Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seeking Common Ground: A Secular Statement

12/5/2010—My article, Seeking Common Ground: A Secular Statement, has now been published by Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly. It is available to anyone at bepress (here). The article introduces and develops themes from my forthcoming book, Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism, which will be published by Indiana University Press in May 2011.

The article tries to show that objective morality—-the idea that some things are actually wrong rather than just wrong in my opinion—-is a commitment available to religious believers and nonbelievers. Can a person believe in objective morality without believing in God? Sure. The noted atheist Sam Harris made just such an argument in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. (I don’t think science can do that but that’s another issue for another time).

The threat of nihilism is not something to be taken lightly. The article begins with a quotation from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Lee v. Weisman, the case that prohibited prayers at public high school graduations:

"We are asked to recognize the existence of a practice of nonsectarian prayer, prayer within the embrace of what is known as the Judeo-Christian tradition… . If common ground can be defined which permits once conflicting faiths to express the shared conviction that there is an ethic and a morality which transcend human invention, the sense of community and purpose sought by all decent societies might be advanced. But though the First Amendment does not allow the government to stifle prayers which aspire to these ends, neither does it permit the government to undertake that task for itself."

Morality that transcends human invention is something I believe in. I stake my life on it. So do many of you. So does Justice Kennedy. We mistakenly think that religious belief is the crucial issue. It is not. Right and wrong are closer to the crucial issue and there we can find common ground.

Here is the abstract of the article:

Religion has its uniqueness, which is feared in the Establishment Clause and protected in the Free Exercise Clause. But religion is also part of a larger tradition that transcends religion and includes much of philosophy and political theory. That tradition was characterized by C.S. Lewis as the “doctrine of objective value”. It has been called by other names, such as civil religion, higher law, natural law, even religious naturalism. That tradition may be established by the government without violating the Establishment Clause and its practice is protected more by free speech than by free exercise. As the reference to “their Creator” as the source of rights in the Declaration of Independence illustrates, that tradition can be symbolized through religious imagery. That tradition is currently promoted through displays of the Ten Commandments and public references to God. But the tradition is not religion. It shares common ground with religion.

The failure to recognize this tradition as separate from religion, and to celebrate it, has led to numerous mistaken commitments. It has led the New Atheism toward relativism and even nihilism. It has obscured the natural law aspect of the Constitution exemplified in the Ninth Amendment, a natural law orientation that is anything but “godless”. It has caused the Supreme Court to overlook the “common ground” of values clearly present in American society and history. It has misled Justice Scalia into promoting the worship of the biblical God, when other formulations of God-language would alleviate constitutional disputes about religious imagery without sacrificing societal thanksgiving and even praise. In general, this failure has prevented the celebration of common meaning between religious believers and many nonbelievers.

Use of God-language and the Ten Commandments to promote this tradition does not lead to debased, “bleached faith” because religious believers agree that there is common ground with this tradition, although for the believer it is religion that represents the larger tradition and it is the nonbelievers who share only partly in the Truth. In Christianity, for example, the “hidden Christian” and the human conscience are said to represent common ground with nonbelievers and non-Christians.
The recognition of this common ground will not only clarify and resolve many Establishment Clause issues, but will allow formation of new political coalitions, as secularists and religious believers come to value their shared commitments. Such recognition will also deepen secularism itself and reorient it to the perennial questions of human existence.


  1. Thanks for some quality points there. I am kind of new to online , so I printed this off to put in my file, any better way to go about keeping track of it then printing?

  2. What a great resource!