Faith answering faith

Marion Maddox, Macquarie University

Steven H. Shiffrin The Religious Left and Church-State Relations, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009 (241 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-144-2 (hard cover) RRP $70.95.

On 20 May 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved new standards for the history, social sciences and economics curricula in public schools. The sharply-divided Board split on party lines to approve changes which play down the separation of church and state and remove its great advocate Thomas Jefferson from a list of political philosophers to be studied (replacing him with 16th century French theologian John Calvin, who taught that civil government is divinely ordained). The new standards remove reference to the Enlightenment, specify the dating system of BC/AD (Before Christ / Anno Domini) rather than the now more widely-used BCE/CE (Before the Common Era / Common Era), and replace descriptions of America as a ‘democratic society’ with ‘constitutional republic’. They also suggest that the McCarthyist witch hunts were justified, downplay the civil rights movement and add study of the Moral Majority, National Rifle Association, Heritage Foundation and Contract with America.

If the departure of former President George W. Bush was expected to signal an end to religious right influence in the American public sphere, these changes give pause for thought. The Texas Board’s Republican majority in May 2010 was dominated by self-described Christian conservatives, who explained that the changes bring the necessary balance to what they saw as the previous standards’ liberal bias. Although two of its most conservative members will leave the Board at the end of 2010, the changes they inaugurated will remain in force for the next decade. And, with a textbook market of 4.7 million public school students, some commentators expect Texas’s purchasing power to influence publishers’ output across the nation. As in the past, a Democrat in the White House does not mean the religious right disappears—it just turns its sights lower down the political structure.

During the Bush era, many progressive observers were alarmed by the erosion of traditional church-state separation in moves such as the outsourcing of welfare to ‘faith-based’ (almost invariably Christian) agencies and the launching of a new ‘crusade’ in Iraq. To many, such developments indicated religion run riot, and they saw the solution as reinforcing Jefferson’s imagined ‘wall of separation’ between church and state—less to keep government out of the churches (the main concern for Jefferson’s Baptist correspondents, to whom he wrote the phrase), than to keep God out of the public sphere. After all, if religion seems to be wreaking havoc on public life, surely the answer must be to keep it safely confined in private.

Insistence that Americans leave religion out of their political judgments seems unrealistic.

That is not the solution proposed by Cornell Law professor Steven Shiffrin, though he was as aghast as any secularist at what happened to the American social fabric under Bush. Shiffrin is a constitutional expert specialising in the US Constitution’s First Amendment, and his previous work has concentrated on its free speech clauses. In keeping with his longstanding defence of freedom of expression, Shiffrin maintains that: ‘The problem with religious conservatives is not that they participate in the political process. The problem is the substance of their theology and their politics’ (p. 6).

As much as parts of the secular left might prefer to imagine an America where religion does not matter, statistics suggest any such development is unlikely in the foreseeable future. While 90 per cent of Americans say that they pray and believe in God, and over 60 per cent say religion is ‘very important’ in their lives, insistence that they leave it out of their political judgments seems unrealistic. Instead, Shiffrin insists that ‘it is important to combat bad theology with good theology’ (p. 6). The most satisfactory answer to the religious right will come, he says, from the religious left. But that answer has been slow in coming, so Shiffrin sets out to defend religious liberalism, which he describes as ‘a form of liberalism which reaches liberal conclusions from religious premises’ (p. 2).

Being a constitutional specialist, Shiffrin cannot help first spending three chapters on the minutiae of the Free Exercise clause, the Establishment clause and their application. Readers who have followed American debates on these issues and are familiar with the exhaustive literature on landmark cases such as County of Allegheny vs ACLU (whose finding on the constitutionality of Christmas decorations he memorably summarises as: ‘if it is tacky, it is constitutional’ (p. 120)) and Elk Grove United School District vs Newdow will be pleasantly surprised to find a rare novel take on the constitutional questions. The American Constitution does give a special, favourable status to religion vis-à-vis non-religion, Shiffrin argues, and ‘separation of church and state is our Constitution’s way of protecting religions from being dependent upon, co-opted, manipulated, or even strongly associated with political leaders’ (p. 3). In other words, Shiffrin writes in the tradition of Roger Williams (1644/2001)—separation is to protect the ‘garden’ of the church from the ‘wilderness’ beyond its walls—but in full awareness of the ecological disaster (to continue Williams’s horticultural metaphor) which follows if the gardens (or their most aggressive species) invade the wilderness.

Shiffrin urges religious liberals and secular liberals to find common ground..

Suspicious of ‘system builders’ who love to oversimplify and over-systematise, Shiffrin seeks a careful balance between principle and pragmatism. He makes, for example, a persuasive case that ‘under God’, which was added to the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War, is not unconstitutional, but compelling school children to recite it is.

It would be a pity, though, if the rather technical opening chapters deterred readers who do not really care whether American public school children sing Christmas carols or buy their lunches with coins announcing that in God they trust. The book’s most interesting section (for those who are not primarily concerned with the US constitution) is Part III, where Shiffrin spells out what he sees as the religious left’s contribution to political debate.

In the process, he takes refreshing aim at the stifling Rawlsian ‘doctrine of public reason with its precious conception of respect, its inflated worries of instability, and its narrow emphasis on a particular aspect of legitimacy’ as ‘a theory at war with the needs of progressive politics’ (p. 116). Instead of obsessing about what may or may not be said in public debate, he urges religious liberals and secular liberals to find common ground in their shared commitment to justice. The politics of the Christian right are wrong not because they introduce religion into public issues, but because they widen inequality, increase child poverty, cause further suffering to already vulnerable minorities and contribute to environmental destruction. Its theology is wrong not because it intrudes into public debate but because it runs counter to the Christian Gospel’s humanitarian and anti-imperialist thrust. It is misguided not for paying too much attention to religious teachings, but for misrepresenting them.

The theocratic tendencies of the religious right are not only bad for atheists and agnostics, but also for religion itself. Cosy alliances between church and state are bad for both; but, Shiffrin argues, that is difficult to show without veering into theology: ‘in many contexts that argument requires assumptions about what the mission of religious people might be and what does and does not fit within the mission’ (p. 99), and there religious liberals are better placed than secular liberals to build the case.

Neither the courts nor government must be allowed to become theologians.

This concern might still sound remote from Australian readers; despite both major parties currently being led by regular churchgoers not shy of discussing their faith, the ‘mission of religious people’ could only occasionally be said to impinge on Australian public debate. Where Australian readers might feel Shiffrin touching a local nerve is in his discussions of immigration and religious diversity. Government use of Christian (or monotheist) symbols not only devalues the citizenship of atheists and agnostics, but also of Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans and many others. Increasing religious diversity may well only accentuate existing divisions. And, because religion is often seen as being at the root of the ensuing tensions, telling everyone to pretend religion does not exist is hardly likely to prove a successful social salve. Religious liberals are better-placed than secular liberals to make the argument as to why fundamentalists should not be able to impose their norms.

Shiffrin’s commitment to religion-state separation means that theological questions cannot be won or lost in court—neither the courts nor government must be allowed to become theologians, declaring one way or another on religious truth or making decisions on the grounds of a particular religious perspective. But he sees an important role for religion in opinion-shaping—at all levels of the democratic process, from the formal channels of political debate to the local bar.

And another thing: Shiffrin sees religious liberalism as a counterweight not just to heavy-handed conservative government, but also to capitalist acquisitiveness. He blenches at the cheapening of religion that he sees in its instrumental harnessing to authoritarian political agendas; and he blenches no less at its commercialisation. When city officials and chain stores collude to drape the streets in Christmas lights so as to boost profits and drive a culture of excess to even greater waste and greed, Shiffrin feels Christmas is made tawdry (pp. 120–121). Conceding that ‘religious perspectives’ have not been ‘very effective’ in opposing such tendencies, he adds that, ‘the counterweight to corporate dominance in this country needs all the weight it can muster’. Same here.


Williams, R. 1644/2001 The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for the Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference Between Truth and Peace, ed. R. Groves, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia.

Marion Maddox is the leading authority on the intersection of religion and politics in Australia. She is currently Director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. She holds PhDs in theology (Flinders 1992) and political philosophy (UNSW 2000), and has taught Australian politics and religious studies in universities in Australia and New Zealand.

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