President Eisgruber recently penned a letter to the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, urging the Committee to “refrain from interrogating nominees about the religious or spiritual foundations of their jurisprudential views.” The issue arose at the confirmation hearing of Amy Barrett, a Catholic law professor and nominee for a judicial appointment. In the hearing, Barrett was told that “dogma lives loudly within you,” implying that she would not perform her judicial duties fairly on matters where her faith informs her views, from abortion to the death penalty.
The idea that the public arena should be free of religious influence has long been present in American politics. In a speech that may have been the turning point of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, the Catholic JFK told a group of Protestant pastors, who worried that a Catholic president would be a puppet of the Pope, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute … where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference … I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair.” Motivated to be the first Catholic to assume the presidency, Kennedy conceded significant ground on this issue, setting the precedent that a Catholic politician ought to separate his religious views completely from his public duty. Today we observe a similar phenomenon — not with Catholics and Protestants, but in the tendency to expunge religion from the public square, disadvantaging religious believers to secular citizens.
Separation of church and state is important for American pluralism, but it is not as cut-and-dried or “absolute” as JFK’s speech might suggest. In April, I attended the oral arguments for Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the state cannot deny funding for secular purposes (in this case for a safer playground surface) to a kindergarten just because it was affiliated with a church. What this case rightly established was that while no particular religion should be favored, there should be no disadvantage to being religious in America. Contrast this with the situation in places like France, where the “absolute” separation of church and state forbids conspicuous religious expressions — from the hijab to the crucifix — in public schools.
The imposition of secularism may stem from a view of religion as nothing more than a matter of personal practice and cultural heritage, rather than a worldview and a system of beliefs. According to this view, one should respect another person’s religion in the same way one respects their family traditions or their cultural attire, but religious people should not impose their particular customs on others. The problem with this is that a religion, by its nature, makes truth claims that impact society and policy.
Thus, mandating that a religious person keep their faith “private” is to mandate the suppression of certain truth claims, thereby disadvantaging the religious person to the secular person. A religious person may face scrutiny for proposing policy that is consistent with their religious views, while a secular person is free to accept or reject policy according to their own beliefs about truth. For example, a person may be pro-life because they believe that all human life is sacred — this is not a scientifically provable viewpoint and is simply an axiomatic premise, whether religiously motivated or not. At the same time, the pro-choice person’s counterclaim that reproductive autonomy is a human right is also a matter of assumed premises. Either way, policy needs to decide between competing truth claims and should do so by facilitating exchange of different viewpoints on a level playing field.
Religion is often thrown around as a special category, but it is really not that special. Whether religious or not, everyone has some unprovable philosophy that is the premise for all their other viewpoints. Since complete neutrality is impossible, the claims of both religion and secularism must be evaluated on their merits. For example, it is invalid to claim religion as a defense for otherwise wrong practices. There should be no “religious exemption” for ritual human sacrifice or child marriage — the truth claims of these religious stances have lost out in the public square to the truth claims that affirm human life and freedom.
On the flip side, it is also invalid to claim religion as a disqualifying reason for an otherwise viable opinion. We must find a way to respect each others’ convictions while engaging with both religious and secular beliefs on the level of truth claims. This means that it is in the interest of religious people to find common ground with secular friends and present their views in an accessible form, while secular people should also seek to engage with these views while examining their own unverifiable presuppositions. Such an attitude is our best hope for keeping the balance of church-state interaction from the two extremes of compelling religion on one hand and infringing on religious freedom on the other.
Thomas Clark is a senior in computer science from Herndon, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.