off the cuff:

The naked public sphere?

posted by The Editors

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke this past Sunday on Meet the Press about the role of religion in the American public sphere:

The idea that people of faith should not be permitted in the public square to influence public policy is antithetical to the First Amendment, which says the free exercise of religion – James Madison called people of faith, and by the way, no faith, and different faith, the ability to come in the public square with diverse opinions, motivated by a variety of different ideas and passions, the perfect remedy. Why? Because everybody is allowed in.

And on This Week, Santorum affirmed an earlier statement about his reaction to President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on his religion:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?

In light of Santorum’s recent comments, we asked a small handful of scholars about the status of these and related claims regarding religion in American political life. Just how “naked” is the American public square? What is the appropriate place of religion in the public sphere?

This page was updated on 3/8/2012—ed.

Our respondents are:

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

John L. Esposito, Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University

John H. Evans, Professor of Sociology and and Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

Philip S. Gorski, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research, Yale University

R. Marie Griffith, Director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics and Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis

Cristina Lafont, Wender-Lewis Research and Teaching Professor of Philosophy, Northwestern University

Nancy Levene, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University

Nadia Marzouki, Jean Monnet Fellow, European University Institute

Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies, Duke University

Justin Neuman, Assistant Professor of English, Yale University

John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, Missouri State University

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Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law

Rick Santorum seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, by privileging his religious views at the expense of other views in the public square. It is neither true nor practically possible in the United States to prevent religious views from coming into the public square to influence public policy. There is no prior censorship or “policing” of views in the public square, to permit non-religious and exclude religious views. What is not and should never be permitted is to protect any views from contestation because some of us believe them to be “religious.” If any views are to influence public policy, they must do so by being persuasive to all citizens, regardless of religious belief or lack of it. The logic and process of reasoning in the public square should be accessible to all citizens and not only to religious believers on their internal terms. Calling views religious emphasizes their inaccessibility to non-believers, thereby insulating them from critical evaluation. The rhetoric of disenfranchised religion seeks to perpetuate an establishment of one religion under the guise of saving it from unfair exclusion. The way forward for all Americans is to acknowledge and regulate the connectedness of religion and politics in order to ensure effective disestablishment of any religion by the state. The pretense of unfair exclusion of religion from politics is the Trojan horse of the establishment of religion.

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Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

Each passing week of the Republican primary season brings an amplification in rhetorical appeal to the highly, or should I say severely, conservative base dominated by white evangelical voters. When insurance-mandated contraception coverage for employees in Catholic colleges and hospitals can get co-opted as an issue of religious liberty (notwithstanding the brutal irony that since the 1970s the vast majority of American Catholics use contraception and believe that one can be a good Catholic without adhering to the Vatican’s opposition to contraception), we should be on high alert for other instances in which democratic ideals are strategically hijacked for partisan gain. Rick Santorum’s recent comments about religion in public life and how he was sickened by JFK’s call for the separation of religion and politics can be seen in this vein. In the current political landscape portraying Democrats as anti-religion, Santorum struck a blow against President Obama (whom earlier in the week he accused of a “phony theology”), the Democrats, and their iconic figure JFK. The same comments also quite efficiently struck against his immediate rival, Mitt Romney, whose minority religious views as a Mormon continue to be a source of concern for many evangelicals. Not coincidentally, Romney has dealt with the looming shadow of his religious identity by emulating the tack used by JFK; namely, asserting the differentiation of church and state as legitimate separate spheres.

Claims regarding religion in American political life always have to be understood in context. JFK had to say what he said in 1960 if he were to have any legitimacy among highly skeptical and indeed prejudiced Protestants who were long accustomed to thinking of Catholicism as  anti-democratic and anti-American, and who feared that JFK would enact policies only if they had Rome’s imprimatur.  It was strategic of JFK and indeed a bold move.  It anticipated a key doctrinal shift subsequently made by Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) when they eloquently elaborated principles of religious freedom, individual conscience, and the rightful differentiation of church and state.

Differentiation, theoretically, produces integration, not exclusion. The differentiation of church and state does not mean that religious individuals or institutional voices have no place in politics or the public sphere. Quite the contrary. They have the same democratic right as secular individuals and organizations to articulate views about the issues at hand.  The democratic procedural expectation, however, is that they do not merit exemptions or opportunities denied to the non-religious. The public square can never be naked; it is inevitably clothed in the religious and religio-cultural strands woven into any given societal context and this shapes who speaks, what is said, and what makes sense. The challenge is to make room for and listen to the Other and to refrain from accusing others a priori of phony religious theologies or secular ideologies.

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John L. Esposito, University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University

Statements like, “To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up” and “What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” reveal the extent to which Rick Santorum plays to the religious right. He remains an ideologue and demagogue whose outbursts and rhetoric play on and appeal to the prejudices, fears, and emotions of people, like his propensity for Islamophobia.

Santorum seems to have missed American history classes in school and to have been asleep for the past few decades of American politics. While America has an institutional separation of church and state, it most certainly has not witnessed a separation of religion and politics or public policy. We have had ordained ministers such as Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson run for president, had robust debates in Congress and society over birth control, abortion, school prayer, and stem cell research, in which religious actors and organizations have been influential participants. The Christian Right and similar groups have played active roles in these issues as well as other religious issues in electoral campaigns and have weighed in on appointments to the Supreme Court.

Santorum’s strategy, while attractive to many voters in Iowa and South Carolina, will backfire nationally among moderate Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.

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John H. Evans, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

Rick Santorum recently said that then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s statement on the separation of church and state made him want to throw up because he claimed that Kennedy wanted no influence by religious people in public life. This is typical campaign hyperbole aimed at motivating the religious right through allegiance to one of its founding myths—that religious conservatives are increasingly and literally barred as religious citizens from participating in the public sphere. I could deconstruct this and find a much more subtle and limited truth-claim in Santorum’s statement, but I think that what is most interesting is that Santorum felt he could repudiate his fellow Catholic’s statement about church and state.

Kennedy made this statement to assuage the anxiety of conservative Protestants in voting for a Catholic president. The Pope, it was claimed at the time, would pull the strings of Kennedy the marionette. Now, fifty years later, not only does Santorum not need to claim that he is independent of the Pope, but by rejecting Kennedy’s statement he actually scores points with conservative Protestants. This not only represents the decline of anti-Catholicism, but the declining importance of background theological conceptions to conservative Protestants.  As long as Santorum takes the substantive policy positions they agree with, conservative Protestants apparently do not care that he takes inspiration from the Catholic Magisterium and not directly from the Bible as they do. Perhaps if Romney had been consistent on conservative social issues they would not oppose his underlying Mormonism. So, I’ll take this kerfuffle as evidence of limited progress towards religious tolerance in the U.S. If the religious right has indeed learned to get beyond their deeper theological differences, in my more utopian moments I wonder if they could use this experience to become more tolerant of additional religious traditions underlying people’s policy stances, such as Obama’s mainline Protestantism or Islam.

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Philip S. Gorski, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research, Yale University

Rick Santorum has a point. People of faith should be allowed into the public square, and they should not have to check their faith at the gate. Those liberal secularists who claim that “America was founded on the separation of church and state” and that religious people must adopt a (purportedly) “neutral” language of “public reason” in the political realm have a poor understanding of the First Amendment and an illiberal understanding of political speech. Legal and intellectual historians such as Noah Feldman, Philip Hamburger, and Steven Green have convincingly shown that the doctrine of “total separation” is an invention of the 20th century, not the legacy of the framers. And philosophers and theologians such as William Connolly, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Jürgen Habermas have persuasively argued that discursive restraints on religious speech cannot be defended on liberal grounds.

But Santorum is also running through an open door. The doctrine of total separation may still have some purchase within the judiciary, and some diehard defenders within the academy, but it is a minority view within the broader society. This is an extraordinary development. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy gave his speech on faith and politics, leading universities such as my own still had Jewish quotas, and American Catholics were still viewed as a fifth column. A half century on, the Supreme Court is dominated by Catholic conservatives and Jewish liberals, and a Mormon and a Catholic are the leading candidates for the Republican nomination. These days, it is people of no faith who are most likely to be locked out of the public square.

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R. Marie Griffith, Director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics and Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis

Rick Santorum’s blatant distortion of John F. Kennedy’s historic speech reveals the paranoid underside of far-right Christianity in the U.S. People of faith play major roles in all arenas of public life, including policy making; just because they do not share Santorum’s particular brand of theology doesn’t erase them from view. What Santorum wants is a theocracy in which Catholic dogma is the rule of the land—something, incidentally, that the vast majority of U.S. Catholics do not want. What an irony that Santorum singled out the nation’s first Catholic President as his scapegoat. Among other grave dangers, Santorum now risks rekindling the latent anti-Catholicism of the American religious and secular left—a move that would do his Church and its people far more harm than good.

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Cristina Lafont, Wender-Lewis Research and Teaching Professor of Philosophy, Northwestern University

Rick Santorum is certainly right when he claims that “the idea that people of faith should not be permitted to make their case in the public square in order to influence public policy is antithetical to the First Amendment.” He appeals to the “free exercise of religion” clause, but simply on “freedom of speech” grounds it seems that the case is closed. This indicates that what is at issue in this debate is not whether citizens of faith are permitted to make their case in the public square but rather what it takes for citizens to legitimately make their case in order to influence public policy. The issue is not that citizens of faith should exclude their religious convictions from public debate, but that appealing to religious convictions alone is insufficient to justify the imposition of coercive policies on secular citizens and citizens of different faiths who have an equal right to be co-legislators but do not share those convictions. Thus, citizens of faith who participate in political advocacy in the public square can appeal to religious reasons in support of the policies they favor, provided that they are prepared and able to show that these policies are compatible with treating all citizens as free and equal and thus can be reasonably accepted by everyone. Citizens of a constitutional democracy cannot make their case in favor of coercive policies on the basis of their religious convictions alone, since they are constitutionally bound to only support those policies that can be shown to be compatible with the constitutional principles of freedom and equality (i.e. with the equal protection of the fundamental rights of all citizens). Thus, citizens of faith who participate in the public square in order to influence public policy must ultimately rest their case on the basic democratic values that they share with secular citizens and citizens of different faiths.

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Nancy Levene, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University

“I have often wondered that men who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, which is a religion of love, joy, peace, temperance, and honest dealing with all men, should quarrel so fiercely and display the bitterest hatred towards one another day by day, so that these latter characteristics make known a man’s creed more readily than the former… In seeking the causes of this unhappy state of affairs, I am quite certain that it stems from a widespread popular attitude of mind which looks on the ministries of the Church as dignities, its offices as posts of emolument and its pastors as eminent personages. For as soon as the Church’s true function began to be thus distorted, every worthless fellow felt an intense desire to enter holy orders, and eagerness to spread abroad God’s religion degenerated into base avarice and ambition. The very temple became a theater where, instead of Church teachers, orators held forth, none of them actuated by desire to instruct the people, but keen to attract admiration, to criticize their adversaries before the public, and to preach only such novel and striking doctrine as might gain the applause of the crowd… Surely, if they possessed but a spark of the divine light, they would not indulge in such arrogant ravings, but would study to worship God more wisely and to surpass their fellows in love, as they now do in hate.” —Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

“[F]or he who loves God without faith reflects upon himself; he who loves God in faith reflects upon God.” Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

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Nadia Marzouki, Jean Monnet Fellow, European University Institute

“Everybody is allowed in,” says Rick Santorum…so long as, one might add, their views and conducts do not disturb me. Rick Santorum has been one of the most vocal supporters of the anti-Sharia campaign and claims that: “Sharia is incompatible with our jurisprudence and our constitution.” He participates in the movement launched by pundits and activists  such as Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney, and Brigitte Gabriel to recast the past distinction between good and bad Islam into an even more incendiary distinction between  Sharia as a political-legal system and “spiritual Islam.” There is something sadly ironical to Santorum’s call for the inclusion of religions in the public sphere, when he so clearly advocates for a complete invisibilization and neutralization of Islam.

Moreover, although Santorum poses as the defender of those who want to make communitarian arguments against the so-called hegemony of secular-liberal individualism, he actually reinforces the very worldview that he claims to combat. First, his statement is based on the assumption that there is an obvious distinction between the full and rich realm of faith, and the deserted field of non-faith/secularism. In a very Platonistic perspective, he imagines the possibility of a naked public square that is waiting to be covered and filled with faith-based values, even though such a “naked” space has never existed outside of the embattled fantasies of secular and religious extremists.  Second, this understanding of the relation between faith and the public square reaffirms a typically neoliberal vision of the public sphere as a free market of ideas, where  any individual can and should fight for her inner convictions. By suggesting that the improvement of American politics entirely rests on the rights of (some) individuals to express their faith, Santorum skillfully eludes the more pressing issue of the structural inequalities that keep so many out of the public square.

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Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies, Duke University

I do not like Rick Santorum’s politics. Nor do I understand the moral credo underlying his views on reproductive rights. I leave it to the public to reward or punish him for his views at the polls. Yet, his provocative and hyperbolic comments challenge prevailing orthodoxies of Euro-American political philosophy: the inability to have an honest debate about the place of religion in the public sphere. The words of an eleventh century thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, resonate. “An intelligent adversary,” Ghazali said, “is preferable to a naive friend.”

Most thinkers inadvertently or intentionally become statist in their preferences when it comes to discussing the place of religion in the public square. How? By adopting a definition of religion that serves the paramount interests of the nation-state. That view relegates performed religion to the private or communal spheres. In reality this is just a case of smoke and mirrors. This is going to happen more frequently as strong evaluations, to cite Charles Taylor’s felicitous phrase, are pursued by a variety of publics. The nation-state and its defenders might want to get their act together without suffocating debate by retreating various artifices at its command.

A variety of publics are no longer satisfied with generic “store-brand” versions of political and social morality. A public sphere that does not entertain the substantive value commitments of citizens is like driving in bad weather where the smoke has turned into unbearable smog. Accidents are bound to happen.

Is it not transparent that our public sphere is replete with theological doctrines and faith claims laundered as the secular? That kind of dissimulation has indeed perverted secular political and cultural discourses. Often, for opportunistic reasons, politicians pretend to be secular when their proclamations are deeply religious. Newt Gingrich is exhibit number one of this fraudulence. When he claims that Sharia is the enemy of the constitution, what he really wants to say is that he hates Islam and Muslims. At least Santorum had the courage to say what he believes. Then, at least, we can substantially engage him for his beliefs, ideas and values.

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Justin Neuman, Assistant Professor of English, Yale University

It bears reminding, given the sensitivity of Rick Santorum’s gag reflex, that nothing in the Constitution (or even in Mitt Romney’s recent speeches) can be construed as limiting the presence or the voice of people of faith in the public square. Despite his claims on Meet the Press, no one—least of all Mitt Romney—has said that “people of faith should not be permitted in the public square.” Santorum’s strident critique of political secularism thus rests upon a series of deliberate misreadings, straw men, and manufactured affects. On our last time around the Ferris wheel of the Republican primary process, when he was having an even harder time courting a skeptical electorate, Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech affirmed the importance of religion in public and private life while assuring voters, like Kennedy before him, that specific doctrines and Church authorities would not be the basis of his public policies. In his analysis of Romney’s speech in a column for the Philadelphia Enquirer in 2007, Santorum favorably compared Romney’s position to Kennedy’s, though he faulted Romney for not having adequately addressed the specificity of his Mormonism. What has changed in the intervening years? Alleging that his opponents want to keep people of faith out of the political process may be an effective way for Santorum to marshal the indignation of conservative Christians, but it is not an honest one. While religion will undoubtedly remain a visible and divisive part of the American political process, someone should remind the candidate that vomit, however, has no place on the public square.

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John Schmalzbauer, Associate Professor and Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies, Missouri State University

For presidential candidate Rick Santorum, the university is the enemy of Christian America. Arguing that professors “teach radical secular ideology,” Santorum claims that “62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.” Opposing President Obama’s efforts to expand access to higher education, he criticizes the “indoctrination that occurs in American universities.”

To this date, nobody has been able to locate Santorum’s statistic. While LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer reports that 70 percent of regular attenders drop out of church (35 percent subsequently return), he notes there is no statistical difference between college students and other young adults.

Sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker suggest that Santorum has it exactly backwards. In an essay commissioned by the Social Science Research Council, they report that “young adults who never enrolled in college are presently the least religious young Americans.”

This was not always the case. In the past, researchers found that college eroded religious participation. At the tail end of that era, Rick Santorum went to Penn State.

Much has changed in American higher education. Since 1990 Campus Crusade has tripled in size, while Hillels and Chabads have proliferated across the land.

At Santorum’s alma mater, the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center welcomes three dozen religious groups, including the Latter Day Saint Student Association and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Though American faculty remain less pious than the general public, people of faith are a growing presence in higher education. While born-again Christians make up one-fifth of the professoriate, two-thirds of elite natural and social scientists describe themselves as spiritual. At Princeton University’s James Madison Program, political scientist Robert P. George presides over a “Catholic renaissance.”

Far from a naked public square, the campus has become a bustling religious marketplace. Santorum should quit channeling God and Man at Yale and go back to school. He might like what he sees.

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