State Neutrality and Religion in the Public Sphere

Political theorist Jurgen Habermas states that the religious voice is welcome into the public sphere, but this voice requires translation if it is to be received and have influence in that sphere.  But, what is the nature of this sphere?  What role does the state play in this sphere?

The First Amendment of the US Constitution suggests that the state will not establish any form of religion or impede the freedom of Americans to worship as they please.  The question that has been raised historically, but more specifically in recent years, concerns the level to which religion can be present in the public square and what form that can take?  

Thus, is it appropriate for schools to require students to pray?  The Courts have held that while students can organize themselves for prayer, the schools cannot organize them for prayer.  

It's really a tricky thing -- this interaction between religions and the public sphere -- especially in one that is rather pluralistic (and becoming increasingly so).

I want to throw into this discussion the voice of another philosopher and political theorist -- Charles Taylor (a Canadian).  In a piece entitled "Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism," Taylor writes that in a pluralist society some kind of neutrality or "principled distance" needs to be kept between religion and the state.  

So, as a way of approaching this question he points to the French Revolutionary trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity:

1.  No one must be forced in the domain of religion or basic belief.  This is what is often defined as religious liberty, including of course, the freedom not to believe.  This is also described as the "free exercise" of religion in the terms of the U.S. First Amendment.  There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic beliefs; no religious outlook or (religious or areligious) Weltanschauung can enjoy a privileged status, let alone be adopted as the official view of the state.  Then 3.  all spiritual families must be heard, included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity), and how it is going to realize these goals (the exact regime of rights and privileges).  This (stretching the point a little) is what corresponds to "fraternity" [in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, pp. 34-35]

This appears to be a workable solution -- the state invites the voices of all faiths as well as those who profess no religious position to come to the table.  No one's position is favored, but all are equal and included.  Of course, in the United States, where Christianity in all its variety, remains the dominant expression of religion, we've found it difficult to maintain a balance.  Fifty years ago, Mainline Protestants had a major voice in creating the social/cultural dynamic.  Today, their voice is muted, and other voices, including conservative evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics seem to be making more noise.  But is their influence greater than before?

So, what should the relationship of state and religion be in an increasingly pluralist setting?  Should we push the religious voice out, or find a way to accommodate it?  Perhaps by finding ways of translating that voice into more secular forms?

N.B.:  As you ponder this question you may find it valuable to check out John Fea's article contrasting the moral visions of Santorum and Obama.  


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