Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy

Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy

Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy

Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy


Prayer in public schools, abortion, gay and lesbian rights -- these bitterly divisive issues dominate American politics today, revealing deep disagreements over basic moral values. In a highly readable account that draws on legal arguments, political theory, and philosophy, Ronald F. Thiemann explores the proper role of religious convictions in American public life. He proposes that religion can and should play an active, positive part in our society even as it maintains a fundamental commitment to pluralist, democratic values.

Arguing that both increased secularism and growing religious diversity since the 1960s have fragmented commonly held values, Thiemann observes that there has been an historical ambivalence in American attitudes towards religion in public life. He proposes abandoning the idea of an absolute wall between church and state and all the conceptual framework built around that concept in interpreting the first amendment. He returns instead to James Madison's views and the Constitutional principles of liberty, equality, and toleration. Refuting both political liberalism (as too secular) and communitarianism (as failing to meet the challenge of pluralism), Thiemann offers a new definition of liberalism that gives religions a voice in the public sphere as long as they heed the Constitutional principles of liberty, equality, and toleration or mutual respect.

The American republic, Thiemann notes, is a constantly evolving experiment in constructing a pluralistic society from its many particular communities. Religion can act as a positive force in its moral renewal, by helping to shape common cultural values.

All those interested in finding solutions to today's divisive political discord, in finding ways to disagree civilly in a democracy, and in exploring the extent to which religious convictions should shape the development of public policies will find that this book offers an important new direction for religion and the nation.


The founders of the American Republic, although remarkably similar in background, ethnicity, and religion, were very aware that religious toleration and freedom could not be taken for granted. Because the dangers of religious persecution were fresh in their minds, these new leaders of a new nation took extraordinary care to separate the state and politics from faith and sectarianism. Madison, Jefferson, and their colleagues debated these issues with great intellectual seriousness and with a minimum of sloganeering or pandering, leaving us a remarkable record of their substantive arguments about these issues in their letters, speeches, and public documents.

The re-emergence of religion as a potent force in politics in the 1990s is very different, taking the form of news reporting and public discussion that is overwhelmingly characterized by two approaches: how does it affect whatever political "horse race" is in progress and how does it reflect the tactics and strategy of the political participants involved? in place of the Federalist Papers or Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," we are offered the latest polling results or fund-raising statistics. the great compromises that knitted the infant nation together are replaced, in this simplistic view, by base alliances of convenience and plain dealmaking.

We recognize that questions at the intersection of religious beliefs and political actions, especially when they are specific—for example, supporting or opposing federal funding of abortion—raise, for many Americans, very complex moral issues. We know, too, that the public policy implications of these debates inflame real passions and set in motion powerful political forces. But we find little guidance about how to think through constructive responses in the familiar rhetoric of most politicians or the superficial reporting of most of the media. the former, with some notable exceptions such as ex-Governor Mario Cuomo, usually avoid public explication of the moral reasoning behind their conclusions—perhaps because an elected official who agonizes out loud about even the most vexing aspects of morality arouses . . .

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