Don’t Worry, It’s Totally Fine to Invoke Religious Values in Policy Debates

I generally like Sarah Posner’s work, but her piece yesterday — assessing the debate over whether Paul Ryan’s latest budget for the House GOP can claim the Catholic tradition of subsidiary — goes off the rails:

These disputes — particularly for a religion reporter like me — are the stuff of fascinating and illuminating stories on religious history, theology and political gamesmanship. In a pluralistic democracy, though, they have no place in determining the federal budget.

No one’s religious view is entitled to preference when Congress is crafting the federal budget. To be sure, given the attention paid to the plight of the poor by the most prevalent religions in the United States, there are many politicians, and many citizens, whose faith would inform how they evaluate the priorities — or lack thereof — in the Ryan budget. At the same time, secular humanists, atheists, and other varieties of the non-religious also have a set of values on income and wealth inequality.

Progressives and conservatives should duke it out — but without invoking religion. The budget should be based on shared concepts of fairness and justice, not whether Jesus or God or Allah (oh, never mind, the Republicans would never go for that!) approves.

This passage is just strange to me. The unspoken assumption here seems to be that the mere presence of religious values in the public discourse forces non-religious people to adhere to those values. From there, Posner proceeds to the spoken conclusion that everyone should just keep religion out of the public discourse. Which is both logically silly and utterly antithetical to the values of a liberal democracy based on individual rights, free speech, and so forth.

There is also a practical problem with saying “the budget should be based on shared concepts of fairness and justice.” Few frameworks of value for determining what constitutes “fairness and justice” are more widely shared than religion. Now, not all Americans share that framework of value. But then not all Americans share the same framework when it comes to, say, whether free market capitalism does a good job dishing out just deserts in correspondence with merit.

It comes down to what Posner means by “shared.” If she means shared by every single American, there is no conception of fairness or justice that would meet that requirement. If there was one, we wouldn’t have political division, party disputes, or arguments over the morality of the budget in the first place. By contrast, if Posner means “shared by a broad enough chunk of the American population to be useful,” then religion certainly qualifies. Elevating an argument because it has a “religious imprimatur” is no different than elevating it because it was made by FDR, Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand, Marx, Lenin, the Founding Fathers or Alec Baldwin. Voters have all sorts of criss-crossing signals for what they consider authoritative voices and sources of legitimation.

There are lots of people in America who are Catholic, and even more who respect Catholic theology, and subsidiary helps crystalize our notions about government’s moral obligations towards the least fortunate, its effectiveness, and its proper role. Even from a pure numbers standpoint, this makes a debate over whether subsidiary supports or condemns Paul Ryan’s budget a very useful and germane one to have. There will be moments of tribal silliness and stupidity — like trying to tar Ryan with his admiration of Ayn Rand, not because her moral views were monstrous but just because she happened to be an atheist. But American political debates are always shot through with tribal silliness and stupidity along all sorts of vectors.

Plenty of Americans aren’t Catholic, plenty aren’t religious, and plenty don’t know and/or don’t care about subsidiary. They are all free to ignore this particular debate and base their support or condemnation of Ryan’s budget on whatever frameworks and conceptions of value they see fit. One side or the other will accumulate an ad hoc coalition of different-but-overlapping frameworks, and thus put together a voting majority sufficient to drive a policy decision. That’s the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy.


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