G'town's Farr: Half-Right, Half-Wrong

Over the at Weekly Standard, Georgetown University's Tom Farr has an essay on the dangers to religious liberty around the globe. I share his concerns, both about how the issue plays out in countries like Iraq, where most Christians have fled, and Egypt, where many Christians fear they may yet have to flee. And, I worry about the cavalier way some liberal democracies are shunting religious opinions aside. Farr writes:

In short, religion in much of the West is no longer seen as intrinsic to human dignity and social flourishing. It is generally understood as merely an opinion and, as a species, a dangerous opinion at that. While it is fine to practice your religion in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, democracy requires that you leave it there. To bring it into politics endangers democracy.

This malevolent idea, which was famously championed by the American political philosopher John Rawls, is gaining considerable purchase in our own country.

I agree that religion does not endanger democracy, but I think there are more culprits in this tale than Farr wants to let on. The problem is not just Rawls. The problem is, instead, with centuries of conservative Christians who have been willing to reduce religion to ethics in order to gain access to the public square. This is a profoundly Protestant view of the matter: For Catholics, of course, faith and reason walk hand in hand, and we resist, or should resist, leaving our dogmas at the door. But, how many times have you heard prelates in the past few months approvingly quote George Washington on the social utility of Christian belief. They quote Washington, and other founders, to demonstrate that the American founding was a religious project in some meaningful sense, but they fail to recognize that if we accept that the real value of religion is its social utility, then we have ourselves begun the road to secularization. Mr. Farr would do well to read Burtchaell's "The Dying of the Light" which demonstrates how in America's religious colleges, this reduction of religion to ethics left religion to the pietists and how the pietists, often within a generation, give way to the secularists.

The crisis in Western culture is not just a crisis of faith, but a crisis of reason, and a crisis about the relationship between the two. The roots of that crisis are not found in the writings of John Rawls, but in the Reformation. Farr is on to something, but he is on to more than he realizes.


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