New Book Offers Sophisticated Defense of Religious Liberty

We are living in a moment of peril. It is also a moment of opportunity. Our liberal friends are currently gnashing their teeth, worrying that the end may be near. In their minds, dark forces of tribalism and hatred are descending from all sides to obliterate them. After years of having similar feelings ourselves, it’s tempting to sit back and enjoy their panic, but we should try to resist the impulse (or at least indulge quietly). This could be a golden moment for winning valuable friends and influence. Persuaded that they are beset by racists, xenophobes, and misogynists, liberals may be especially ready to find reasonable-seeming allies outside of their own ranks. Now is the perfect time to make the case on behalf of Judeo-Christian faith.

To that end, Catholics can benefit enormously from Francis Beckwith’s impressive new book, Taking Rites Seriously. Recently honored by the American Academy of Religion, this book, by a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism, will serve as an invaluable resource to anyone interested in defending religious liberty in our time.

Taking Rites Seriously is not beach reading. It is closely argued and scholarly in tone. However, the invested mental energy will pay excellent dividends. Beckwith is well versed in both Western philosophy and American law. Very few would be equally well equipped to draw together the different strands of this conversation in such a thorough and broad-minded way, demonstrating that there is no justifiable reason to force religious people into political or cultural exile, and that the progressive attempt to marginalize faith is a betrayal of our own nation’s proudest traditions.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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taking-rites-seriouslyBeckwith’s arguments might be divided into three different tiers. First, focusing specifically on the Christian tradition, he argues that, even evaluated by secular standards) a rational, comprehensive worldview that is fully available to external scrutiny and to public discourse. This leads us to the second tier, in which Beckwith argues that our Constitution guarantees Christians full participation in America’s political life. Finally, on a third tier, Beckwith applies these principles to some of the defining political-moral questions of our age, including abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research. In an unusual but very helpful chapter on Intelligent Design theory, Beckwith demonstrates the appropriate way to address ideas or theories that unhelpfully draw on religious claims, without undercutting our commitment to religious freedom.

Religious and secular thinkers typically agree that a liberal democracy ought to ground its law and policy in reasonable beliefs, norms, and standards. A pluralistic and democratic society necessarily places great weight on reason as a universal human good that can enable us to negotiate our shared life. That is why so many secularists devote considerable energy to arguing that religion is fundamentally irrational, or at least by nature not answerable to the rational standards that govern our shared public discourse.

Beckwith’s rejoinder delightfully exposes the astonishing ignorance of Christianity’s high-profile critics. Legal theorists like Stephen Gey and Brian Leiter continue to insist that religious belief is intrinsically irrational, but the only thing they have successfully demonstrated is their own astonishing ignorance of Judeo-Christian religion.

For instance, they dismiss many creedal claims as “beyond rational discourse,” seemingly unaware that the scholarly debate concerning those very claims has already filled many tomes, and continues to this day. Why do these debates not qualify as “rational discourse”? The critics don’t tell us, presumably because they’ve never bothered to read any of this literature. They know nothing of the nuanced religious epistemology that Christians have developed quite literally over centuries. For thinkers like Gey or Leiter, the irrationality of religion is effectively a dogma. It is one of the “creedal commitments”, as it were, of their own secular rationalism.

After discussing the rationality of faith, Beckwith turns to Constitutional questions. Almost everyone agrees, at least nominally, that our Constitution protects freedom of religion. In addition to the First Amendment protections, Article VI of the Constitution declares that no religious tests may be imposed on those who seek political office. These have for centuries been legal cornerstones of the American tradition of protecting religious faith.

Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of disagreement about what they really mean. When we talk about “freedom of religion,” does that just mean that nobody can stop you from going to church on Sunday? That you’re entitled to read whatever holy writ you choose in the privacy of your own home (so long as you don’t talk about it at work)? That a baptismal certificate can’t disqualify you from running for office?

In recent decades, a prominent strain of legal analysis has presumed that religion remains protected exactly so long as it remains “private,” meaning it must play no role in motivating public and political action. “Separation of church and state” is here interpreted to mean that religious views must not impinge in any way on affairs of state. You are free to be religious in your home or your church building, but your faith doesn’t belong in the public square.

Beckwith devotes a whole chapter to this line of thought, explaining how the privileging of secularism actually violates the Establishment Clause, forcing religious people to hide or compartmentalize healthy aspects of their rational deliberations in deference to secular norms. The Constitution thus becomes a weapon used to marginalize religion, which is very much contrary to the law’s original purpose.

The Establishment Clause originally aimed to ensure that minority sects were fully included in the democratic process. Also, it was meant to prevent any particular religious denomination from exercising heavy-handed control over the federal government. Over time judicial rulings de facto expanded this tradition to include all public offices (not just federal ones), creating a general understanding that religious beliefs should not disqualify any person from political participation. All of these measures were meant to protect the sanctity of conscience, and to enable believers of all persuasions to be full and equal participants in the deliberations of the public square.

More recently, the Establishment Clause has been cited as a justification for ruling out of bounds any political initiative or argument that plausibly might be taken to have its origin in religious faith. The ironic result is that believers actually feel compelled to hide their creedal beliefs and associations for the sake of pursuing political goals. Beckwith traces the precedents that enabled this to happen, dissects the logic of these cases, and offers stern rejoinders to those who would use the Constitution as an excuse to push religious believers out of the public square.

At last, having established that religion should be welcome in the public square, Beckwith goes on to discuss its appropriate (and in one case, inappropriate) applications to contemporary controversies. All of these sections are well worth reading, but for present purposes it will be enough to remark on what they illustrate collectively: our society’s unjustified privileging of secular norms in the public square has truly distorted our legal and political discourse, ironically undercutting a shared social commitment to reason as the proper foundation of liberal democracy.

Precisely because Christianity offers a comprehensive and grounded worldview, the Christian tradition naturally throws its own light on all of the complex questions that modern people find perplexing. One needn’t be a Christian to appreciate these insights, though naturally committed followers of Christ are especially likely to avail themselves of those resources. Presenting ourselves in the public square, we are armed with arguments, analysis, and policy ideas that we believe will further the common good. We believe that human life is dignified from the time of conception, and thus look to defend a vulnerable population (the unborn) that our current law fails to protect. We have views on marriage that extend from our understanding of family and of the true purpose of our sexual powers. We want to protect marriage as a stable institution, for the sake of children and society as a whole.

What’s striking about so many modern debates is the extent to which secularists shy away from the real questions, demanding that the secular worldview be taken as normative before further discussion can take place. Instead of answering religious or religiously-inspired arguments, secularists pull rank. Pro-lifers are dismissed as crazed religious zealots. Proponents of traditional marriage are bigots. Their arguments don’t really matter, nor do we need to evaluate whether logic, evidence, or common opinion might be on their side. Recognizably religious ideas can be dismissed on procedural grounds, because we are a secular society.

Isn’t liberal democracy supposed to be grounded in reason? The unjustified privileging of a particular comprehensive view above all others was precisely the kind of problem the Founders had in mind when they included measures like the Establishment Clause in the Constitution. When religious believers are marginalized through brute assertions of power, secularists illustrate how egregiously wrong they were to claim that their worldview was the most rational, fair, and humane. In so many places, illiberal liberalism has decayed to the point where it cannot even appreciate its own hypocrisy (although it’s telling that many have shifted to calling themselves “progressives,” rather than identifying themselves with liberalism of any type).

If we hope to recover a more robust Constitutional conservatism, we need to be well-versed in the relevant arguments. We need our fellow Americans to appreciate that secularists have not kept their promises. They claimed they were fit to rule because their view was the most rational, but reason is not the instrument they are now using to bludgeon their detractors into submission. For anyone hoping to help spread this message, Taking Rites Seriously will be an invaluable resource.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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