in accordance with his promises, it was the Empire which eventually submitted, declaring that Christ indeed is Lord.  Many other examples of God's power through the preaching of the gospel throughout history could be given.  The very fact that most of us are Gentiles living in what to ancient Israel would have been considered the remote corners of the earth, and yet here we are discussing how to glorify the true God in his church, is a dramatic testimony of God's faithfulness in making his Messiah a light to the nations.

But the work of the church is not finished.  There are nations yet to be converted.  And within nations that once were converted, there is much backsliding.  Of course, until the end of the world we should never expect to see perfection, since God has promised us that sin will be with us until the end.  But in the present day, at least in some parts of the world (such as Europe and America), it almost appears that the attainments of the church are regressing rather than progressing.  When we see this happening, we ought to ask, why?

A definite answer to this question that covers all the causes cannot be given.  God has his plans, and he will carry them out as he sees fit apart from any timing we may wish to see.  God often allows apparent setbacks to the accomplishment of the good goals he has laid out to occur, even when men are faithful.  This is true both for individuals (think of Job) and for nations.  However, whenever we see such setbacks, whether in our own lives or in the life of the church and the world at large, we ought to examine ourselves to see if there is any "sin in the camp."

I think there is a very significant sin in our camp today.  The church of God is in a deplorable state of division.  The followers of Christ are divided into a myriad of conflicting denominations, refusing to formally recognize each others' legitimacy and in many ways in competition with each other.  Christ has called us to be one in the truth, and yet we have wandered off into doctrinal and practical errors that have created barriers to the unity we are all called to.  When union is sometimes achieved between denominations or groups of Christians, it is often accomplished not by repenting of and removing the real causes of division, but by papering over them in a spirit of apathy to the revealed truth of God.  We have grown too comfortable with this state of things, and we continue in many ways to enagage in attitudes and practices that do nothing but hinder true unity.

Could this current state of the church have something to do with the setbacks we are seeing in the world today in terms of the conversion of the nations to a confession and practice of the pure Word of God?  I think we must answer yes to this question.  We know this is the case because Christ himself promised that it would be the case.  In John 17:20-23, in the middle of his so-called high priestly prayer for his people, Jesus says something very startling:  "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me."

Jesus ties the conversion of the world into the knowledge of the truth of the gospel to the unity of the church.  When the church is properly one, then the world will believe that the Son was truly sent by the Father, and that the church is the people of God.

As we look around us today and wonder when things will turn around, as we wonder why more and more people are turning away from the faith of their fathers, and why the nations in which we live are becoming more and more corrupt all the time, and why the church is not more effective than it is at being a light to the nations, let us consider that our attitudes and actions with regard to the unity of the church, according to Christ's explicit words, should be seen as a cause of these problems.  The unity of the church is not only an important ideal and duty in itself.  It is an essential component in the church's goal to evangelize the nations.  And we are told explicitly by Our Lord that we cannot expect the latter without the former.  Let us, then, seek with great earnestness the true unity of the church--not in compromise and watering down of pure doctrine and practice, but in reform and repentance and loving dialogue that leads us all to move away, by God's grace, from our wicked ways and to unite in the purity of God's truth.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Look At What the OPC's Book of Church Order Has to Say Regarding the Implications of Denominational Separateness

As I've argued in previous posts, when denominations are separated from each other, not in formal unity of some sort, this state of separation, in the context of a presbyterian system of church government, implies a mutual rejection of the full authority of each others' church courts and officers (and an implied charge of schism is directed from each denomination to the other).

Many have objected to this characterization of the meaning of denominational separation.  Therefore, in this post, I want to further my argument by providing an illustration of what I am talking about from the Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

I've already mentioned the fact that the lack of recognition of the authority of other denominations is manifest in the refusal of sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies to invite officers from other denominations as fully recognized voting members of these assemblies, as well as in the refusal of the different denominations to recognize as binding the decisions of each others' church courts.  (Inside one denomination, if one presbytery had serious problems with defection in another presbytery, the first presbytery would appeal against the second one to the general assembly.  Thus, Matthew 18 is followed within a system of formal unity.  When a presbytery of one denomination has a problem with something a presbytery of another denomination is doing, however, there is no way to follow Matthew 18 fully because there is no formal unity and no formal recognition of authority between the denominations, and so the first presbytery can only complain about what the second one is doing, but cannot do anything formally about it in terms of church discipline.  The same thing goes for the decisions and actions of sessions, general assemblies, etc.)

Let's take a look at the instructions in the OPC's Book of Church Order regarding the receiving of congregations into the OPC to see what it has to tell us regarding how much legitimacy and authority is granted between denominations (at least from the OPC's point of view).  So here is Form of Government (FOG) XXIX : B.1-2:

B. Receiving Congregations

1. A congregation not belonging to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church may be received only under the supervision of presbytery. The presbytery of the regional church to which the congregation would most naturally belong shall have jurisdiction in the matter.

2. In receiving an existing, local church not belonging to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a new and separate congregation (church) the procedure shall be as follows:

a. A congregation which desires to become a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church shall apply to the presbytery, through its clerk, to be received. In its application the congregation shall state the reasons which have moved it to apply for membership in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

b. The presbytery or a committee appointed by the presbytery shall examine the applicants as to their Christian faith and life and their knowledge of and willingness to submit to the standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

c. The elders of the congregation, if there be such, shall be examined as to their qualifications as set forth in Chapter X and as to their subscription to the formula for the ordination of elders in Chapter XXV, Section 6, of this Form of Government.

d. The pastor of the congregation, if there be such, shall be examined according to Chapter XXIII, Section 2, of this Form of Government.

e. When the above actions have been approved by presbytery, a service of recognition and installation shall be conducted by presbytery or a committee appointed by the presbytery. At the appointed time the congregation shall be informed of the action of the presbytery and the moderator shall address to the congregation the following question:

In reliance upon God for strength do you solemnly promise to walk together as a church of Jesus Christ according to the Word of God and the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?The congregation shall answer in the affirmative by raised hand. After this the congregation shall be recognized as a new and separate church of the regional church. Then the officers shall be (ordained and) installed according to this Form of Government.

There are a few things of interest to notice in this.  First, notice that the church coming into the OPC, before it comes in, is not formally recognized as a separate church within the presbytery.  First, there is a ceremony, and then "the congregation shall be recognized as a new and separate church of the regional church."  If denominations fully recognize each others' de jure existence and authority, why wasn't the non-OPC church previously considered a "separate church of the regional church"?  The fact that there must be a ceremony in order to formally recognize it as an existing separate church within the regional presbytery says quite clearly that it was not so formally recognized before.  When the congregation was outside the OPC, it was not formally recognized, de jure, as an existing church.

Secondly, notice that the members of the non-OPC church are to be examined with regard to Christian faith and life.  But what if they had already been examined, having already become members of a church previously?  No matter.  They must be examined again.  Why?  It is as if the OPC does not recognize their previous examination and admittance into the church--which, of course, is precisely the case.

This leads us into the third observation.  Why doesn't the OPC just take the word of the leaders of the congregation that the members have been well-examined and received into the church previously?  Because those officers themselves are not considered de jure officers with recognized authority to fulfill the roles of officers.  Notice that the elders of the congregation (if there be any) and the minister of the congregation (if there be any) are to be examined by the OPC to be sure they meet the qualifications for elders and ministers.  After this examination, if they pass, they are to be formally recognized and installed as elders and ministers.

Now, let's think about this for a moment.  If the OPC already fully recognizes the de jure status and authority of the officers of other denominations (as many have protested to me that they do), why are they being examined to see if they meet the qualifications for their offices?  Is the OPC in the habit of recognizing the authority of officers without bothering first to see if they are qualified to hold that office?  No.  The fact is that the examination makes clear that the OPC does not formally recognize these men as de jure officers until after they have been properly examined.  This lack of previous recognition is also manifested in that these men must be formally recognized (which involves a similar process to ordination of a licentiate) and installed to their offices.  If they were already previously recognized de jure by the OPC as being officers in the church of Christ with full rights and authority, then why do they need to be again formally recognized and installed?  Clearly, this ceremony indicates that the OPC did not formally recognize their de jure existence or authority as officers before they were examined, recognized, and installed.

So we see from the procedure laid out by the OPC for receiving new congregations into the OPC that the OPC does not acknowledge or formally recognize the de jure existence or authority of non-OPC congregations or officers (despite protestations to the contrary).  Note also that the OPC does recognize its own authority, in that it sets itself up as having authority to authoritatively examine and approve the officers and members coming into the OPC.

There are one or two aspects of OPC practice that may seem baffling in the light of its generally consistent trend of not formally recognizing congregations and officers outside of the OPC as having de jure existence and authority.  One of these is the practice of transferring members from OPC congregations to the congregations of other denominations.  Here is a part of the OPC's prescriptions for how to do this from their Book of Discipline (BOD) II : B.3:

3. The names of members shall be removed from the roll of the church only by order of the session and according to the following provisions:

a. Members may be removed by a letter of transfer to another congregation approved by the session. When upon the request of a member the session dismisses him to another congregation, the clerk shall send a letter commending him to its care, and the clerk of the receiving church shall notify the dismissing church of the date of his reception. When notification is received the clerk shall remove his name from the roll and record the fact in its minutes. He shall be considered subject to the jurisdiction of the session which dismissed him until the time when he actually is received by the body to which he has been dismissed.

b. Members may be removed when they desire to be dismissed to a church of which the session cannot approve as a church of like faith and practice. If it appears to the session that the spiritual interests of the members will be advanced by their uniting with such a church, it shall grant them certificates of standing, and, upon being informed that they have joined such a church, shall remove their names from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes.

c. Members shall be removed from the roll of the local church by ordination as a teaching elder, according to the Form of Government, Chapter VI, Section 4.

d. Members may be removed by erasure according to the following provisions:

(1) When a member desires dismissal to a church of which the session cannot approve as a church of like faith and practice, nor a church which will advance his spiritual interests, and he cannot be dissuaded, it shall grant him a certificate of standing, unless the session institutes disciplinary action against him; on being informed that he has joined such a church the clerk shall erase his name from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes.

As I understand it and have seen it practiced, it is common OPC practice to transfer members to sister denominations (that is, non-OPC denominations with whom the OPC has fraternal relations) using the method outlined in 3.a above (although it is noteworthy to me that 3.a doesn't actually explicitly approve this practice--it does not even mention other denominations--and this is not always consistently practiced in actuality, as sometimes sessions will refuse to give a letter of transfer even when a member is transferring to a sister denomination).  Now, this practice, on the surface, seems a bit inconsistent with what we have seen previously.  We have seen that when a congregation from outside the OPC wants to join the OPC, there must first be an examination of the ministers and elders of the congregation to make sure they have the proper qualifications to function in their offices, and then they are recognized and installed.  Clearly, therefore, while officers remain outside of the OPC, the OPC does not formally grant that these officers are functioning de jure as officers or even that they have the proper qualifications to do so.  If that is the case, then how can it be pastorally appropriate to transfer members from OPC congregations to be under the jurisdiction of these officers?  "Well, it is true that Pastor Bob and the ruling elders with him are not regarded by us as actually being de jure officers, as we have no formal recognition of them, nor do we have any formal position on whether or not they are qualified for office and can do their jobs adequately, but we'll go ahead and happily transfer our members over to them anyway!"  How can this be regarded as pastorally competent?

Perhaps this practice can be reconciled with the rest of the outlook of the OPC by noting that the transfer of members to other denominations is not considered an ideal situation but a concession to non-ideal circumstances.  Notice that according to 3.b, it is acknowledged that sometimes members might wish to be transferred to a church of which the session cannot approve as being of like faith and practice but that may still be regarded as advancing that member's spiritual interests.  (And note that, by virtue of remaining separate from other denominations in light of Christ's command for formal worldwide unity, the OPC is declaring all non-OPC denominations to have some problems either in faith or practice; for if the OPC believed another denomination to be perfectly sound, why would they still remain separate from it?)  Unlike with 3.d(1), 3.b does not say that the session should try to dissuade the member from joining this church not of like faith and practice.  But how can it be a good and acceptable thing to transfer a member to another church of which the session cannot approve as being of like faith and practice?  Surely transferring a member from a more pure church to a less pure church would be, all other things being equal, a move downwards and not an ideal thing.  But perhaps what these instructions are recognizing is simply that non-ideal circumstances can sometimes arise in which the best option available for the spiritual interests of a member might be to allow him to transfer to a less pure church.  Perhaps the member's job, for example, requires him to move to a city in which there is no OPC congregation and it is not feasible for him to quit his job.

So I don't think we need to read these instructions regarding the transferring of members as necessarily in conflict with the instructions for receiving congregations which indicate that there is no formal recognition of the de jure existence or authority of officers, or even of their qualifications for office, when they are outside of the OPC.  The instructions are merely recognizing that non-ideal circumstances may arise in which it may be best for a member to be transferred to a church outside the OPC's jurisdiction where there is no formal opinion regarding the qualifications of its officers and no formal recognition of their authority.  (In a somewhat analogous situation, I have requested membership in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland even though there is no local FPCS congregation in the area where I live.  The Kirk-Session to which I have made my request, when it meets next month, may advise me to stay in the membership of the OPC, not because they think this is the ideal situation or because they formally recognize the OPC's authority or qualifications, but because it may be the best choice given the options available.  Being part of a schismatic church could be seen as better than being a part of no local church, other things being equal.  I myself have held this opinion, which is why I have remained a member of the OPC.)

One more brief question before we conclude.  When a member is under discipline in another denomination, the OPC will not receive that member into membership in the OPC until the matter is dealt with (unless, presumably, the OPC determines that the discipline case is unjust).  Is this a recognition of the full de jure authority of the church courts of other denominations?  No, I don't think so.  This behavior is fully explained by the respect that the OPC has for the de facto functioning of separated denominations.  Although there is no formal recognition of the de jure authority of the other denominations, there is a recognition that, in the providence of God, the Body of Christ is alive and functioning in these other denominations.  Although the officers of the other denominations do not have their authority formally granted by the OPC, yet the OPC acts under a recognition that those officers are in fact, de facto, functioning as overseers over the souls of men, and that that function should be respected.  This behavior is perfectly consistent with our understanding of the meaning of denominational separation.  This is the same recognition that makes me feel it is my duty, so long as it is reasonably possible to do so, to respect the OPC's procedures and rules while I remain a member in the OPC and with regard to my eventual transfer out of it and into (most likely) the FPCS.  I should not simply get up and leave without going through the proper procedures laid down by my OPC session.  Why?  Is it because I don't regard the OPC as schismatic and believe their authority should be formally recognized in ideal circumstances?  No, it is because they are functioning, in the providence of God, as overseers over me, and that role, even if it is exercised in the context of an overall schismatic position, deserves respect.

Also, notice that I mentioned above that it is my presumption that the OPC might defy the discipline of another denomination and receive a person into OPC membership on certain occasions if they decide that the discipline the person is undergoing is unjust.  But, in such a case, why would not the OPC use formal channels to resolve the unjust discipline process?  It won't because it can't.  Because the denominations are not in formal unity with each other, the OPC can only complain and request that the other denomination act justly.  If the other denomination defies their pleading and complaints, there is nothing else the OPC can do.  Such is one example of the many evil consequences of schism and a congregational attitude to church government when it comes to relations between denominations.

In conclusion, what I see in the OPC's Book of Church Order is a fairly clear illustration of my position regarding the meaning and implications of denominational separation.  The OPC, in pretty much every formal way, treats non-OPC congregations, church courts, and officers, as being without any formally recognized authority, while sometimes acting in ways that show respect for their de facto authority under the providence of God as well as a recognition of what must sometimes be done in non-ideal circumstances.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I'm a Betazoid

I don't usually write very personally autobiographical posts, but this will be a bit of an exception.

Anyone reading this blog knows that I am a controversialist.  I delve into controversial issues and love to discuss them.  I think that it is a part of my major calling in life to confront errors both inside the church and outside of it.  I am drawn to debates and dialogues with all sorts of people on important subjects, and I both enjoy it and am happy to be useful in that regard.

However, I absolutely loathe interpersonal conflict.  As soon as a conversation becomes personal and there is acrimony and animosity involved, I want out of it immediately.  Unfortunately, being a controversialist who engages lots of different people on lots of sensitive and controversial subjects, and being someone who engages error even in my own circles when I see it, it is not always possible to avoid making people angry with me.  So there is a tension here.

I am also fascinated by human psychology, and my own tension here creates an opportunity to explore interesting (and often aggravating) aspects of my own personality.  In particular, with regard to my loathing of interpersonal conflict, I have been analyzing my own responses and have found some interesting things.

Let me provide a sort-of concrete example of a recent set of conversations that have driven me to think about my own psychology.  As regular readers know, I have been thinking through issues of church unity and authority quite a lot over the past year.  I have been confronting some confused theoretical and practical trends in this area prominent in Reformed Christian circles.  Recently,  I have been discussing these issues with some people in my circles who really don't like where my views have headed.  They believe me to be in serious error, and have told me so in no uncertain terms.  I have found that their attitude towards me has been incredibly painful to me.  It has caused an enormous amount of internal tension and even anger in me.  So I have tried to examine myself to figure out why that is.

I am realizing more and more that I am a Betazoid.  For those who don't know, the Betazoids are a race of beings on the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation who have telepathic abilities.  In the TNG episode "Tin Man," viewers are introduced to a particular Betazoid who has had trouble throughout his life because he has never learned to control the continuous influx of emotions from other people all around him.  He has had trouble not losing himself in his strong sensing of the emotions and thoughts of others, and so has tried to avoid associations with others.

Well, I'm not actually telepathic, but God has created me with a personality that is very much naturally inclined to be able to see things from other peoples' points of view.  When I interact with others, I tend to naturally see things from their point of view, even to the point of seeing myself from their point of view.  When people are angry with me or offended by me or disapprove of me, I tend to internalize this and feel ashamed and guilty even when I know intellectually that I am in the right.  You can imagine that this makes certain encounters that go along with being a controversialist very uncomfortable!  (I spoke of this tendency in myself earlier, without labeling it, in my blog post from nearly a year ago titled "On Angry Atheists".)  When other people speak disapprovingly to me, particularly if they have dominating personalities, I find it hard to keep my bearings and confidence and to maintain my own point of view.  And this tendency frustrates me greatly and tends to make me angry, so that I have to deal with that feeling as well.  All of this makes personal confrontation on an emotional level very, very difficult for me.

My ability to see things from other peoples' points of view is a gift from God to me, and it is an invaluable tool in my ability to be a controversialist, as it helps me to empathize with others, to respect those who disagree with me, and to deal very seriously and thoroughly with contrary positions and arguments.  So I am very grateful to have this trait.  But I need to continue to learn to control it better.  I need to be able to turn it up higher in certain contexts (such as when I am having a cordial conversation and trying to understand another person's point of view) and to turn it down lower in other contexts (such as when I am being attacked or chastised by others for believing or doing something I know is right).  In reliance on God's grace, I need to work to bridle my inner Betazoid and put it to good use without letting it get out of hand and cause trouble.  It is like fire, which has often been said to be a great servant, but a poor master.

Well, at least I am an introspective introvert as well (more particularly, I am an INTP), so that I am good at looking inside myself and figuring this sort of thing out!  As they say, "knowing is half the battle!"

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Another Example of Secularist Blindness

I recently had a conversation with someone about same-sex marriage.  It was one example of numerous similar conversations I have had which illustrate well the naivete that is associated with the secular viewpoint that claims itself to be neutral.

We were discussing the court case that overturned Proposition 8 in California.  The judge, in that case, overturned Prop 8 because he could find no rational reason to treat same-sex relationships differently from opposite-sex relationships.  I pointed out that from the perspective of my Christian worldview, there are a ton of great reasons why the state should treat same-sex relationships differently from opposite-sex relationships--the former are an abominable sin, God requires the state not to tolerate homosexuality, he promises judgment on individuals and nations that rebels against his law, God is dishonored publicly by the endorsement of rebellion against his law, etc.  My friend, who is Agnostic, responded by saying, "But you can't prove any of that."  I said, "Yes, I can," and referred her to my arguments for Christianity.  She said, "Well, I don't think your arguments prove your case."  I responded, "I know you don't.  In other words, you are Agnostic.  That is a difference between us."

Then I added, "The judge in that case agreed with your worldview and not mine.  He, and you, want Agnostic beliefs and values to be enshrined in law and my Reformed Christian beliefs to be rejected."  She said, "No, I don't.  I want everyone to be treated equally."  I said, "Think about it.  You want the law to reflect your Agnostic way of looking at things rather than my way of looking at things, don't you?"  She responded, "No, I just want equality for all."

The naivete and blindness is evident.  She could not see or acknowledge that her viewpoint is not neutral.  She was determined to think of me as advocating that my views be adopted by law while she wants nothing but neutrality, fairness, and equality.  She simply could not face the obvious fact that she wants the law to reflect her beliefs and values and not mine, and so she deflected that obvious acknowledgment by resorting to begging the question and just assuming her Agnostic point of view without argument, as if everyone agrees with it, so she could paint her position as the neutral position.

This sort of conversation is quite typical of my conversations with Atheists and Agnostics, most of whom (with some few exceptions) simply cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the obvious reality that their positions are not neutral.

UPDATE 11/13/12: Here is a link to a conversation going on on an Atheist/Agnostic Facebook page.  It provides another great illustration of the kind of thing I am talking about (although yesterday it took a turn for the better with a couple of people actually acknowledging that secularism isn't neutral.  It does happen every now and again!).  I wanted to paste it here but, as you can see in the conversation, I did not get permission; so I decided just to link to it instead.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Impossibility of Neutrality

This is chapter one in a forthcoming book of mine entitled A Tale of Two Ethical Systems (I think).

Governmental Neutrality

Modern American culture is obsessed with the concepts of diversity and equality. The U.S. is a pluralistic nation. We are a country full of people who hold vastly different worldviews, and we like it that way. We celebrate the diversity of worldviews in our society. We think that this is one of the greatest things about America. We also pride ourselves on being a nation of equality, where all people are treated equally and no one is discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, social status, culture, sexual orientation, etc.

Our obsession with diversity and equality has led us to be obsessed also with the concept of neutrality. Most current American thought holds that in order to treat everyone in this country equally, the civil government and public institutions must be neutral between all the various religious and non-religious claims made by our citizens. Avoiding discrimination against Christians, Muslims, atheists, Jews, Buddhists, etc., involves being neutral between the truth claims of these groups, refusing to take sides or to promote or oppose anyone’s beliefs.

Current popular interpretations of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provide a clear example of this public ideal of neutrality. The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The important part for our purposes is, of course, the first part, the prohibition on making laws about establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. There have been many debates, and there are still today many debates, about exactly what this means, what it meant, and what it should mean for us. I am not interested here in getting into all of that. For my purposes, it is enough to note that the current dominant interpretation of the First Amendment in legal thinking today (as represented by the Supreme Court) is that it forbids the nation (and the states, following official interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment) from adopting any official religious viewpoint or from taking sides in any religious disputes. In other words, it requires neutrality towards all religious claims, so far as public institutions are concerned (which would include the federal government, state governments, public educational institutions, etc.). A classic example of this interpretation of the First Amendment is the well-known “Lemon test,” derived from the Supreme Court’s decision in Lemon V. Kurtzman. The Lemon test is designed as a way to evaluate whether a policy is in violation of the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state. There are three qualifications in this test which all public policies must meet if they are to be considered legal under the First Amendment: 1. They “must have a secular [that is, non-religious] legislative purpose.” 2. Their “principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.” 3. They must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”1 The Lemon test, along with other similar ideas of how to gauge the legality of various public policies, is centered on the core idea that the government of the United States should be neutral with regard to religion. It should be neutral between all religions, and it should be neutral between religion and non-religion (such as agnosticism, atheism, secular humanism, etc.).

This concept of neutrality is held by many to apply not only to the public sphere, but also to personal morality and ethics. For example, a textbook for ethics classes authored by Judith Boss, Analyzing Moral Issues, says this about the relationship between particular religious views and ethical evaluations:
Most theologians and philosophers maintain that morality exists independently of religion--that religious ethics is not fundamentally different from philosophical ethics. Although a moral code is incorporated into the doctrine of most religions, moral issues can be discussed without appealing to religion. When people who are religious use the terms right and wrong, they generally mean the same thing as someone who is not religious. Religious differences tend to fall away in most serious discussion of moral issues, such as slavery and abortion, not because religion isn’t important to the participants but because the moral disputes can be discussed and even resolved without bringing religion into the equation.2 
Boss adds a very interesting footnote at the end of this paragraph:
An exception here is fundamentalist religion, such as fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, in which the Bible and the Koran are interpreted literally and are regarded as the final word on certain moral issues such as drinking and homosexuality.3 
This is a highly significant qualification. I will come back to it later.

John Rawls

One of the most important (some would say the most important) political philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is John Rawls. In his book Political Liberalism, Rawls, following the dominant ideal of neutrality in public affairs, sought to work out some practical principles for the making of laws and public policies that would help reach that ideal. Rawls held a version of the social contract theory of governmental authority, which we will look at in more detail in chapter six when we get into political ethics. In short, the social contract theory holds that governmental authority is only legitimate if based on the “consent of the governed.” It would be unjust for anyone to try to tell me what to do unless I consent to his authority and laws willingly. Rawls was particularly interested in how this “consent of the governed” can be maintained in a pluralistic society, where there are many different worldviews. People holding different worldviews have different beliefs, different priorities, different values, different goals, etc. How can people of many different worldviews be united in one society under one set of laws without violating the principle of the consent of the governed?

Rawls’s answer to that question is that laws and public policies should be based only on principles that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse, and not on principles that only some of the citizens could reasonably be expected to endorse. Rawls put it this way:
Our exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human reason.4 
If laws and policies are based only on principles that everyone could endorse, then consent of the governed will be preserved and governmental authority will be legitimate.

What this amounts to in practice is that citizens should leave the peculiar aspects of their worldviews out of decisions relating to public policies and laws and base those decisions instead only on things that everyone could hold in common, no matter his particular worldview. This practice will ensure that public laws and policies will be neutral between all the citizens rather than favoring the particular beliefs of any group. Leif Wenar, in his article on John Rawls in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, provides an example of this practice of accepting or excluding principles based on whether or not they are public rather than simply a part of one person’s or group’s worldview:
To take a straightforward example: a Supreme Court justice deciding on a gay marriage law would violate public reason were she to base her opinion on God's forbidding gay sex in the book of Leviticus, or on a presentiment that upholding such a law would hasten the end of days. Not all members of society can reasonably be expected to accept Leviticus as stating an authoritative set of political values, nor can a religious premonition be a common standard for evaluating public policy. These values and standards are not public.5
If the Book of Leviticus and premonitions about the end of the world are examples of ideas that are impermissible to use in crafting public laws and policies because one cannot expect everyone to endorse them, what are some examples of ideas and standards that are public--that is, that can be endorsed by all people? This list would include standards that “rely on common sense, on facts generally known, and on the conclusions of science that are well established and not controversial.”6 The existence of the universe, the existence of human beings and basic human desires, the existence of China, basic facts known to science, and other such facts, would be included in the list of public ideas and standards. In short, basic facts about the natural world that are objectively generally knowable and known would qualify as public and would thus be acceptable to include as part of the basis of public laws and policies. If we will follow these principles, Rawls says, we will achieve genuine neutrality in our laws and policies and will therefore succeed in treating all citizens as equal no matter their worldviews.

Is Rawlsian Political Philosophy Truly Neutral?

Although Rawls claimed that his political philosophy was neutral between the various worldviews in our society, in reality it is not. Rawls ended up doing precisely what his whole theory was designed to avoid--advocating basing laws and policies on particular worldview beliefs and the rejection of other people’s worldview beliefs. His theory makes important assumptions that are not shared by all worldviews. To put it succinctly, his theory assumes an agnostic worldview, and thus rejects most of the religious worldviews of world history. Rawls assumes that there are things that can be objectively known to be true by common human reason, and other things that cannot be known to be true in this way. He assumes that facts about the natural world fall into the former category, while claims about God or religion fall into the latter category. But that is nothing more nor less than the very definition of agnosticism! Christians have historically believed that it is possible to objectively know that Christianity is true and that the Bible is a divine revelation. The Bible teaches that all men are without excuse if they reject God, for God is evident to the reason of all (see, for example, Romans 1:18-23). Christians have also historically believed that Christianity can be objectively known to be true, and that those who reject it likewise have no excuse in rejecting it (once they hear of it and understand it). (See, for example, Luke 10:16.) Rawls’s theory is thus implying that traditional Christianity is dead wrong on these very important points. These points are particularly important because if Christianity cannot objectively be known to be true, then those who wish to be rational and to base their beliefs solely on the evidence will be led by reason to reject Christianity as without any warrant. Thus, Rawls’s theory makes assumptions that are directly contrary to and which undermine the entire structure of traditional Christian doctrine. These assumptions can therefore hardly be called neutral!

Rawls never acknowledged that his theory privileges the agnostic worldview. He tried explicitly to insist to the contrary that his theory does no such thing. In Political Liberalism, Rawls devotes an entire section to arguing that his theory is not agnostic, or, as he puts it, “indifferent or skeptical”:
We try, so far as we can, neither to assert nor to deny any particular comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral view, or its associated theory of truth and the status of values. Since we assume each citizen to affirm some such view, we hope to make it possible for all to accept the political conception as true or reasonable from the standpoint of their own comprehensive view, whatever it may be. Properly understood, then, a political conception of justice need be no more indifferent, say, to truth in philosophy and morals than the principle of toleration, suitably understood, need be indifferent to truth in religion. Since we seek an agreed basis of public justification in matters of justice, and since no political agreement on those disputed questions can reasonably be expected, we turn instead to the fundamental ideas we seem to share through the public political culture. From these ideas we try to work out a political conception of justice congruent with our considered convictions on due reflection. Once this is done, citizens may within their comprehensive doctrines regard the political conception of justice as true, or as reasonable, whatever their view allows.7 
However, despite Rawls’s assertions to the contrary, his view privileges an agnostic worldview and thus does indeed embrace a mild (but still a very crucially important) form of “skepticism.”

This commitment to an agnostic skepticism towards the possibility of knowing objective truth in religious matters can be seen in Rawls’s concept of what he calls the burdens of judgment, which he acknowledges to undergird and provide a foundation for his entire theory. Leif Wenar summarizes Rawls’s concept of the burdens of judgment:
Reasonable citizens want to live in a society in which they can cooperate with their fellow citizens on terms that are acceptable to all. They are willing to propose and abide by mutually acceptable rules, given the assurance that others will also do so; and they will honor these rules even when this means some sacrifice to their own interests. Reasonable citizens want, in short, to belong to a society where political power is legitimately used.

Each reasonable citizen has his own view about God and life, right and wrong, good and bad. Each has, that is, what Rawls calls his own comprehensive doctrine. Yet because reasonable citizens are reasonable, they are unwilling to impose their own comprehensive doctrines on others who are also willing to search for mutually agreeable rules. Though each may believe that he knows the truth, none is willing to force other reasonable citizens to live by that truth, even should he belong to a majority that has the power to enforce it.

One ground for reasonable citizens to be so tolerant, Rawls says, is that they accept a particular explanation for the diversity of worldviews in their society. Reasonable citizens accept the burdens of judgment. The deepest questions of religion, philosophy, and morality are very difficult even for conscientious people to think through, and people will answer these questions in different ways because of their own particular life experiences (their upbringing, class, occupation, and so on). Reasonable citizens understand that these deep issues are ones on which people of good will can disagree, and so will be unwilling to impose their own worldviews on those who have reached different conclusions.8 

The basic idea of the burdens of judgment is that the objective evidence regarding fundamental worldview questions--such as the existence of God, which religion is the right religion, etc.--is so slim that the evidence itself cannot tell us what is true, at least with any conclusiveness. Because of this, we all believe what we believe not because the evidence clearly points us to it but because of non-rational reasons such as upbringing, background culture, class, etc. This is essentially the very idea of agnosticism. Rawls himself is clear (although less clear than he would have been, no doubt, if he had not been trying desperately to avoid the unwanted implications) on the implications of the burdens of judgment:
The evident consequence of the burdens of judgment is that reasonable persons do not all affirm the same comprehensive doctrine. Moreover, they also recognize that all persons alike, including themselves, are subject to those burdens, and so many reasonable comprehensive doctrines are affirmed, not all of which can be true (indeed none of them may be true). The doctrine any reasonable person affirms is but one reasonable doctrine among others. In affirming it, a person, of course, believes it to be true, or else reasonable, as the case may be.

Thus, it is not in general unreasonable to affirm any one of a number of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. We recognize that our own doctrine has, and can have, for people generally, no special claims on them beyond their own view of its merits. Others who affirm doctrines different from ours are, we grant, reasonable also, and certainly not unreasonable. Since there are many reasonable doctrines, the idea of the reasonable does not require us, or others, to believe any specific reasonable doctrine, though we may do so. When we take the step beyond recognizing the reasonableness of a doctrine and affirm our belief in it, we are not being unreasonable.9 
Although Rawls steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his theory constitutes an endorsement of the public embracing of an agnostic worldview rather than real neutrality, he did come close to noticing this from time to time:
Nevertheless, in affirming a political conception of justice we may eventually have to assert at least certain aspects of our own comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine (by no means necessarily fully comprehensive). This will happen whenever someone insists, for example, that certain questions are so fundamental that to insure their being rightly settled justified civil strife. The religious salvation of those holding a particular religion, or indeed the salvation of a whole people, may be said to depend on it. At this point we may have no alternative but to deny this, or to imply its denial and hence to maintain the kind of thing we had hoped to avoid.

To consider this, imagine rationalist believers who contend that these beliefs are open to and can be fully established by reason (uncommon though this view may be). In this case, the believers simply deny what we have called “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” So we say of the rationalist believers that they are mistaken in denying that fact; but we need not say that their religious beliefs are not true, since to deny that religious beliefs can be publicly and fully established by reason is not to say that they are not true. Of course, we do not believe the doctrine believers here assert, and this is shown in what we do. Even if we do not, say, hold some form of the doctrine of free religious faith that supports equal liberty of conscience, our actions nevertheless imply that we believe the concern for salvation does not require anything incompatible with that liberty. Still, we do not put forward more of our comprehensive view than we think needed or useful for the political aim of consensus.10
The fascinating thing about these passages is that Rawls acknowledges the very problem that we have been addressing--the fact that his theory endorses particular assumptions related to a particular worldview and rejects others--but doesn’t seem to notice that this is a fatal problem for his theory. He basically says, “My theory is aiming for consensus and neutrality. Of course, I guess I have to admit that there are some (really, really uncommon) viewpoints that my theory opposes, and I guess we’ll just have to say that they are wrong and we are right, which is exactly what my theory is designed to avoid; but that’s all right, because we only have to do this a little bit, just enough to achieve consensus.” Achieve consensus? How can the claim to be achieving consensus still be made when it is acknowledged that the so-called consensus rejects certain people’s views? Even a basic dictionary definition of “consensus” will tell you that you don’t have one once you’ve excluded certain people and their views. How could Rawls fail to miss this? How could he still claim to have a successful consensus-producing theory when he has just admitted that there is not a consensus?

I think he can embrace this seeming inconsistency because he does not take seriously the views that he is excluding. He treats those excluded views (and therefore the people who hold them) as unimportant. They are so unimportant that excluding them, and thus treating them unequally, is not really a big deal and is not a serious problem for the claim of equality, neutrality, and consensus. That this is Rawls’s attitude can be seen from other passages in his writings as well. Listen to these passages from Rawls’s later work, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, and note how cavalier his dismissal of “fundamentalists” and their viewpoints is:
The idea of the politically reasonable is sufficient unto itself for the purposes of public reason when basic political questions are at stake. Of course, fundamentalist religious doctrines and autocratic and dictatorial rulers will reject the ideas of public reason and deliberative democracy. They will say that democracy leads to a culture contrary to their religion, or denies the values that only autocratic or dictatorial rule can secure. They assert that the religiously true, or the philosophically true, overrides the politically reasonable. We simply say that such a doctrine is politically unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.11 
Those who reject constitutional democracy with its criterion of reciprocity will of course reject the very idea of public reason. For them the political relation may be that of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless struggle to win the world for the whole truth. Political liberalism does not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship.12
Rawls‘s attitude is basically this: “Those fundamentalists are so ridiculous that I don’t even have to take any time to refute their views. I can just exclude them and their views from consideration and go on claiming that I have achieved a basic consensus by, in effect, pretending that those who disagree with me don’t exist.” Such an attitude as this is rather shocking for someone who claimed to be concerned with equality and neutrality and finding a consensus that all people could reasonably be expected to endorse. Rawls’s theory can achieve a consensus, but only at the cost of, in effect, excluding from the human race those who hold alternate views. Rawls simply defines all his opposition away as the class of “unreasonable people” without any argument at all. Ironically, this makes Rawls’s view, I think, farther from the goal of neutrality than many official religious establishments, such as existed in many states when the United States was founded. Those establishments acknowledged openly that they were embracing a certain worldview and rejecting others, while Rawls’s system wants to establish agnosticism as the official religion of the nation in the name of neutrality. The old religious establishments had enough respect for their opponents to be up front with them in saying that their views were being rejected, while Rawls’s system basically pretends that those who differ from the establishment don’t exist and so claims consensus by completely ignoring them. Surely treating one’s ideological opponents as if they are effectively excluded from the table of human citizens is about as gross a violation as one can imagine of the principle of treating all people (even annoying minorities) equally no matter their religious beliefs. Certainly such a philosophy is anything but neutral!

This attitude is common in modern agnostic American culture. We saw it in Judith Boss as well, whose ethics textbook I quoted from earlier. You recall that she made the statement that “Religious differences tend to fall away in most serious discussion of moral issues, such as slavery and abortion, not because religion isn’t important to the participants but because the moral disputes can be discussed and even resolved without bringing religion into the equation.” Then, in a brief footnote, she added, “An exception here is fundamentalist religion, such as fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, in which the Bible and the Koran are interpreted literally and are regarded as the final word on certain moral issues such as drinking and homosexuality.” Boss regards fundamentalist religions as so unimportant that they need not interfere with her basic claim that you can resolve moral disputes apart from religion. Sure, you can resolve most moral disputes without religion, if you only consider religious views that have basically submitted to agnosticism to tell them what they are allowed to say and not say. If you take into consideration what Boss calls “fundamentalist” religious views, however--which, by the way, constitute the majority of religious views in human history and probably on the earth today--then you will certainly not be able to resolve most serious moral controversies without reference to religion. Boss’s attitude, like Rawls's, is that “fundamentalists” are not really important people, and so we can basically ignore them and pretend they don’t exist when we talk about moral issues. At the most, all they deserve is a grudging reference in a footnote, since they have the nerve to keep existing and bothering us, messing up our neat little theories of neutrality and consensus. Again, however, this is a very ironic attitude for a culture that prides itself on concern for neutrality and equality for all people, especially minorities. Rawls’s and Boss’s attitude suggests that modern American concern for minorities often only extends to those minorities that we like, and excludes those that are different enough from us that we find them annoying and subversive of our basic beliefs and values. Those minorities we can simply label as “fundamentalists” and quietly exclude from any serious consideration at all. Neutrality and consensus is the name of the game--at least when we are dealing with our fellow agnostics and those who are mostly just like them in all pertinent respects. Let’s just have the awareness and the honesty to admit that this attitude is certainly not the same as real consensus or neutrality.

John Rawls Meets Sayyid Qutb

Another article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this one on “Religion and Political Theory” by Chris Eberle and Terence Cuneo, does a good job of pointing out the lack of real neutrality in Rawlsian-type viewpoints (which they call the “standard view” because of its current dominance in American political thinking) by imagining how the Rawlsian arguments would work with someone like Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic intellectual from the mid-twentieth century. They suggest formulating the standard view to say that “A coercive law is justified to an agent only if he is reasonable and has sufficient reasons from his own perspective to support it.” As we have seen, this is a good formulation of a Rawsian-type perspective. But they go on to say that critics of the standard view can argue that this concept doesn’t work as a means of establishing neutrality and consensus:
Now consider a coercive law that protects fundamental liberal commitments, such as the right to exercise religious freedom. Is this law justified to each citizen of a liberal democracy? Liberal critics answer: no. For there appear to be reasonable citizens who have no good reason from their own perspective to affirm it. Consider, for example, a figure such as the Islamic intellectual Sayyid Qutb. While in prison, Qutb wrote an intelligent, informed, and morally serious commentary on the Koran in which he laid the ills of modern society at the feet of Christianity and liberal democracy. The only way to extricate ourselves from the problems spawned by liberal democracy, Qutb argued, is to implement shariah or Islamic legal code, which implies that the state should not protect a robust right to religious freedom. In short, Qutb articulates what is, from his point of view, a compelling theological rationale against any law that authorizes the state to protect a robust right to religious freedom. If respect for persons requires that each coercive law be justified to those reasonable persons subject to that law, and if a person such as Qutb were a citizen of a liberal democracy, then the argument from respect implies that laws that protect the right to religious freedom are morally illegitimate, as they lack moral justification—at least for agents such as Qutb. And for a defender of the standard view, this is certainly an unwelcome result.13
Eberle and Cuneo go on to suggest that proponents of the standard view might respond (and have responded) to this criticism by reformulating their position to say that “A coercive law is justified to an agent only if were he reasonable and adequately informed, then he would have a sufficient reason from his own perspective to support it.” But this formulation has problems as well:
Were we to ask Qutb whether he would have reasons to support laws that protect a robust right to religious freedom if he were adequately informed and reasonable, surely he would say: no. Moreover, he would claim that his compatriots would reject the liberal protection of such a right if they were adequately informed about the divine authorship of the Quran and the proper rules of its interpretation. While Qutb's say-so doesn't settle the issue of who would believe what in improved conditions, liberal critics maintain that his response indicates just how complicated the issue under consideration is. Among other things, to establish that Qutb is wrong it seems that one would have to deny the truth of various theological claims on which Qutb relies when he determines that he would reject the right to religious freedom were he adequately informed and reasonable. That would require advocates of the standard view to take a stand on contested religious issues. However, liberal critics point out that defenders of the standard view have been wary of explicitly denying the truth of religious claims, especially those found within the major theistic religions.14 
Once again, we can see that the neutrality of Rawlsian-type theories is a sham neutrality and a sham consensus. It is only neutral and a consensus if it is kept confined within the circle of people who wouldn’t disagree with it and ignores other people, viewing them as practically non-existent. Once those other people and their alternate viewpoints are taken seriously and given a place at the table, the façade of neutrality and consensus comes crashing down, and all we are left with is a bald appeal for an establishment of something like agnosticism as the official religion of the nation, no different in principle from Sayyid Qutb’s call for an Islamic establishment--except that Qutb admitted what he was doing while the Rawlsians, either through dishonesty or naiveté, don’t.

Secularism Is Not Neutrality

The basic point here is that the call for a secular government that avoids taking a stand on religious claims and pretends to be neutral on such matters is really not neutral at all, but is an establishment of a particular viewpoint--agnosticism--as the official worldview of the nation. Steven D. Smith, the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, commented on this strategy to represent a secular, non-religious viewpoint as neutral in his 1995 book Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom. His insight is penetrating and witty and worth quoting:
Although deeply entrenched in modern legal discourse, this equation of secularism and neutrality is also curious. One need not suppose any implacable, across-the-board enmity between the religious and the secular to appreciate that in many contexts and on many issues some widely held religious values and beliefs are directly at odds with secular values and beliefs. Religion and secularism are not invariably foes, but sometimes they are antagonistic; and even in more peaceful settings they are, often enough, mutually suspicious competitors. Hence, the recurring pronouncement that the schools must be neutral and therefore entirely secular is much like an announcement, made by the president of the company: “In hiring employees this company will be strictly nonpartisan, and therefore we will hire only Republicans.” What is puzzling is that a host of judges and legal scholars can take such professions of neutrality seriously.15
Some proponents of a secular government suggest that secularism is neutral because it is the common denominator that all people share. All people, the argument goes, agree on the existence of the natural world and the things in it. We disagree about the existence and nature of the supernatural world and the things in it. So the neutral approach is to base law on what we all agree on and leave out what is controversial between us. It sounds plausible, but Smith detects the fallacy in it:
In more familiar contexts, we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and daughter are discussing what to have for dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have dessert.” Dad suggests that it would be better to have a full meal, with salad, mean, fruit, vegetables, and then dessert. Daughter responds: “Obviously, Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is one thing we agree on; we both want dessert. Clearly, the appropriate solution--the “neutral” solution--is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the dessert.” Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy. The supposed agreement is spurious because Dad wants dessert if and only if it is preceded by other, more nutritious food.16
Smith’s point is that if we are comparing two views such as Christianity and agnosticism or secularism, it is true that there are things that both groups agree on, but it is not true that those things that are not agreed on are unimportant. Whether God exists and the Bible is a divine revelation are crucial issues that will greatly affect one’s life. What we do on the basis of facts derived from the natural world and not from anything else will be very different from what we will do based on facts derived from the natural world plus facts derived from revelation from God in the Bible. To exclude God and the Bible and to focus only on the natural world is not to have common ground between agnosticism/secularism and Christianity; it is to reject Christianity for the agnostic worldview.

The Official Religion of the United States: Agnosticism

We have seen that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is typically considered today by authoritative bodies such as the Supreme Court to require an official public and governmental policy of neutrality on religious matters. But we have seen that such a policy of neutrality is really not neutral at all, but rather the endorsement of a particular religious/worldview viewpoint: agnosticism. To act as if we can have knowledge of the natural world and things in it, while acting as if we have no knowledge available to us from the supernatural realm, is effectively to act as if the supernatural realm does not exist or at least that no knowledge is available to us about it, which is precisely the agnostic point of view as opposed to the point of view of religions such as Christianity or Islam, which do claim that knowledge--much crucial knowledge--is available to us about and from the supernatural realm. Therefore, the embracing of this kind of neutrality by the government of the United States is in reality the establishment of agnosticism as the official religion of the nation.

Before we move on from this point, let me illustrate this claimed-neutrality-but really-agnosticism position as it plays out in public, government education, particularly in science classes as they deal with the subject of evolution. Public education, as an official arm of the U.S. government, illustrates what the nation’s so-called neutrality looks like in practice.

Let’s take a look at the website Understanding Evolution, which is a joint project of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education. The website is funded with public money and represents a public or governmental perspective on the subject of science and evolution. In the article on the website entitled, “The Nature of Science,” we run across this description of what belongs in science and what does not:
Science seeks to explain the natural world and its explanations are tested using evidence from the natural world. Birds and lizards are known to exist in nature and therefore fall within the scope of science. Elves and gnomes are great fun to read about and even to enjoy as statues in our gardens, but they do not dwell in the natural world. That means they are not appropriate for scientific study. The basis of any scientific understanding is information gleaned from observations of nature.

Science assumes that we can learn about the natural world by gathering evidence.
through our senses and extensions of our senses. A flower or a rock can be directly observed with no special aids. But using technology, we can expand the realm of human senses to observe such invisible phenomena as electricity and magnetic fields, and objects such as bacteria and faraway galaxies. Dreams, apparitions and hallucinations, on the other hand, may seem real but they do not arise from our senses and are not even extensions of our senses. The ultimate test of any conceptual understanding exists only in real materials and observations. Evidence is the basic stuff of science. Without evidence there is only speculation.17
Of course, the writers of this article are not concerned with people bringing elves and gnomes into science classes. “Elves and gnomes” is a phrase meant to stand in for “supernatural or religious beliefs.” Notice the clear agnostic (even atheistic) attitude expressed by this article. It puts belief in God and other religious beliefs into the category of elves, gnomes, dreams, apparitions, and hallucinations, which may “seem real” but which cannot be observed by the senses. The article equates “observation of the senses” with “evidence” in general and so dismisses all supernatural claims as “speculation” that has no evidential support at all. Notice that the article avoids making clear, explicit statements such as “God does not exist” or “The Bible is not a divine revelation.” This is because, as a document on a website expressing an official, governmental viewpoint, it must profess an attitude of neutrality in keeping with current interpretations of the First Amendment. But it is also obvious to anyone who is not dreadfully naïve that, as an attempt at neutrality, in the sense of truly not taking sides in any religious disputes, the article has failed miserably, for it has pretty clearly declared all supernatural beliefs to be based on evidence-less speculation and anything that cannot be observed by the senses (as naturalists would define this category) as unreal, thus contradicting the majority of religious beliefs on earth. The article illustrates, not true neutrality, but an official endorsement of agnostic naturalistic thinking, in keeping with the general implications of current understandings of the First Amendment.

Neutrality Is Impossible

The reason that such attempts at neutrality as we have been examining fail so miserably is because they are trying to do something that is inherently impossible and absurd. The fact of the matter is that neutrality in ethics, whether personal ethics or social ethics, is impossible. Different worldviews are going to lead to different conclusions on fundamental ethical issues. Which ethical conclusions are the right ones will depend on which worldview is true. If Islam is true, then it is a fact that the Creator and Ultimate Moral Authority of the universe wants all people on earth to cease from eating pork (which is forbidden in Islamic Law). If you do eat pork, your actions are declaring Islam to be a false religion, because you are clearly implying that you do not believe that Islamic Law comes from God, which is the foundation of the Islamic religion, without which it collapses into nothingness. If the Bible indicates that societies should not legalize same-sex marriage, and you want to legalize it, then you are declaring the Bible not to be a true, inerrant divine revelation, and thus declaring any version of Christianity which holds that it is (which would include all historic versions of Christianity) to be false.

The fact is that different worldviews, because they adhere to fundamentally and crucially important different beliefs about what is true, are going to lead to significantly different ethical principles and conclusions. There is absolutely no way to judge between these ethical principles and conclusions, to find out which ones are right and which ones we should adopt, either personally or as a society, without deciding on the truth or falsehood of the various worldview claims that are out there. Therefore, the most important and foundational question we need to ask in order to work out for ourselves and our society principles of ethics that we should live by is this: Which worldview claims are true, and which are false? There is no shortcut. We are going to have to take the time and the effort to examine the truth claims of various worldviews, looking at the evidence and the arguments, to figure out what is true. And once we think we know what is true, we will base our ethics and our laws on that, while rejecting false beliefs. We cannot avoid this task by taking the route of agnosticism, for agnosticism is simply one particular viewpoint among many other viewpoints. If agnosticism is right, then historic, orthodox Christianity is wrong, because Christianity is grounded on the claim that we can know many things about God, his nature, and his will. There is no way for a Christian to argue for Christian ethics--that is, ethics that flow from a Christian way of viewing the world--without first arguing for Christianity. And there is no way for an agnostic to argue for agnostic ethics--that is, ethics that flow from an agnostic way of viewing the world--without first arguing for agnosticism, which will involve arguing against the truth claims of all the religions that claim knowledge of truth in religious matters. I am going to spend the rest of this book talking about two particular worldviews, agnosticism and Christianity, and the different ethical principles and conclusions that flow from these two worldviews. We will see that the only way to tell which ethical perspectives are correct and which are not is to first figure out which worldview (if either of them) is actually supported by the evidence and which we therefore should regard as actually true.

1 See http://supreme.justia.com/us/403/602/case.html (from the U.S. Supreme Court Center at Justia.com) for the entire body of Lemon V. Kurtzman.

2 Judith Boss, Analyzing Moral Issues, Third Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 19.

3 Ibid., N-2 (in the endnotes).

4 John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 137.

5 Leif Wenar, "John Rawls", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = , accessed on 6/29/10 at 11:41 AM.

6 Ibid.

7 Political Liberalism, 150-151.

8 “John Rawls,” accessed on 6/29/10 at 12:40 PM.

9 Political Liberalism, 60.

10 Political Liberalism, 152-153.

11 John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, with “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 178.

12 Ibid., 132-133.

13 Chris Eberle, Terence Cuneo, "Religion and Political Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = , accessed on 6/30/10 at 11:59 AM. Note that Eberle and Cuneo are not necessarily endorsing the liberal critics’ criticism of the standard view. Their article is attempting to describe the different sides involved in debates over the appropriate role of religion in political theory.

14 Ibid.

15 Steven D. Smith, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 82.

16 Ibid., 89.

17 "The Nature of Science." Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 28 June 2010 .

The Impossibility of Governmental Neutrality in Religious Matters

This is an adaptation of a paper I read at the Intermountain Philosophy Conference at Brigham Young University in the Fall of 2011.

The United States of America prides itself on its religious neutrality. We tend to think it one of our great distinctives that we have the ability to craft laws and policies on grounds that are religiously neutral. Our laws, we think, do not discriminate against any religion. They do not endorse or reject any particular religion or worldview. We contrast ourselves with nations like Iran, which embraces a certain form of Islam as the official religion of the state and enacts laws in accordance with this worldview. Our policy of neutrality goes all the way back to the era of the founding of the country and was expressed by many of our founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. We have embedded the ideal of neutrality in our Constitution. Article VI says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”1 The First Amendment famously says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The current prevailing understanding of what this is saying includes the idea that the government is not to have an established religion or worldview. That is, the government is not to endorse one religious viewpoint over another or a religious viewpoint over a non-religious viewpoint or vice versa. The government is to remain neutral in matters of religion, not favoring or opposing anybody's worldview beliefs.

The Supreme Court has often reinforced this understanding, and a number of suggested tests for the constitutionality of various actions and policies are based on it, such as the Lemon Test (derived from the court case Lemon vs. Kurtzman), which says that any governmental action must have a secular purpose and a secular effect and cannot oppose or endorse religious views, and Sandra Day O'Connor's Endorsement Test, which says that a government action cannot “endorse” a particular religious or non-religious viewpoint. Justice O'Connor, describing how the government can violate the First Amendment by violating the Endorsement Test, put it this way in the 1984 court case Lynch vs. Donnelly: “The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. Disapproval sends the opposite message.”2 Many American legal scholars and philosophers have expressed the same position. Martha Nussbaum, in her book Liberty of Conscience, says that an “‘establishment of religion’ means that government has put its stamp of approval on some particular religion or group of religions, creating an official orthodoxy.”3 She states,
This is also a country that has long understood that liberty of conscience is worth nothing if it is not equal liberty. Liberty of conscience is not equal, however, if government announces a religious orthodoxy, saying that this, and not that, is the religious view that defines us as a nation. Even if such an orthodoxy is not coercively imposed, it is a statement that creates an in-group and an out-group. It says that we do not all enter the public square on the same basis: one religion is the American religion and others are not. It means, in effect, that minorities have religious liberty at the sufferance of the majority and must acknowledge that their views are subordinate, in the public sphere, to majority views.4
In another place in the same book, she says, “Indeed, in order to avoid endorsing one religion over another, or religion over non-religion, the state will wisely seek to avoid making public statements of either agreement or disagreement. It won’t say that the Roman Catholics are right, and it also won’t say that they are wrong about ultimate reality and the Buddhists are right. To say such things is to establish a public orthodoxy. The hope is that public institutions can be founded on principles that all can share, no matter what their religion.”5 The basic idea is clear: The First Amendment forbids the establishment of any religious or non-religious viewpoint as the official orthodoxy of the nation, which means it cannot engage in any action that would send a message approving or opposing any viewpoint. The First Amendment Center website sums it up in this way: “Although the Court’s interpretation of the establishment clause is in flux, it is likely that for the foreseeable future a majority of the justices will continue to view government neutrality toward religion as the guiding principle. Neutrality means not favoring one religion over another, not favoring religion over non-religion and vice versa.”6

My purpose here is to point out that the claim that the United States does not have an official, established worldview and is neutral in religious matters is actually false. It is an illusion, created by rhetoric and question-begging. The United States, just like every human society, does indeed have an established religion or worldview. Indeed, it cannot do anything else, as religious neutrality is actually impossible. I am certainly not the first person to make this argument. Others have and are continuing to make it, such as University of San Diego Law Professor Steven D. Smith. But I have observed that it is very difficult to convince people to accept it. This is actually not very surprising, considering how committed Americans are to the ideal of neutrality as a core part of our identity. Any attempt to show that such an ideal is an illusion and an absurdity is bound to be, to quote a phrase, an “inconvenient truth.” Nevertheless, if we are honest, and if we want to have intelligent conversations that avoid simply throwing clichés back and forth, we need to acknowledge it and embrace its practical consequences.

In order to make my argument, I would like to enlist the help of the NRA. Not the National Rifle Association, but the National Reform Association. This is an organization of Evangelical Christians which, since the 1800’s, has been advocating that the United States become an officially Christian nation. They have repeatedly petitioned Congress to amend the Constitution to recognize Jesus Christ as King of the nation. Here is their statement of purpose:
The Mission of the National Reform Association is to maintain and promote in our national life the Christian principles of civil government, which include, but are not limited to, the following: 1. Jesus Christ is Lord in all aspects of life, including civil government. Jesus Christ is, therefore, the Ruler of Nations, and should be explicitly confessed as such in any constitutional documents. 2. The civil ruler is to be a servant of God, he derives his authority from God, and he is duty-bound to govern according to the expressed will of God. 3. The civil government of our nation, its laws, institutions, and practices must therefore be conformed to the principles of biblical law as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.7
Now, imagine that a representative of the NRA—we’ll call him Greg--sends a letter to the US government, and you are appointed the official representative of the government to respond to him. Here is a synopsis of his letter:
Dear Civil Government of the United States, 
I would like to state to you a few facts and then call on you to adopt the correct response to them: 1. God exists. 2. God is the ultimate moral authority in the universe. His will is the supreme, objective moral law, so that his will determines what is ethically good and bad. Also, he is the supreme judge, so that disobedience to him will, in the end, inevitably lead to woe, while obedience to him will, in the end, inevitably lead to happiness. 3. The Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. 4. In God’s law as expressed in the Bible, God states that blasphemy is a sin, and it should not be tolerated by the civil government. This would include public advocacy of falsehoods such as atheism.
Greg then proceeds to provide some argumentation for all of these claims. He concludes,
Therefore, I call on you at once to put a stop to the public display of all those atheist signs that are going up all around the country, whether they be on billboards, on busses, or wherever. If you do not put a stop to this, you will be guilty of breaking God’s law, and thus you will be acting in a way that is morally wicked as well as bringing down damnation upon yourselves and doom to the entire nation (think Sodom and Gomorrah). 
Sincerely, 
Greg
Now, how are you going to respond to Greg? Of course, being a good modern American, you want to make sure that you will deal with this situation in a religiously neutral fashion and avoid creating an official national orthodoxy (even implicitly) that will say that anyone’s religious beliefs are wrong and thereby create an in-group and an out-group that fails to treat all people equally.

Perhaps you might say something like this:
Dear Greg, 
We can’t put a stop to the atheist billboards, because to do so would be to impose your religious beliefs on everyone else, and that wouldn’t be treating everyone’s beliefs equally. It wouldn’t be fair and neutral. After all, yours isn’t the only religion in the world. We should be fair and treat all religions equally. We don’t want to create a public orthodoxy where there are in-groups and out-groups. 
Yours, 
The United States Government
That sounds reasonable. But let’s see what Greg will say in response:
Dear United States, 
You are treating religions unequally right now by allowing the atheists to have their billboards. By allowing this practice to go on, you are expressing clearly the view that my religious beliefs on this subject are wrong. If you agreed with me that God himself, the ultimate moral authority in the universe, wants you to put a stop to the billboards, you would put a stop to them. So the fact that you are not putting an end to them sends a message that at least some of my religious beliefs in this area are wrong, which is setting up a public orthodoxy and putting me in an out-group. And besides, although you have failed to be neutral, even attempting to be neutral is not neutral, because God has declared that it is a sin to be neutral on these matters. So in trying to be neutral, you are really rejecting my viewpoint. 
Thanks again, 
Greg
Thinking about it, you see that Greg is right. By following a course of public policy that is at odds with what Greg thinks God wants, the United States is implicitly but clearly sending a message that Greg is wrong in some of his religious beliefs (perhaps that God exists, perhaps that the Bible is the Word of God, perhaps that God is the ultimate moral authority in the universe, perhaps that Greg’s biblical interpretation is correct) and that some other set of alternative beliefs (perhaps that God does not exist, that the Bible is not the Word of God, that some other interpretation of the Bible is correct, etc.) is right. Thus, in refusing to comply with Greg’s advice, the United States is not neutral; it is adopting an alternate set of beliefs as the official orthodoxy of the nation.

But you are not ready to give up yet. You decide to send Greg another reply and try again to be religiously neutral.
Dear Greg, 
I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be taking away anyone’s rights. But what you are suggesting would take away the rights of atheists to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. We are very much concerned to respect your rights, and the rights of atheists, and everyone else’s rights as well. If we have respect for equal rights, we won’t want to take away anyone’s freedoms, no matter what their race, gender, religion, or anything else, so long as they are respecting the rights of others and not causing any harm. 
Best wishes, 
The United States Government
That sounds like an effective response, doesn’t it? But then you get another reply from Greg:
Dear United States,
You are quite right; I do not want to take away anyone’s rights. But no one’s legitimate rights would be taken away if public expression of atheism were outlawed. You see, God’s law, as I have indicated previously, is the ultimate moral authority, and so it is the foundation, the true standard, for determining human rights. According to God’s law, atheists don’t have a right to express their views publicly. On the contrary, doing so is a crime to be punished. If you wish to preserve human rights and justice to the fullest degree, you need to follow God’s law, for it is the true standard of rights and justice. And as for causing harm—of course the public expression of atheism and the toleration of it will cause harm. For one thing, it is a violation of the honor of God, which God calls all civil governments to protect. The preservation of the honor of God is far more important than anything else. Also, the toleration of public atheism will lead to harm to the society and its citizens. For one thing, atheism sends people to hell; so if there are laws against indoor smoking to keep people safe from second-hand smoke, shouldn’t there be laws against advocating and spreading soul-destroying false doctrine? And if the government refuses to follow God’s law and instead tolerates this evil, God promises to avenge his wrath on the society itself, which will bring harm to all the citizens. 
Cheers, 
Greg
Once again, you realize with great frustration, Greg has a point. If his beliefs about God and his law are correct, then surely his conclusions are sound. To fail to follow Greg’s advice would be, from Greg’s point of view, to violate the true standard of social justice, to dishonor God, and to bring great harm to the society as a whole. If the country does not follow Greg’s exhortations, it is clearly communicating that it holds, not to neutrality, but to an alternate set of beliefs from Greg’s—for example, that God’s law as understood by Greg is not the real standard of ethics and social justice and therefore something else (but what?) is; that, contrary to Greg’s view of God’s law, atheists do have a right to express and promote atheism publicly; that the promotion of atheism is not ethically wrong; that it will not send people to hell; that it will not bring down disaster and wrath on the nation. It turns out that, just like Greg’s, the position of the United States is not neutral but rather is based on all kinds of underlying controversial theological and philosophical beliefs.

You decide to make another attempt:
Dear Greg, 
Look, there are lots of different religions in the world—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc. If we are going to establish a religion, why should it be yours? Why not Buddhism, or Judaism, or Islam? And why your particular brand of Christianity? There are many different interpretations of the Bible. Many Christians think that it is just fine for atheists to publicly speak about and promote their viewpoint. And many of them don’t think that God will send such people to hell or punish the nation for such things. If we try to establish an official religion, it might turn out not to be yours, and you might bring persecution upon yourself! Wouldn’t it be better to establish a set of laws that is religiously neutral and doesn’t try to establish any religion or outlaw any religion, so that you and everyone else can freely practice your religion? 
With anticipation, 
USA
Now you’ve got him, you think. Once again, Greg replies:
Dear USA, 
Sure, there are many religions and interpretations of the Bible out there. So what? I am not advocating that we establish all religions, but only the true one. And we should not try to follow every interpretation of God’s law, but only the correct ones. You will say, “But it is impossible to know which religion and biblical interpretation is true! There is no way to objectively adjudicate these kinds of questions. I mean, we can know what is objectively true in empirical and scientific matters, but not in religious and deep philosophical matters!” In saying this, you reveal your own religion—it is the religion of Agnosticism. It is your theological and philosophical opinion that objective truth cannot be had in religious matters. But that is not my belief. I believe we can know what is objectively true in religious matters, which is why I gave you arguments for my views in my first letter to you. You think you are opting for an established neutrality, but you’re not. Instead, you are advocating that the civil government of the United States reject my religious views and the religious views of others in favor of establishing Agnosticism as the official religion of the nation, and that it make laws not on the basis of God’s law but on the basis of some standard that you’ve come up with that seems to you to make sense from your Agnostic point of view, but which from my point of view is completely wrongheaded and unethical. As for your concern for my safety should the wrong religion be established, I am not sure I am permanently safe in a country that has adopted Agnosticism as its official religion, for this seems to me a weak foundation for civil rights of any kind. But we’ll save that discussion for another day. For now, I’ll say that even if you are right that I am personally safer in the short run and temporally if I rest quietly in this Agnostic society instead of advocating for what I believe to be true, yet there are things more important than safety—things like doing what is right and advocating social justice based on God’s law. And, in the end, I am much safer siding with God than going against him. 
Warm regards, 
Greg
Once again frustrated, you sit back and reflect on the conversation. However odd and irritating it might be, Greg is actually right, you realize. Your approach and your response to his claims are not neutral; they are based on contested theological and philosophical claims. You realize that Greg is right that your positions are indeed based on some form of agnosticism—you have assumed that there is no way that Greg can back up his claims objectively any more than any other religion. You are unsure if Greg’s biblical interpretations are correct, but you realize that even if he could convince you that they are, it would not affect what you think US policy should be—and this fact reveals clearly that your views are based on the assumption that there is no objective reason to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, contrary to Greg’s belief; for if you did take it seriously as such, you would want the USA to follow whatever it says. Greg, rightly, would label this a form of agnosticism. You try to come up with some other reasons you might be able to present to Greg—if atheists are denied the freedom to advocate atheism, it would make them unhappy; liberty of conscience should be granted; atheists might use violence to defend their desired freedoms—but you realize they all beg the question just as your previous arguments did. If Greg’s beliefs are right, then it is irrelevant whether atheists are unhappy (just as it is irrelevant to our laws against theft that they might make thieves unhappy). Liberty of conscience sounds good, but already consciences are limited. We would not, for example, allow murderers and thieves to roam free on the grounds that we don’t want to suppress their “liberty of conscience.” If public atheism is bad and harmful as well, it should not be tolerated on this ground either. If atheists revolt, whose fault is it? At first, you think that of course it would be the fault of an oppressive government. But then you realize that if Greg’s beliefs are right, it the atheists’ fault. Just as if there were a revolt of thieves, we would not think it the fault of laws against theft, but the fault of unjustly discontented criminals. You think also of the recent uprisings in the Arab Spring. How much blame we assign for violence, and to whom we assign the blame, depends a great deal on which causes we think are just and which unjust, and people’s views on these things are different. There is no neutral way to respond to Greg. To establish Greg’s beliefs as the basis of law would be to violate the principle of religious neutrality; but so would it be to reject Greg’s beliefs and have some other basis of law instead.

Of course, this fact—the impossibility of neutrality—does not just apply to the issue of the public expression of atheism, but to all other issues as well. Take same-sex marriage, for example. Some people think, on religious grounds, that homosexuality is a perversion of true sexuality and is wrong. Others think that it is perfectly acceptable. The former often hold the position that the government should not recognize same-sex marriages, while the latter often hold that it should. If the government were to oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that it is opposed to God's will and will bring God's judgment down on the society, this would clearly be a violation of the ideal of neutrality. It would send a message of endorsement of the beliefs of some people, such as evangelical Christians, over other beliefs, because it would be basing law and policy on these beliefs and not others. However, if the government accepts or endorses same-sex marriage, it is clearly doing so on the assumption that allowing same-sex marriage is not evil or harmful to the society, which is to endorse other people's beliefs over against the beliefs of the Christian evangelicals and others who think differently. It would send a message that some of the beliefs of some evangelical Christians and others are wrong and are to be officially rejected by the government. Neither policy—allowing same-sex marriage nor opposing it—is neutral, for both amount to an endorsement of a particular set of beliefs over against some other set of beliefs.

And although I’ve focused on examples of the civil government disagreeing with certain forms of Christian beliefs, these Christians certainly do not have a monopoly on being disagreed with in the name of neutrality. Our government disagrees with lots of other people’s beliefs as well. We also fail to be neutral towards certain forms of Anabaptist Christianity, such as those which hold that the Bible commands pacifism. We are not neutral towards those who think that the Qur’an is God’s Word and that nations have a duty to endorse Islamic Law. We are not neutral towards those atheists who think that it is quite clear that God does not exist and that religion is a great harm that the government ought to discourage by teaching atheism explicitly to its citizens. We disagree, in various ways, with the majority of people on earth. I would argue that our hypothetical character Greg is right—what many of us mean by slogans like “religious neutrality” and “separation of church and state” is really the endorsement of agnosticism as the official worldview of the nation. And yet the conservative, historic forms of just about all the major religions affirm a non-agnostic view, as they claim to know something about matters beyond the natural world. So how pretentious for us to think and to claim that we are neutral in acting on an agnostic view!

In order for a civil government to be able to have a coherent set of laws and policies, it must embrace a particular view of the world and reject competing views. It must make certain things legal and other things illegal based on ideas of what is truly valuable, what is truly harmful, what goals human societies ought to have, etc. A civil government can extend tolerance to some degree to those who disagree with its prevailing philosophy, but it will decide how much tolerance to extend based on its own prevailing philosophy, and thus we must always have the kind of situation which Martha Nussbaum deplores, a situation in which “minorities have religious liberty at the sufferance of the majority and must acknowledge that their views are subordinate, in the public sphere, to majority views.” And if those minorities' views lead people to cross the boundaries of tolerance as determined by the majority view, the government will express intolerance towards such actions and such views, even if the minorities express that according to their worldview, what they are doing is completely acceptable and even virtuous. One example of this situation is the recent controversy over whether the religious practice of male circumcision should be tolerated. According to orthodox Jews and Muslims, circumcision of male newborns is the right thing to do, as God has commanded it. But many people are coming to other conclusions about the morality of this practice based on atheist and agnostic views. Which worldview will determine law and policy in this area?

So now that we can see the problem—we have an impossible illusion at the core of our self-identity as Americans—we need to ask the question: What are we going to do about it? There is no way we can avoid it. Neutrality is impossible. Whether we like it or not, our laws and policies will be based on certain controversial beliefs over against others. So I would suggest that we give up on the ideal of neutrality. But what is the alternative? Since we must base laws and policies on certain beliefs, I would propose we base them on true beliefs rather than false ones. That seems obvious. But it probably also seems terribly naïve. We are a pluralistic country full of people with diverse worldviews. We don’t agree on which beliefs are true and which are false. So what I suggest for now is that we open up public dialogue about which worldview beliefs are really true. We should all attempt to present and argue for our perspectives, bringing to the surface the underlying worldview assumptions that are the ground of them. We should listen to the arguments of others, and try to persuade others that we are correct and that they should join us in trying to base laws and policies on our beliefs rather than alternative ones. In our hypothetical dialogue, Greg did this. He presented his opinion and showed and argued for the assumptions on which it was based. But you (as our hypothetical government respondent) did not. You begged the question by assuming an agnostic worldview while claiming neutrality. What you should have done is say something like this:
Dear Greg, 
I understand your reasons for wanting to outlaw the public advocacy of atheism, as you hold that God is opposed to it and threatens judgment if we tolerate it, etc. But where you go wrong is in thinking that we have any objective reason to think that the Bible is really the Word of God and that therefore we should obey it. Actually, there are no good, objective reasons to believe this. Here is my response to your arguments, showing that agnosticism is really the correct way of looking at things. [At this point, you present some evidence for your agnostic point of view.] Therefore, on this agnostic basis, I see no good reason to outlaw the public advocacy of atheism. And that is the official position of the United States. 
Best of luck, 
The USA
Will this kind of response lead to difficulties? Well, it will certainly make it harder for us to argue for our political viewpoints! But that is a good thing, for what we have been doing is trying to win by using question-begging rhetoric and sweeping the real, deeper issues under the rug. We will have to stop doing that and embrace a more honest approach. Will this approach lead to conflict? Perhaps. But I think it is the right thing to do even if it does, as it is the only way to show true respect to others rather than trying to manipulate public life through dishonest rhetoric. And I think that our current approach—pretending our view is neutral and trying to silence opposition by using rhetorical labels, etc.—is not that great at avoiding conflict. I suspect that people like Greg just might feel a bit more respected if they were given an honest argument for the rejection of their religious beliefs and allowed to make an argument in response rather than having their beliefs rejected patronizingly in the name of “neutrality” while being given no argument but only rhetorical pejorative labels. Right now, there are culture wars in this country. They aren’t going to go away by pretending that we can all agree without having to deal with any of the deepest religious and philosophical issues from which they spring. We could, instead, deal with them head on by allowing and encouraging the truly important dialogues to occur. If we wish to be honest, I think we have no other choice.

1 Found at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html at 2:09 PM on 8/23/12.
2 Found at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=465&invol=668 at 2:13 PM on 8/23/12.
3 Martha Nussbaum, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 20.
4 Ibid., 2.
5 Ibid., 23.
6 Found at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/establishment-clause at 2:35 on 8/23/12.
7 Found at http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/g-823.html at 3:03 on 8/23/12.