Today’s guest blogger is Timothy P. Manatt. Timothy is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he studied comparative philosophy of religion. He currently lives in Chicago with his better half and is working on numerous writing projects.
Two years ago Senator Barack Obama gave a speech on faith and politics in which he stressed the reality and importance of religious pluralism in a democracy and argued that “religiously motivated” citizens must “translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” Religious people, Obama claimed, cannot merely point to church teachings or evoke God’s will when proposing legislation on contentious issues such as abortion. Instead, they need to appeal to principles that are “accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
Recently, however, the founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, railed against the senator’s speech, accusing him of saying that “it is anti-democratic to believe or fight for moral principles in the Bible that are not supported by people of all faiths or presumably by people of no faith.” Dobson was quick to contrast this claim with the Constitution, which purports to value the freedom of religious expression.
As one who was intimately engaged in addressing the many xenophobic responses following 9/11 and who is now involved in an inter-religious marriage, I remember being delighted when I first heard Obama talk about pluralism in America. “It’s about time a political candidate spoke like this about religion,” I thought.
But I must admit that Dobson, though he represents a religious ideology very different from my own, has managed to highlight a very important critique of Obama’s argument. The demand for religious people to limit their public discourse to purely secular, universal principles not only seems based on an unfair assumption that religious reasons and premises are to be considered immediately illegitimate but is also unrealistic in a country as truly diverse as ours.
Religious or not, our arguments for policies are always dependent upon vocabulary, logic, and axioms unique to our particular historical-cultural contexts. So for contentious issues like abortion, it is unrealistic to assume that any universal premises for adjudication exist, and thus, it seems hypocritical to exclude idiosyncratic religious premises in favor of idiosyncratic non-religious premises as if they were universal.
So what’s the solution? How can we encourage interfaith dialogue on public policy issues without predetermined universal principles of adjudication? One possibility is to follow the “piecemeal, pragmatic approach” of American philosopher, Jeffrey Stout. Debates will be more fruitful, he claims, if we begin by keeping the scope narrow and searching for “local similarities” between particular moral traditions, rather than “global uniformities” among them all. Whenever such similarities cannot be found, however, we must proceed by offering careful and respectful “immanent criticism,” arguing not from some universal perspective but from the distinctive context of our interlocutor and showing them how their own premises should lead them to the same conclusions as ours.
By engaging in Stout’s piecemeal pragmatism, we may be able to capture the true spirit of pluralism that Obama intended by acknowledging and respecting our differences, thus making us more likely to utilize our similarities for the common good. Perhaps even Dobson himself could eventually embrace this method for addressing pluralism in America.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.
(A weekly feature which highlights a group or activity bridging the faith divide.)
The Interfaith Youth Core encourages people to tell their stories, because stories are an important part of who we are. Our lives are shaped by the stories we hear and tell to others. We communicate through stories, and we view the world through stories.
Do you have a great story about an interfaith friendship? Do you have a story about what it means to be Muslim in America? Want to tell your story? Here’s your chance.
The “One Nation, Many Voices” Online Film Contest asks you to submit short videos illuminating the American Muslim experience and the values of liberty and justice, upon which America was founded.
Everyone in the U.S. is invited to compete, regardless of race or religion, so grab a camera, visit the website at www.linktv.org/onenation for the complete Rules and Regulations, and get filming! You could win some of the $50,000 in prizes, and every finalist wins a Flip Camera. The deadline is September 26, 2008.