Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
An Alliance with Liberal
by David A. Hollinger
to my perspective on the issues at hand is my sense that for all the
variations on secular outlooks and on faith-based outlooks visible in the
United States today, there is a great potential for a political and cultural
alliance between secular liberals and religious liberals. Yet this potential
alliance is often obscured by two widespread assumptions, one among
religious liberals and one among secular liberals.
Many liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics continue
to believe that their big enemy is secularism, and that the evangelicals and
fundamentalists, however frustrating, are their deep allies. The community
of faith, in this view, is the salient solidarity, and within it all are
united against secularism.
On the other hand, many persons who identify as secular
are slow to recognize differences among their religion-affirming neighbors,
and tend to dismiss liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics as part of the
problem rather than as part of a solution.
I wish more secularists would realize that most of the
religious ideas actually espoused and defended by liberal Protestants and
liberal Catholics have accommodated with the post-Enlightenment way of
knowing that is still resisted by more conservative religious styles. And I
wish more of the enlightened faithful would recognize that a vast proportion
of secularists are operating under the same basic value structure that they,
the religious liberals, operate under.
But even when such a breakthrough is achieved, those of
us who have been speaking these past few years about the potential for such
an alliance have been divided about a strategic issue. Some believe that the
best way to consolidate and act upon this alliance is to avoid all
discussion of religious ideas as such, and to concentrate on issues in
public policy such as poverty, the environment, foreign policy, social
welfare, education, etc. In this view, we should accept our differences
about religion, appreciate the fact that faith as well as a secular outlook
can be a foundation for the same liberal politics, and go forward together.
But there is another view. In this alternate view, we
should openly debate religious issues as such in the hope that more of the
unenlightened will move from conservative and obscurantist religious ideas
to the kind of religious ideas characteristic of the liberal Protestants and
the liberal Catholics. Those who are attracted to this approach believe that
conservative politics are actually sustained by conservative theological
views (not always, but often enough to be a part of the problem).
In fact, religious ideas get a curious pass in American
society. They are protected from the same kind of scrutiny that we normally
give ideas about gender, the economy, race, and any number of other
If religious ideas had no impact on how people dealt with
public policy issues, they could indeed be ignored. But we are nowadays
constantly told that religious ideas are a vital ground for action in the
public square. If religion is relevant to public affairs, then should not it
be open for the same kind of critical discussion we offer to other kinds of
publicly relevant ideas?
Interestingly, many who urge more acceptance of religion
in the public square want skeptics to keep quiet, and in fact if you
actually go after someone's religious ideas you
are quickly accused of anti-religious bias. I find this stance highly
problematic. If the faithful are willing to say that we should shut up about
their ideas because, after all, they are private, then the faithful should
not proclaim the relevance of those ideas to public affairs.
As I imply above, I incline toward the second of these
strategic directions; that is, I favor a robust, open, critical discussion
of such things as the status of the Bible as a source of knowledge, the
sorts of warrant we might develop for the idea of the Atonement, etc.
Not all religious ideas are equally obscurantist. Many of
the ideas of liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics can stand up to the
same canons of evidence and reasoning that secularists use in their daily
lives. An open discussion of religious ideas might reveal that religious
liberals have a lot more in common with many secularists than they do with
the bulk of evangelicals and fundamentalists.
We need to remember that 80 percent of Americans declare
themselves to be Christians. It is a matter of some importance just what
kind of Christianity they espouse. All Americans have an interest in this
question. Religion is too important to be left in the hands of people who
believe in it.