About this Issue

What is the proper relationship between religion and public life? The question has bedeviled western civilization ever since the Roman Empire. A wide variety of answers exist in today’s world, from state-run churches to outright state persecution of minority religious groups. The United States observes a separation between church and state, but even the word speaks to a difficulty we face: “Separation” admits of varying degrees. How close is too close? And how far is too far?

Philosopher Kevin Vallier of Bowling Green State University suggests that libertarians need to think more carefully about the complicated territory between church and state. A propertarian approach will not suffice, he argues, and yet neither the left nor the right offers genuinely liberal solutions to the problems of religion in public life. Vallier recommends a set of principles that are at once anti-establishmentarian — there will be no official church — and yet protective of religious interests and even religious arguments on questions of public policy. He founds his recommendations on public reason liberalism, and on the need for multiple justificatory viewpoints in public policy.

Joining him to discuss these matters are Patrick J. Deneen of the University of Notre Dame, Maggie Garrett of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the libertarian skeptical author Michael Shermer.

Lead Essay

A Genuinely Liberal Approach to Religion in Politics

Few issues are more controversial than the proper role of religion in politics. In my recent book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, I have attempted to develop a genuinely liberal approach to religion in the political life of democratic societies, one that preserves a robust sphere for personal freedom, respects religious and secular persons as equals, and prohibits the state from promoting a particular vision of the holy, the true, or the good. To make my case, I begin by contrasting my approach with three more familiar alternatives: I term these the libertarian, religious conservative and secular progressive views about religion in politics. 

I. The Libertarian Approach

Given the venue, I begin by assessing the libertarian approach, or more accurately, what I see as libertarians’ lack of an approach to religion in politics.

The view I most often encounter is that religious belief is dangerous and should be excluded from politics. Objectivists are most aggressive on this front.[1] But the more general attitude is that religion in politics is uninteresting because democratic politics should be dramatically weakened or abolished; private property alone will then answer these questions. This attitude is based on a principled form of property-rights reductionism, where all that matters is whether property rights are being respected or violated. This view is a manifestation of thin libertarianism, which is probably still the dominant position in the liberty movement. The father of this approach was Murray Rothbard, who across his massive corpus of theory and commentary never penned a single piece developing a systematic libertarian approach to religion in public life. He may not have thought it necessary.

The libertarian approach has two virtues in contrast to other common approaches. First, it does not make an idol of politics.  Libertarians do not use politics to either establish religion or denigrate it. Second, libertarians recognize that much political participation amounts to little more than in-group bias and morally unappealing signaling.

The weakness of the libertarian approach is that it confuses politics and the state. Libertarians frequently forget that any free society is going to have both political disputes and deeply religious citizens. Politics and religion are not going away even if the state is abolished. And the role of religion in politics directly affects how any political process respects or violates liberty. If we are to ever have a libertarian society, we must find a way to speak to these conflicts. As Deirdre McCloskey has taught the liberty movement, rhetoric matters because it affects the structure of social and political culture. If we are to promote a culture of liberty, we need to figure out which forms of discourse are compatible with that culture and which are not. Libertarians, in short, need a theory of the public sphere.

II. The Religious Conservative Approach

Religious conservative approaches to religion in politics are typically establishmentarian. Religious conservatives across many societies, including democratic ones, seek some favored social or political status for their preferred religious view. In the United States, this often takes the form of civic theism – the view that good governments acknowledge God’s existence, His moral authority, and the objectivity of morality as rooted in His commands. The attempt to display the Ten Commandments in public spaces is a paradigmatic example of civic theistic legal policy, though coercive laws play a role as well, such as those that ban same-sex marriage.

The problem with the religious conservative approach is that giving a single religious view special political status is unfair to non-believers. Establishmentarian political policies fail to respect the equality of all persons by promoting some views and not others. Worse, some establishmentarian policies violate the rights of non-believers, as with attempts to interfere with science education in mandatory public schooling. Both believers and non-believers have a right to educate their children as they think is best. Mandating intelligent design interferes with this.

But there are also good religious reasons to oppose establishmentarian policies. As a theologically orthodox Christian, I don’t want the state to give my religion special political status. Historically, states have bent Christianity to support their own power and have distorted its doctrines and ecclesiastical structure. But more importantly, I don’t want my non-Christian friends to be treated as second-class citizens on Christian grounds. I believe that Jesus taught that all human beings, no matter who they are, are both loved by God and made in His image, and so have a dignity that demands respect.

Many of my conservative Christian friends and family will wonder why I’m opposed to having my nation honor God in its practices, but I don’t think a society can truly honor God by diminishing the social and political status of non-Christians. I think everyone has good reason, Christian or no, to reject the religious conservative approach.

III. The Secular Progressive Approach

The secular progressive approach reigns among intellectuals and theorists. It is this approach I critique in my book.

The secular progressive approach claims to embrace equality and state neutrality. On these grounds, secular progressives oppose religious influences in politics. Religious political activism violates our understanding of democratic politics as a shared enterprise of promoting mutually acceptable policies. Treating others with equal respect in politics requires appealing to reasons whose force all can appreciate. Since not everyone is religious, no religious reasons are shared reasons.[2] Consequently, good citizens do not appeal to religious reasons. Instead, they confine themselves to shared reasons when supporting political policies and discussing them with others. In this way, secular progressives assign religious reasoning an auxiliary role in public life, at best. This leads progressives to support a more private role for religious belief and commitment in general, a privatization of religious belief.

This line of argument has two problems. First, it leads to the marginalization of sincere citizens of faith. Secular progressives imply that deeply religious citizens have less civic virtue than secular citizens and insist that they bear heavier political burdens. Second, privatization requires many religious citizens to violate their personal integrity. To be good progressive citizens, many religious people must subordinate their religious commitments to the secular democratic state, which many cannot do in good conscience.

Because the secular progressive approach both marginalizes many sincere citizens of faith and demands that they violate their own integrity in public life, the secular progressive approach resembles the establishmentarian policies defended by religious conservatives. Whether they realize it or not, secular progressives seek to establish secularism as the de facto if not official ruling ideology of democratic states by insisting on a conception of political life that excludes many people of faith. In France, at least, the establishment of secularism is widely acknowledged and accepted. In the United States, secular progressives have been more circumspect.

IV. A Classical Liberal Approach

The problem with religious conservatism is its penchant for establishment. Secular progressives have the same authoritarian aim but are generally in denial about it. Libertarians lack any constructive theory of politics and the public sphere, though they rightly demythologize political life and are much more realistic about the prospects for constructive public discourse.

So what we need is an approach to religion in politics that is fundamentally constructive and anti-establishmentarian. This approach should preserve religious liberty and take a strong stand on the importance and/or dangers of religious contributions to politics. In my book, I argue that laws are only justified when multiple reasonable points of view find them acceptable. Diverse reasons, including but not limited to religious reasons, can play a prominent role in public discourse. Given that non-religious citizens and citizens of other faiths will reasonably reject nearly all religiously based coercion, religious reasons will seldom be sufficient to justify laws or policies by themselves. However, religious reasons will be able to defeat many laws and policies on religious grounds.

To illustrate my approach, consider how I apply it to same-sex marriage and the contraception mandate.

1. Same-Sex Marriage

Conservatives regularly attempt to legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that conservatives have both successful (but not indubitable) natural law arguments that explain why heterosexual marriage is the only morally permissible form of conjugal union and successful (but not indubitable) theological arguments that only a man and a woman can count as married in God’s eyes. On the theory I advance, these arguments cannot justify restricting marriage to a man and a woman given that such laws force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them.[3] This is because many people, religious and secular, can reasonably reject even good conservative arguments.

On the other hand, legalizing gay marriage without religious exemptions disrespects sincere citizens of faith by forcing them to provide benefits to gay couples whose unions they reasonably believe are morally and theologically invalid. Thus, my approach either requires the abolition of government marriage, or as a second best policy, the legalization of gay marriage with extensive religious exemptions. These two policies are the only way to respect the diverse reasoning of all concerned parties.

2. The Contraception Mandate

The contraception mandate, created by the Department of Health and Human Services in order to fully implement the Affordable Care Act, originally required all employers, save religious organizations, to pay for contraception for their employees. When a wide range of religious institutions objected, the Obama Administration partly backed off, instead forcing religious for-profit institutions to offer contraception coverage and permitting non-profit religious employers to be exempt only if they signed a form that (arguably) authorizes a third-party insurer to provide contraception. 

This mandate has been incredibly and needlessly divisive. There is no reason that the Obama Administration couldn’t have paid for contraception for women who need it in some other way. Instead, they have threatened non-profit religious institutions like Little Sisters of the Poor with massive fines unless they do what they believe is sinful – facilitating the use of contraception. This is the authoritarianism of the secular progressive approach made manifest.[4] 

Given that libertarian and conservative citizens have sufficient reason to reject many of the ACA’s main provisions, it is not even clear that the ACA itself can be justified to multiple, reasonable points of view. But even if the ACA can be so justified, the contraception mandate plainly cannot. Religious organizations have publicly offered highly sophisticated, well-reasoned and sincere arguments against the mandate drawing on hundreds of years of intellectual tradition. If religious reasons can serve as defeaters, as I argue, then a great many religious citizens have sufficient objection to defeat any justification for the contraception mandate, at least as it applies to them.


The role of religion in politics is to preserve religious liberty against an overreaching state and encourage religious contributions to the ratification of laws that promote justice and the common good. Religion belongs in politics primarily as defense, rather than offense, restricting state power rather than extending it. We can see this in my two examples. Religion in politics serves as a defeater for legislating traditional marriage and for legislating contraception provision by sincere religious objectors.

Further, a genuinely liberal approach to religion in politics permits political discourse and action as diverse as American citizens themselves.  Our public discourse should be far more uninhibited than secular progressives allow, so long as people are prepared to acknowledge that there are legitimate points of view other than their own. The only forms of religious discourse that are truly illiberal are those that insist that one’s own reasoning is sufficient to justify coercing reasonable people who disagree. But the same is true of secular discourse! This means that for true liberalism, religion is not the problem; coercion is the problem.

The classical liberal approach to religion and politics, then, avoids both overt and covert establishmentarianism. It bars efforts to give a particular religion, or even religion generally, a hallowed place in the law, while simultaneously resisting efforts to remove religion from the public square. Given its focus on restricting unjustified coercion, my approach does not make an idol of politics and does not insist that shared public deliberation is the sine qua non of a free, democratic society. I submit, then, that it is superior to the three more familiar approaches, libertarian, conservative, and progressive.


[1] See “The Ten Commandments vs. America,” “Faith-Based Initiatives are an Assault on Secular Government,” and Peikoff’s “Religion vs. America.”

[2] And neither are unshared non-religious reasons: the secular progressive approach excludes many libertarian views as sectarian and unreasonable.

[3] Conservatives sometimes frame legalizing same-sex marriage as adding to marriage law, creating something new. In a way, this is true. But legalizing same-sex marriage in combination with religious exemptions reduces legal coercion by permitting organizations to extend benefits to same-sex couples. The “addition” framing obscures the fact that in many cases legalizing same-sex marriage is more akin to repealing a prohibition.

[4] For a related and thoughtful discussion, see http://www.cato.org/blog/republic-gilead-not-night

Response Essays

Why Religious Conservatives Are the Last Best Hope for Limited Government

Kevin Vallier offers a clear set of distinctions between different philosophical approaches and arguments that variously seek to settle the relationship of religion and politics, church and state. He neatly divides four distinct approaches to this relationship – libertarian, religious conservative, secular progressive, and “classical liberal.” He finds the first three wanting; the first, because it lacks a real theory; the middle two, because each seeks to totalize their claims: Both seek to “establish” religion or expunge religious claims from the public sphere. He argues for the “classical liberal” model – presumably, hoping to bring libertarians and perhaps “religious conservatives” on board as well – concluding that what is needed is an approach that is “fundamentally constructive and anti-establishmentarian.”

Vallier writes as a philosopher and brings to the table the virtues and vices of his craft.  On the one hand, he is admirably clear about the distinctions between the various approaches and arguments. On the other hand, he seems finally to prefer the clarity of the arguments over the reality on the ground, at some points badly misstating the actual positions of these various actors, and in others missing the relationships between them. I offer this response as a corrective from the perspective of a political theorist, on the one hand attracted to getting the argument right, but on the other, recognizing that politics rarely consists of such neat categories.

To begin, Vallier offers an overly crude view of “religious conservatives,” particularly in his claim that they seek “establishment.” I would challenge him to name any church today, or any significant religious tradition in America, that is seeking outright a state “establishment” of religion. To have an “established church” has traditionally meant publicly recognized observance of the tenets of that religion, including preferential civic treatment of a particular church – for instance, public financing of ministers or religious schools – along with some form of punishment for non-observers. It is a promiscuous use of the word “establishment” to describe what are increasingly superficial efforts by believers to have largely anodyne and generally nondenominational religious symbols on display in public areas.

This position – what he mistakenly calls “establishmentarian” – used to be the position of classical liberals. Classical liberals held that a good and decent liberal society should move away from actual religious establishments and instead promote vaguely “Judeo-Christian” values. This was regarded as the more moderate, less sectarian solution to the challenge of religious pluralism. It followed the general tenor of the Founders and leaders such as Washington, Madison, and Lincoln, philosophers like John Locke (who disapproved of religious establishment, on the one hand, and argued for withholding toleration from atheists, on the other), and the creators of American public education, such as Horace Mann.

That this “classical liberal” position is now re-described as “religious conservative” suggests how far the debate has been moved, especially by the aggression of “secular progressives.”  Religious conservatives today occupy the ground once inhabited by “classical liberals,” defending territory that they found to be abandoned by “classical liberals,” who largely became secular progressives.  The same class that once occupied elite institutions throughout America – its main political class, and leaders of its schools, universities, newspapers, journals, businesses and belles lettres – once made the arguments that are being made by today’s “religious conservatives,” namely, the need for public morality grounded in vaguely “Judeo-Christian” values. But as America’s elite became more secular – for instance, disaffiliating almost all private educational institutions from their founding religious traditions – they became overtly hostile to any explicit religious expressions, even confusing largely innocuous invocations of symbolic religiosity (which their class once endorsed) with forms of “establishment.” 

Further, Vallier seems to be describing the concerns of “religious conservatives” of several decades ago, when it was believed that historically “classical liberal” commitments to religiously grounded moral norms were still defensible in the public sphere. The main action today is not to be found in the activities of those remaining few religious conservatives who are seeking to place the Ten Commandments in the public square. Instead, those people Vallier describes as “religious conservatives” have now fallen back to a defense of their “keep.” They are far less focused on seeking to shore up religious morality in public, but rather they are defending the right of religious liberty within their Churches and the ability to express religious beliefs within organizations that are unconnected with Church institutions (e.g., Christian groups at public universities) or more loosely connected (e.g., resistance to the HHS Mandate in Catholic and some Protestant universities, such as that of my institution, the University of Notre Dame).

What Vallier seems to miss is that there really aren’t any more “classical liberals.” They have become secular progressives. Consider, for instance, what has happened to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA was passed in 1993 by a unanimous House of Representatives and 97 Senators, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The act delineated a wide sphere for religious liberty, limiting government burdens upon religion only to instances when such burdens were justified by a compelling public purpose, and when no less burdensome means could be devised. In the intervening two decades, many one-time liberal supporters of RFRA now decry the use of RFRA to defend religious beliefs that they now find indefensible.  Senators who previously supported RFRA are now proposing to amend it to limit its scope.  Some commentators have even gone so far to argue that RFRA was meant to protect small, minority religious groups such as the Indian tribes who sought to use peyote – not Christians, who constitute a “majority” religion.

By delineating a set of separate “arguments” as if they were unrelated to each other, Vallier wholly misses the inherent tendencies within liberalism toward “secular progressivism,” and thus ends up promoting a position that few people are likely to embrace today. I don’t have space to elaborate on why this tendency has existed from the outset (I have done some of this work here), but suffice to say that “classical liberalism” was a transition stage on the way to “secular progressivism,” which today seeks complete victory over a declining, weakened, and increasingly defensive remnant of religious believers in America. Religious conservatives today aren’t seeking “establishment”; they are seeking to protect the integrity of their faiths, their churches, and their religious institutions. It is “secular progressives” who are succeeding in their own “establishment,” and eventually the criminalization especially of longstanding Christian belief and expression.

Quite strikingly, it is religious believers who remain the most active force in American politics today attempting to restrict the reach and power of the state.  It is “religious conservatives” who are making “highly sophisticated, well-reasoned and sincere arguments” against not only the HHS mandate, but the recognition of same-sex marriage (and being deluged with spurious charges of homophobia and recidivist views that are tantamount to racism, without corresponding rational argument defending the re-definition of marriage beyond totemic invocations of words like “fairness” and “equality”). They rightly see an inevitable expansion of government following in the wake of both developments – for instance, inevitable efforts by gay marriage proponents to force religious institutions to actively participate in supporting gay marriage through use of anti-discrimination law, and eventually (I predict) the expansion of national health care policies to provide children to gay couples, born either of surrogates or created by technology as their “right,” in the name of “fairness.” In their opposition both to gay marriage and aspects of the Affordable Care Act – the HHS mandate in particular – religious conservatives seek to defend the most fundamental unit of civil society that has always constituted a barrier against the encroachments of the state, the family. Increasingly they see libertarians joining forces with liberals to isolate religious believers, and the millennial generation is the very portrait of this combination – favoring both individual liberty and an active and enlarged state that exists to afford them liberty (e.g., “free” health care, “free” education, etc.). This was exactly the culminating nightmare of “democratic despotism” that Tocqueville feared would be the final act of the democratic temper, an eventuality that seems to be unfolding before our eyes.

Vallier finally confuses the nature of the “role” that religion plays in public life. He argues that “the role of religion in politics is to preserve religious liberty against an overreaching state and encourage religious contributions to laws that promote justice and the common good. Religion belongs in politics primarily as defense, rather than offense, restricting state power rather than extending it.” He views religion from the outside, suggesting its final value is to be evaluated in secular terms. But for religious believers, its primary value is not the contribution it makes to political life, but in aiding people in their worship of God and the salvation of souls. That it makes any political contributions – particularly limiting the reach of government – is not its primary intended effect. By seeking to make religion “useful” to politics and defining its role as primarily “defensive,” Vallier would effectively hamper the actual grounds for religion’s contribution to politics. If accepted for the reasons that Vallier offers, religion would cease to have any real purpose for the believer – because no one practices religion for its political benefits. Religious believers don’t accept the lines of division proposed by Vallier, between “defensive” and “offensive,” understanding that the defense of the integrity of the Church is for the evangelization and conversion of all peoples. Any benefit from religious belief can’t be strictly limited in the way Vallier suggests.

Vallier needs to consider the theological grounds that secondarily allow religion to provide a political benefit. Religion can limit the state finally because religious believers understand their religion to lie beyond the reach of the state. As most classical liberals once understood, our basic freedoms exist not as a result of secular norms, but most fundamentally arise from rights that are “endowed by our Creator.” As James Madison wrote in “Memorial and Remonstrance,” the most fundamental limitation of the State exists because of a wholly separate power and an obligation to recognize its authority and legitimacy:

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.

Classical liberals – such as Vallier – have forgotten the true nature of this relationship, and give place of priority to the political over the religious.  Hence, they build on quicksand, and those shaky foundations have given way to the “secular progressives” who have no compunction about, and are actively engaged in, a massive and unlimited expansion of the reach, sway, and intrusiveness of government. If Vallier truly wants to establish limits to the earthly powers, then he should begin listening more closely to the arguments of “religious conservatives” – or, better put, those who still believe in the distinct and separate realms of the Cities of Man and God.

Religious Freedom: A Genuinely Fair Approach

In his lead essay, Kevin Vallier identifies what he sees as four approaches to religion in politics. Although these categorizations are helpful, they are also flawed. Indeed, none of these categories describe the approach I take on such matters. The secular progressive approach, for example, discounts people of faith to an extent that I—and I believe my colleagues, and most “intellectuals and theorists”—do not. Nor is it fair to claim that those who adhere to this approach are secular establishmentarians “in denial.”

I also reject the classical liberal approach, which Valier adopts, as it fails to account for the harm that extensive religious exemptions have on others. In many respects, it allows religion to serve as a trump card to the law.

A Fifth Approach

I do embrace equality and state neutrality when it comes to religion. The government should not promote or disparage religion, coerce anyone into participating in religious exercise, or create the impression that adhering to any particular religion, or religion in general, will improve a person’s standing in the eyes of the government.

My approach differs from what the author labels the “secular progressive approach,” however, in that it does not oppose religious influences in politics or exclude people of faith. To the contrary, I work each and every day with a broad array of religious organizations and individuals. While some of these allies argue our shared positions from secular viewpoints, others come to the table with religious motivations and speak to how their religion informs their policy positions. This approach neither “marginalizes” nor “impl[ies] that deeply religious citizens have less civic virtue than secular citizens.”  Instead it invites people of faith and non-theists to the table on equal footing.

Of course, the influence religion should have on public policy is not without limit. The government should not pass laws that are justified by religion but that lack legitimate secular justifications as well. It should never impose religious doctrine or tests on its citizens: individuals and organizations should not have to regulate their behavior to appease the will of a powerful religious majority. Indeed, this principle is similar to that set out in the classical liberal approach: “laws are justified when multiple reasonable points of view find them acceptable, … including but not limited to religious reasons” but “religious reasons will seldom be sufficient to justify laws or policies by themselves.”

Likewise, the government should not issue blanket exemptions from the law to anyone who invokes religion. The government must respect people of faith and should adopt laws and policies that avoid burdening religion when possible, but special exemptions should be granted only where they would relieve a truly substantial religious burden and would not harm or deny rights to others. These critical factors are wholly overlooked in the author’s chosen approach.

Same-Sex Marriage

There are no legitimate or compelling secular justifications for barring same sex marriage. The only arguments against marriage equality are found in the doctrine of some, although surely not all, religions. Accordingly, “traditional marriage laws” should be rejected and the rights and privileges of marriage should be extended to same-sex couples. It is here that my approach, the classical liberal approach, and the secular religious approach intersect.

The classical liberal approach, however, would call for “extensive religious exemptions” when the government recognizes same sex marriage. This approach transforms religion into a trump card and wholly ignores the harm such exemptions inflict on others. The author expresses concern that “legalizing gay marriage without religious exemptions disrespects sincere citizens of faith,” yet seems unmoved that these exemptions disrespect, demean, and deny rights to the couple.

Some people of faith may strongly disagree with extending secular benefits to same-sex couples, but that is not tantamount to suffering a significant religious burden. In addition, these individuals and organizations do not seek just to be left alone by the government; they want to deny others rights to which they are entitled. Even where the government recognizes marriage, people of faith are not required to offer these marriages the same religious benefits they would offer to same-sex couples. Houses of worship do not have to condone or perform same sex marriage ceremonies, or claim that such marriages are legitimate in the eyes of their God. A person of faith can similarly speak against these marriages and refuse them religious recognition and respect, but he or she does not have the right to deny a couple the secular benefits of marriage.

The Contraception Mandate

The Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate requires employers who choose to offer their employees health insurance to include coverage for contraception. This policy finds strong support in the medical community, many in the faith community support it, and 28 states had adopted similar policies at the time the Obama Administration adopted this rule. Accordingly, there is sufficient justification for the law—even under the classical liberal theory.

There is far less justification for expansive exemptions to this law. The regulations already fully exempt houses of worship and provide religious nonprofits a generous accommodation. Religious nonprofit organizations need not provide, pay for, or inform a woman about how to access insurance coverage for contraception. That the classical liberal theory calls for even more expansive exemptions and accommodations demonstrates why it is a flawed approach.

Once again, the current policy does not substantially burden religious individuals and organizations. Providing a comprehensive set of healthcare benefits is no different from providing a paycheck; employees may utilize both types of compensation in any manner that they wish, and the employer cannot reasonably be perceived to support or endorse any particular use.

In the case of a religious nonprofit organization the burden is even more attenuated. These groups can avoid this even tangible connection by simply submitting a signed piece of paper requesting an accommodation. Ignoring both the ease of obtaining the accommodation and that an accommodation cannot be provided if it isn’t sought, some still claim that the process to obtain the accommodation is itself a religious burden. This extreme position demonstrates that these organizations do not just want relief from providing coverage. Instead, they want to prevent women from even obtaining free insurance coverage from third parties.

Of course, denying millions of women contraception coverage causes them significant harm. Many underestimate the impact this would have on women, but the classical liberal approach fails to consider it at all.  Birth control provides many health benefits. For example, it prevents unwanted pregnancies and the negative health consequences connected to them, decreases the number of premature births by allowing women to control birth spacing, reduces risks of certain cancers, and treats menstrual disorders. All of these benefits are lost on women, however, who cannot afford birth control.

My approach would take into account the attenuated connection employers have to their employees’ use of birth control and the harm accommodations and exemptions would have on women’s healthcare. Under this approach, further exemptions and accommodations would be rejected.


None of the author’s approaches describe what I believe is the proper approach to religion in politics. Instead, a fifth approach, which may be described as a hybrid between the secular progressive and the classical liberal approach, should be adopted. Although people of faith should be welcomed into the public discussion, religion should never serve as the sole reason for adopting laws, nor should it be allowed to serve as a trump card to deny rights to or harm others.

Religion and Politics… and Science

In my 1999 book How We Believe I outlined a three-tiered taxonomy of the relationship of science and religion: (1) the Conflicting-Worlds Model holds that science and religion are in a struggle to determine the truth, in which one is right and the other wrong; (2) the Same-Worlds Model contends that science and religion are two equally valid ways of examining reality; and (3) the Separate-Worlds Model argues that each tradition inhabits different domains of knowledge—facts and values—and rarely the twain shall meet. For years I held and defended the Separate-Worlds Model while acknowledging that there are some areas of conflicts; if you believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, for example, your belief is in direct conflict with the geologically dated age of 4.6 billion years.

            More and more, however, I see science and religion in conflict, not only in such factual questions about nature (growing by the year as the sphere of science expands into the ether of religious tenets), but in moral matters as well. In my next book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, I argue that morals and values can be established and defended through science and reason. Inspired by Galileo and Newton, Enlightenment thinkers consciously applied the methods of science to solve social, political, economic, and moral problems. The experimental methods and analytical reasoning of science created the modern world of liberal democracies, civil rights and civil liberties, equal justice under the law, free minds and free markets, and prosperity the likes of which no human society in history has ever enjoyed. I claim that we owe this salubrious state of affairs primarily to science and reason—and most emphatically not to religion—and thus I am inclined to join the Classical Liberal position in Kevin Vallier’s instructive four-tiered taxonomy (Libertarian, Religious Conservative, Secular Progressive, and Classical Liberal), albeit for reasons that differ from his.

            Democracies, for example, have systematically replaced autocracies because democracies empower individuals with a methodology to solve problems instead of an ideology to obey. Democratic elections are analogous to scientific experiments: every couple of years you carefully alter the variables with an election and observe the results. If you want different results, change the variables. The political system in the United States is often called the “American experiment,” and the founders referred to it as such, and thought of this experiment in democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

            Many of the Founding Fathers were, in fact, scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing, and theory formation to nation building. Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them to develop a social system in which doubt and dispute were the centerpieces of a functional polity. Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and the others thought of social governance as a problem to be solved rather than as power to be grabbed. They thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science—as a method, not a belief. They argued, in essence, that no one knows how to govern a nation, so we have to set up a system that allows for experimentation. Try this. Try that. Check the results. Repeat. That is the very heart of science. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.”

            Even the fundamental principles underlying the Declaration of Independence, which is usually thought of as a statement of political philosophy, were in fact grounded in the type of scientific reasoning that Jefferson and Franklin employed in all the other sciences in which they worked. Consider the foundational line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” In his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson recounts the story of how Franklin redacted Jefferson’s phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to “We hold these truths to be self-evident”:

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried.”) By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

            Assertions of religion in the political sphere are becoming as obsolete as those in the scientific realm, and often just as wrong when they collide with reality. Still, just as in science, people must be free to be wrong, for how else will we come to understand what is right? The private religious beliefs of individuals may be asserted and tested in the public sphere—by which I mean the public marketplace of ideas—but never squelched or forced upon anyone through the law.

            Following Kevin Vallier’s example, consider homosexuality and same-sex marriage as an example of how science and reason can determine values and morals. Descriptively, science tells us that human beings have an evolved, innate drive to survive and to flourish, and that one of the most necessary and primal requirements among the many preconditions for life, health, and happiness for most people is a loving bond with another human being. Prescriptively, we can say that granting only a select group of privileged people the right to fulfill this evolved need—while simultaneously depriving others of the same basic right—is immoral because it robs them of the opportunity to fulfill their essence as evolved sentient beings. This is true even if the case were made that such discriminatory practices are better for the group (in a type of utilitarian calculus where the sacrifice of the few is justified if it leads to the greater happiness for the greater number). It is still wrong because the individual is the moral agent, not the group. It is the individual who feels the sharp pain of discrimination, the sting of being excluded, and the insult of being treated differently under the law. Science tells us why they feel this way and reason instructs us what to do about it if we want to continue the moral progress of the Rights Revolutions.

            Jonathan Rauch, a long-time advocate for free speech and civil liberties, has documented how winning in the marketplace of ideas is what has accelerated the gay rights revolution more than anything else. Rauch recalls the comment of a caller to a radio talk show he was on during a book tour for his 2004 book Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America:

“Your guest,” he said, meaning me, “is the most dangerous man in America.” Why? “Because,” said the caller, “he sounds so reasonable.” In hindsight, this may be the greatest compliment I have ever been paid. It is certainly among the most sincere. Despite the caller’s best efforts to shut out what I was saying, the debate he was hearing—and the contrast between me and my adversary—was working on him. I doubt he changed his mind that day, but I could tell he was thinking, almost against his will. Hannah Arendt once wrote, “Truth carries within itself an element of coercion.” The caller felt that he was in some sense being forced to see merit in what I was saying.

            The use of reason in an open dialogue forces us to consider the merit of what the other person is saying, and if the other person makes sense, their superior ideas gradually chip away at our prejudices. And many of those prejudices are based on factual errors about the target group, “factual misapprehensions and moral misjudgments born of ignorance, superstition, taboo, disgust,” says Rauch. “If people think you are a threat to their children or their family, they are going to fear and hate you. Gays’ most urgent need was epistemological, not political. We had to replace bad ideas with good ones.” That replacement can only happen in a free society in which open debate is allowed and ideas must compete for cognitive space in our brains.

            I am not arguing that reason alone will get us there; we need laws to enforce civil rights. But our institutions are premised on law being grounded in reason, and the legislation being backed by rational arguments. Without that, there is no long-term sustainability to moral progress, as it is just a matter of might makes right. If your moral campaign depends exclusively on the powers of the state, then when the powers of the state change hands, those in power can just as easily change the law. To make morals stick you have to change people’s thinking. This is what happened with the abolition of slavery, with the expansion of women’s rights, and now with the recognition of full rights for the LGBT citizens of the world. And more than any other it is the Classical Liberal worldview grounded in reason and science that is bringing about this moral progress.

The Conversation

True Liberalism Protects Authentic Religious Commitment and Personal Integrity: A Reply to Deneen

I’d like to begin by thanking Patrick Deneen for his characteristically rich and forceful engagement with my essay. Give his strong disagreement with me, I think Deneen will be surprised that I agree with many of his claims about the nature of contemporary religious conservativism and the ultimate philosophical grounding of free institutions. But I expect him to be particularly surprised that I am sensitive to the worries he has about liberalism impinging on the ability of people of faith to live their religion fully, forcefully, and as an inherently worthwhile endeavor. Let me begin with the latter concern.

I. Integrity and Coercion

My position is that the proper role of religion in politics is primarily defensive and constructive, rather than offensive and coercive. To Deneen, this seems to imply that I view

… religion from the outside, [with]  its final value… to be evaluated in secular terms. But for religious believers, its primary value is not the contribution it makes to political life, but in aiding people in their worship of God and the salvation of souls.

Deneen is making a version of the “integrity” objection to liberal theory, which holds that the constraints of liberal institutions require that religious citizens violate their integrity, as liberals require citizens of faith to forgo living out their faith in all aspects of their lives. One of the core arguments of my book is that in virtue of their own commitment to respecting integrity, political liberals must opt for a more open, convergence-based conception of their view. If liberalism requires integrity violations then, in my view, this is a severe defect in liberal theory.

So let me be clear: it is no part of my position that the primary value of religion is its contribution to politics. In fact, it is my recognition that religious citizens understand their faith as Deneen points out that has led me to endorse integrity objection and to use it to drive my criticism of mainstream political liberalism.

However, I do contend, I think in contrast to Deneen, that many religious believers, if not most, can accept a line of division between “defensive” and “offensive” uses of their faith. Of course religious believers of many stripes are committed to proselytization, but few are committed to coercing others in order for the coercers to live an authentically faithful life. Most conscientious objections come about from being coerced, not being required not to coerce.

So my classical liberal approach merely asks many citizens of faith (at least when in political office) not to coerce others when that coercion cannot be justified to them. Citizens of faith may dislike this restriction, but the restriction does not raise the integrity objection. The constraints of my conception of public reason may chafe, but not on integrity-based grounds.

I think there are probably two main exceptions to my claim that integrity is not violated by my classical liberal constraint on the use of force: (i) widespread conservative religious views on abortion, and (ii) some forms of political Islam.

In the former case, I don’t think religious citizens are under an obligation to forgo pushing for pro-life legislation because on their view, they’re protecting people from the worst forms of unjustified coercion, namely murder. So there is nothing in my view that prevents citizens from supporting the restriction of abortion. Officials are a more complicated case, which I can address if someone wants to press me on it.

Political Islam raises a powerful challenge, as it violates liberal restrictions in some attempts to institutionalize some aspects sharia law as applied to non-Muslims. I can imagine a certain sort of Muslim objecting on integrity-based grounds that they cannot institutionalize their preferred legal code. But here I believe I am right to insist that these demands are illiberal, especially those that purport to restrict freedom of religion. I acknowledge, then, that political Islam in some ways challenges my view.

But by and large, citizens of faith can live out their faith with fervor and sincerity even if they forgo the coercion that classical liberalism requires they forgo. Declining to coerce in the absence of a public justification is almost never incompatible with the central doctrines and practices of the world’s major religious traditions.

II. Religious Conservatism in Political Theory and Practice

On some of the sociological disputes: Deneen is right that many religious conservatives now hold what I describe as the “classical liberal” position, though I do not agree with him that the transition is largely complete. There are still plenty of conservative voters and politicians who believe in the establishment of civic theism (the only form of establishmentarianism that has political power in the United States). But it is true that in many areas religious conservatives are on the defensive. So long as they are, I believe they often take a genuinely liberal position. And for all I know, it may well turn out to be the case that religious conservatives in the 21st century are better friends of liberal institutions than secular progressives. I don’t know. In any case, I have no bone to pick with him here.

I also agree with Deneen that classical liberals often have a tin ear to conservative claims that free institutions require transcendent grounding in order to sustain them in the long run. I like to think I’m not one of those tin-eared liberals. In my view, free institutions will tend to be best sustained by those with transcendent understandings of the purpose of life, as these citizens will have the strongest reasons to oppose overreaching state power (if they can be persuaded to give it up themselves). And among these citizens are those, like Deneen, who believe in a God-given natural law. However, true stability will not be possible unless people with a wide variety of worldviews can identify with liberal institutions. Religious conservatives can form part of that consensus, but not the whole.

Moderating Secular Progressivism Cannot Save It: A Reply to Maggie Garrett

I greatly appreciate Maggie Garrett’s position in the religion and politics debate. I am particularly impressed by her work with many religious organizations and individuals and her commitment “to inviting people of faith and non-theists to the table on equal footing.”

However, Garrett’s view does not seem to me a fifth way, but rather a moderation of standard secular progressive views. That is, Garrett both supports the preeminence of secular justifications in politics and emphasizes many of the harms purportedly associated with extensive religious exemptions. Let me address both points in turn.

The Secular Justification Requirement

One position frequently found in the religion and politics literature is the liberal ideal of justifying laws and policies in terms of shared reasons, and in some cases, secular reasons. (There are probably no shared religious reasons, but there are unshared secular reasons, so the categories are different.) The secular progressive position is distinguished by its embrace of a shared reason requirement. And it appears that Garrett affirms a version of this requirement: “the government should not pass laws that are justified by religion but that lack legitimate secular justifications as well.”

Now, to be fair, this statement is a bit ambiguous. Garrett could mean that in a society with many secular people any justifiable law must be at least partly based on secular reasons. If so, then I agree. But if Garrett means that each person or group should have both secular and religious justifications for laws, the much more common position in the literature, then I dissent. It seems to me sufficient for respect for others and good citizenship that each person have reason, religious or secular, from her own perspective to endorse a law. Religious citizens do not need to generate secular reasons in addition to their religious reasons. So Garrett and I may well disagree here, but I’m not sure.

Garrett on Limiting Religious Exemptions (Gay Marriage)

Garrett also displays the standard secular progressive tendency to worry about the abuse of religious reasons as an excuse to impose harms on others. So while Garrett and I agree about same-sex marriage, we disagree about the scope of religious exemptions. Garrett worries that I turn religion into a “trump card” that “ignores the harm such exemptions inflict on others.” Her concern is that extending religious exemptions regarding same-sex marriage threatens to “disrespect, demean and deny rights” to gay couples. This is because gay couples have rights to “which they are entitled.”

Garrett’s language implies that affording religious exemptions to groups who do not wish to extend benefits to same-sex couples leads to their being harmed and demeaned. But this cannot be right. Are the rights of same-sex attracted persons violated by the fact that churches are exempt from providing them benefits? I don’t think so. Same-sex couples, like any couples, would be unreasonable to insist that everyone morally agree with their lifestyles. Allowing people to strongly, institutionally disagree does not generally harm them.

This argument is obvious in the case of churches, and it seems to me to extend naturally to religious non-profits and even closely held religious businesses (not publicly held businesses, which arguably have no conscience to be violated). So if some wedding cake makers do not want to provide wedding cakes to gay couples, gay couples are not thereby harmed or demeaned. They are not being rejected on the grounds that they are inferior or unequal, but rather because someone has a deeply held, conscientious objection to their union.

However, I admit an exception to this point. If, say, all wedding cake makers in some region of the country declined to sell to same-sex couples, this could have a stigmatizing effect. However, those requesting religious exemptions from extending benefits to gays are a sufficiently small portion of the population that the risk of stigmatization seems to me limited.

Garrett on Limiting Religious Exemptions (The Contraception Mandate)

Garrett also disagrees with my objections to the contraception mandate. She is obviously right that the mandate largely exempts religious nonprofits, though I disagree that there is no substantial burden on groups like Little Sisters of the Poor, who deny that they can in good conscience authorize others to provide contraception.

But even if the burden on the Little Sisters was not substantial, a classical liberal approach places the burden of justifying coercion on the coercer, in this case, the government. The core question is where the government gets its authority to insist that the Little Sisters of the Poor sign any paperwork at all. Progressives like Garrett wonder why the Little Sisters are making such a big deal out of signing a piece of paper. But classical liberals wonder why the government is making such a big deal out of signing a piece of paper. The burden of proof is on them. They have a thousand ways to fully exempt the Little Sisters without forcing them to comply, which seems to me arbitrary, authoritarian, and cruel.

I also reject Garrett’s argument that providing healthcare benefits “is no different from providing a paycheck.” For me, the key question is rather in whose view is providing healthcare benefits no different from providing a paycheck. When it comes to preserving religious liberty, we must appeal to how people understand their situation, rather than how it appears to us. And this seems obvious if the government proposed to force religious businesses to directly pay for abortion. Even if abortion is morally permissible, even if it is not a killing, what matters is that these businesses sincerely, reasonably believe otherwise, such that forcing them to comply would unacceptably violates their deeply held convictions. And if the argument works for abortion, then it seems to me to work for contraception as well.

I’m not sure why Garrett thinks that my view implies that “millions of women” will not have contraception coverage, however. The question for the classical liberal is whether there is a way to provide adequate contraception access without violating the religious liberty of non-profits and businesses. And there are obviously other ways. Two of them would be to directly subsidize the cost of contraception or to limit patent laws so that the market price of contraception falls. Or we could remove healthcare provision from employers entirely, either by moving toward a market-based system of healthcare or even toward single-payer. In the meanwhile, the government has no right to make religious institutions their proxies for advancing reasonably contestable values.

Finally, I think it is simply wrong to claim that my classical liberal approach allows religious citizens to deny the rights of others. The question I proposed to answer in my essay is argumentatively prior to Garrett’s: liberalism is a theory that helps us determine the contours of rights and the specification of harms that we should be protected against. On my view, religious reasoning plays a strong role in shaping the contours of those rights and conceptions of harms, such that no one counts as having their rights violated if someone refuses to bake them a cake or provide them with birth control.

Garrett Embodies the Spirit of Secular Progressivism

In sum, Garrett appears to have merely taken some of the edge off the standard secular progressive approach, partly restricting the use of religious reasons in public life, especially when it comes to religious exemptions. While I respect her appeals to neutrality and equality, it seems to me that she has misapplied these ideas in ways that effectively establish certain secular values as public values. This is especially obvious in her insistence that many citizens of faith be forced to recognize gay marriage and provide contraception coverage in their business practices. Such restrictions cannot be justified by appeal to the values of equality and neutrality alone. It requires diminishing the scope of religious liberty and, to a limited extent, it requires making secularism the law of the land.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act Is Being Used in Ways We Never Intended

In his response essay, Patrick Deneen attempts to prove that “classical liberals” have become “secular progressives” with evidence that many of the groups that supported the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) now seek to limit its scope.  Because I have worked closely on this issue and because Mr. Deneen specifically cited to Americans United’s website to make his point, I feel obligated to respond. 

I see this shift away from full support of RFRA not as evidence that “classical liberals” have converted into “secular progressives,” but that “religious conservatives” have been working to morph RFRA into a law that many of its original supporters do not recognize.  Religious conservatives are pushing to transform RFRA from a law that protects religious freedom into one that establishes religion by allowing it to “override other significant interests,”[1] including the rights of others. 

When Congress conducted floor debates on RFRA, its Congressional supporters described the law as a way to prevent violations such as dry communities banning the use of wine in communion services, government meat inspectors requiring changes in the preparation of kosher food, the government regulating the selection of priests and ministers, or a public school forbidding a student to wear a yarmulke.[2]  Notably, none of these examples involve for-profit entities or protections for religious activity that would cause harm to another or deny someone else his or her rights. 

Now, however, RFRA is being used in ways supporters never imagined.  Nonprofits and for-profits alike are trying to use RFRA to take away the rights of or to discriminate against others—often times with taxpayer funds.  For example, the George W. Bush Administration used RFRA to trump nondiscrimination laws that forbid religiously affiliated government contractors and grantees from applying religious tests to taxpayer funded jobs.  Similarly, religious organizations are currently arguing that RFRA trumps President Barack Obama’s recent executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in religious discrimination. 

I of course agree that houses of worship have the right to adopt religious hiring restrictions for ministerial positions.  But it seems outrageous to argue that a religious organization has a right to accept government funds and then refuse to adhere to the nondiscrimination provisions associated with those funds.  For example, why should a religious organization be given taxpayer funds to run a government soup kitchen and then be allowed to hire only Christians to ladle the soup?

If the goal of religious conservatives were merely to “protect the integrity of their faiths, their churches, and their religious institutions,” then they would not apply for government contracts or grants when performance of that contract or grant would lead them to violate their own religious beliefs.  Individuals and organizations do not have the right to insist on taking government funds to perform a service and then place their own religious litmus test on the funds.

Objecting to such an expanded use of RFRA doesn’t necessarily mean that the original supporters of the bill are changing course, but that the bill has been expanded way beyond its original form. RFRA was meant to be a shield to protect religion, not a sword to harm others. 

It is also worth noting that, contrary to Mr. Deneen’s response, groups like Americans United support the use of RFRA by Christians as well as members of other faith groups.  Obviously, Christians are protected under RFRA the same as everyone else. But the fact is, they often don’t have to use it. Christians are usually able to obtain justifiable exemptions and accommodations through the legislative process.  It is most often religious minorities and non-theists who lack the political clout to obtain the exemptions and accommodations that would lift true religious burdens. 


[1] Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. 709, 722 (2005), available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/03-9877

[2] 139 Cong. Rec. S. 2822 (Mar. 11, 1993)( floor statement of Sen. Edward Kennedy), available at http://www.justice.gov/jmd/ls/legislative_histories/pl103-141/cr-s2822-24-1993.pdf; 139 Cong. Rec. S. 9821 (July 2, 1992) (floor statement of Sen. Orrin Hatch), available at http://www.justice.gov/jmd/ls/legislative_histories/pl103-141/cr-s9821-… .

Science Isn’t the Only Answer

I’m grateful that Michael Shermer joined the discussion and that he’s outlined his own approach. The main aim of Shermer’s piece is to agree with my conclusion that a great deal of religious liberty in the public sphere is fine, but not for the reasons I cite. The ultimate basis of political order, for Shermer, is the prospect of embodying Enlightenment principles of reason and experiment in politics:

Assertions of religion in the political sphere are becoming as obsolete as those in the scientific realm, and often just as wrong when they collide with reality. Still, just as in science, people must be free to be wrong, for how else will we come to understand what is right? The private religious beliefs of individuals may be asserted and tested in the public sphere—by which I mean the public marketplace of ideas—but never squelched or forced upon anyone through the law.

Religious political claims have been socially tested and refuted, but they’re useful to have around to remind us of failed past experiments in the realm of moral ideas. An appropriately experimental democracy shouldn’t be threatened by religion in politics.

In my response, I’d like to focus on Shermer’s positive proposal for a scientific basis for politics. I begin with an admission that Shermer’s approach sounds less like an Enlightenment view and more like contemporary pragmatist approaches to democracy. On the latter view, government is an extension of our ordinary practices of inquiry, and science provides the ideal model of inquiry.

Of course, Shermer doesn’t defend pragmatist theses about moral truth (where moral truth is constructed in the experimental process), but he also doesn’t defend the Enlightenment appeal to objective morality as deducible from incontestable axioms or the consistency of overwhelming observational confirmation. But it is nonetheless a position I respect.

My main concern about Shermer’s view is that it suggests that social epistemic processes will gradually converge on secular, scientific foundations for morality that will prove more effective in grounding political institutions. I am much less confident in the ability of the use of moral reasoning to generate agreement. Following Rawls, I think free exercises of practical reasoning tend to lead to disagreement rather than agreement about fundamental matters. That is why, contra Shermer’s claim, religious reasoning is not obsolete when it comes to justifying laws and policies. Many continue to believe that religions can serve as explanations of moral truth. This is even true among moral philosophers, an increasing minority of whom are theists.

My Rawlsian intuition is that any successful social order is going to develop many contradictory paths to moral consensus that will never be resolved in favor of one option or another. At least for the foreseeable future, Shermer’s scientistic approach to political order will remain as sectarian and philosophically dubious to many citizens as religious views. What we need instead is an overlapping consensus of approaches, of which Shermer’s view could form an important part.

Religions Are Slow to Improve

Religious and faith-based views on politics may occasionally contribute to improved social order and moral progress, as Kevin Vallier suggests, and thus it would seem an overlapping consensus on different approaches would be in order. After all, the world is big enough to allow room for all views to be heard, and so it came to pass that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…

Unfortunately such diversity and openness is not in the DNA of religion. As I write in The Moral Arc: “The rules that were dreamt up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere. Including other sentient beings within the circle of moral concern was not on their radar. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a detailed list of the ways in which the Israelites could make life better for the Moabites, the Edomites, the Midianites, or for any other tribe of people that happened not to be them.” Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces, as in the abolition of slavery for Christianity and the abandonment of polygamy for Mormonism.

To the extent that religions and religious adherents are tolerant of dissenting views and open to diverse opinions, it is primarily the result of them being pulled up by the secular forces of science and reason, which do have in their genetic makeup the principles of disputation and debate, empiricism and experimentation, and the understanding that human cognition is flawed and subject to self-serving biases and so must be subjected to constant checks and balances. This was what the Founding Fathers understood and established in the U.S. Constitution with its many checks and balances on power. As James Madison noted in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It is what Edmund Burke was thinking when he reflected on the French Revolution: “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

Christianity went through the Enlightenment and came out the other end civilized and tolerant, eventually leaving behind such barbarities as the slave trade and the insanity of the witch hunts. Islam has yet to experience an Enlightenment, leaving many of its adherents to embrace the letter if not the spirit of Sharia Law with its illiberal beliefs in the inferiority of women, the inhumanness of infidels and nonbelievers, and the belief that God’s laws (as interpreted by them, of course) trump human laws.

Finally, unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less to determine right and wrong. To the extent that religions got it “right” (as judged by today’s enlightened standards), they did so as a result of haphazard trial and error, reinterpreting holy scripture to fit current standards. Recent debates about what is “really” in the Quran are a case in point. It doesn’t matter what the words “really” mean, because they are all made up anyway - just as in the now-accepted understanding that the Bible was written by Iron Age peoples and not by the creator of the universe. What matters is what believers believe is in their holy books because that is what they act on, and actions are what matter in the realm of politics.

What Can’t a Religious Exemption Do?

I appreciate Mr. Vallier’s thoughtful reply to my comments, but they generated new concerns for me about his approach to same-sex marriage and the contraception mandate. Therefore I would like to return to those issues one more time.

On the issue of gay marriage, Mr. Vallier argues that granting extensive religious exemptions to allow churches, religious organizations, and even for-profit “closely held” businesses to deny legally married same-sex couples benefits and services would not demean or harm those couples. He argues that these couples “are not being rejected on the grounds that they are inferior or unequal, but rather because someone has a deeply held, conscientious objection to their union.” That the objection is made in the name of religion, however, does not nullify the message sent nor the harms caused by the denial of benefits or services.

Indeed, a person with a conscientious objection to same-sex marriage by definition believes that same-sex marriage is inferior to the opposite-sex marriages that the person does acknowledge and celebrate. Why else would they refuse to recognize them? Furthermore, requiring for-profits to recognize all opposite-sex couples but allowing them to deny recognition to same-sex marriages certainly renders same-sex marriages unequal. Under this arrangement, they would not be receiving the same protections and given the same value as opposite-sex marriage. And, beyond the dignity harm these couples suffer, they also lose the value of the benefits all other couples are provided. That certainly qualifies as harm.

Furthermore, the extension of this argument is clearly troubling. Under Mr. Vallier’s logic, these entities—including for-profit businesses—could use religion to deny services and benefits to virtually any couple. A health foods store whose owner objects to divorce could refuse to grant benefits to an employee’s family because she has divorced and remarried. A coffee shop could refuse to serve an interracial couple because the owners, following the logic of the trial court judge who upheld the Virginia state ban on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, believe that “Almighty God … did not intend the races to mix.” A hardware store could deny family insurance coverage to an employee in an interfaith marriage. These outcomes are unjustifiable.

On the issue of the contraception mandate, I feel obligated to return to the matter of the accommodation granted to nonprofit organizations who object to conscience clause exemptions. The Little Sisters of the Poor do not have to provide contraception coverage if they fill out a form and send it to the government or their insurer. The insurance provider then provides the coverage for the women. Under this scheme, the non-profit’s opt-out form relieves the Little Sisters of the Poor of any obligations. It does not “authorize others to provide contraception.” It is the law that authorizes—indeed, requires—the insurance company to provide contraception coverage. And, whether the Little Sisters fill out a form or not, the insurance company is required to provide that coverage. The form solely serves to facilitate the accommodation—neither the government nor the insurance company can effectuate the accommodation without notice that the nonprofit is utilizing it and the proper information to put the accommodation into effect. Although these organizations may refuse to pay for or arrange for certain benefits, they should not be able to preclude the government from making those benefits available via third party arrangements.

Further, it is hard to imagine that there are really “a thousand ways to fully exempt the Little Sisters” when even filling out a form is argued to be outrageous. The only options presented, such as requiring the government to fully fund the coverage, limiting patent law on contraception, or moving toward a market-based or single-payer system of insurance, are not actually exemptions to the current law. These options require the government to adopt entirely new government schemes. All of which are, of course, political non-starters.

Again, I don’t oppose religious exemptions, but there are factors to consider other than just whether a person perceives that his or her religion is burdened. One must also look at the societal consequences of granting that exemption—how it would affect others and the common good. Although in the past, some have used religion to combat gender and race discrimination, others have used it as a justification for gender and race discrimination. I, for one, am glad that when the government enacted civil rights laws, it didn’t grant extensive religious exemptions to businesses that argued they were compelled to discriminate on the basis of race and gender in the name of religion. I hope it does the same for discrimination against LGBT Americans and same-sex couples. 

A Prediction about Religion

Historians should never make predictions, especially about the future, given how messy the past can be. But scientists can and do make predictions based on historical trends (assuming they continue), and the trendlines for the gay rights revolution that is unfolding dramatically on a daily basis in the form of same-sex marriage laws enacted now in 31 states (the number could change by the time I get to the end of this paragraph) lead me to make a prediction.

I predict that within five to ten years Christians will come around to treating gay men and lesbians no differently from how they now treat other groups whom they previously persecuted—like women, Jews, and blacks. This change will not occur because of some new interpretation of a biblical passage or because of a new revelation from God. It will come about the same way that such changes always do: by the oppressed minority fighting for the right to be treated equally, and by enlightened members of the oppressing majority supporting their cause. Then Christian churches will take credit for the civil liberation of the gay community, rummage through the historical record, and find those preachers who had the courage and the character to stand up for gay rights when their fellow Christians would not. They will then cite those preachers as evidence that, were it not for Christianity, gay people would still be in the closet. This is what happened after the abolition of slavery, and it is already beginning to happen now with the gay rights movement. 

The Coming Persecution

I am not surprised that Kevin Vallier agrees with many of the points in my response to him – and that’s because Vallier is the last of a noble but dying breed, the classical liberal who is still sufficiently conscious of the roots of the liberal tradition to recognize its deep reliance upon a Christian inheritance.  My argument was not so much against him, as against his claim that his position was likely to carry much weight as we move decisively into the next, logical phase of liberalism – its fruition as a fully realized political ideology.   

Indeed, the liberal universe is populated increasingly by voices exemplified in the responses of Michael Shermer, who have concluded that Christianity is one long story of oppression, discrimination, irrationality, and backwardness that is thankfully being wholly superseded by science and liberal democracy.  If Christianity comes on board, fine; if not, then the levers of liberal government can and ought to be used to bring the churches to heel.

Vallier already signals the limits of his own “classical liberal” capacity to accept the legitimacy of Christian contributions to the public sphere in concluding that there is no rational grounds on which to defend conjugal marriage.  That is, to the extent that it is a “faith-based” discriminatory claim, it cannot be accepted.  However, Vallier perhaps does, or certainly should, be familiar with a growing body of work by a number of Christians that lays out a reasoned argument in defense of conjugal marriage, for example, the book What is Marriage? by Robert George, Ryan Anderson and Sherif Gergis.  That this argument cannot be “heard” suggests that even for the most capacious “liberal” like Vallier, there is still an ideological core that rejects arguments against nominalism, contractarianism, individualism, and an acknowledgment of natural goods and limits.

It is thus a small step from Vallier’s disallowance of the reasoned Christian – but not only Christian – position on conjugal marriage and Shermer’s far more hostile and dismissive view toward Christianity that is marshaled in defense of state coercion of Christians who object to the redefinition of marriage.  Vallier generously believes that one can dismiss the Christian understanding of marriage while defending religious liberty, but this is increasingly a minority view among liberals, who insist that all commercial institutions, and increasingly even church-related institutions, be forced to embrace the redefinition of marriage. 

Shermer lauds the liberal society being brought ever more fully into view under the liberal dominion as one of equality, liberty, prosperity, and peace.  This is at the very least a willful misreading of the signs of the time.  The society that comes ever more clearly into view is one that efficiently and ruthlessly sifts the “winners” from the “losers,” the strong from the weak.  It has transformed nearly every human institution – from the family to the schools to the universities to the government – to assist in this enterprise.  Modern liberalism congratulates itself on its liberation of disadvantaged minorities – so long as some of their number can join the side of the winners – but is content to ignore or apply guilt-assuaging band-aids to the devastation of life prospects experienced by the “losers.”  Tyler Cowen has described this aborning world as one in which “average is over,” in which you will either be one of the 10-15% of the winners, or 85-90% of the losers destined to live in the equivalent of favelas in Texas where you will be provided an endless supply of free Internet porn.  This is the end of history, if we follow the logic of liberalism.

So, since Shermer ends with a prediction, let me make one also.  Those Christians and other religious believers who resist the spirit of the age will be persecuted – not by being thrown to lions in the Coliseum, but by judicial, administrative, and legal marginalization.  They will lose many of the institutions that they built to help the poor, the marginalized, the weak, and the disinherited.  But finding themselves in the new imperium will call out new forms of living the Christian witness.  They will live in the favelas, providing care for body and soul that cannot not be provided by either the state or the market.  Like the early Church, they will live in a distinct way from the way of the empire, and their way of life will draw those who perhaps didn’t realize that this was what Christianity was, all along.  When the liberal ideology collapses – as it will – the Church will remain, the gates of Hell not prevailing against it.