Should Religion Have a Place in Government?

Millennial writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently spoke at the Yale Political Union, arguing the negative position on the resolution: “religion has no place in government.” Here is a small segment of her speech:

I’ll now turn to the idea that religion ought to have a place in government….

There are several reasons why. The first is that law both expresses and enforces certain moral truths which cannot be divorced from broader moral systems, and for the religious — those sharing communities of some overwhelming concern — it’s disingenuous nigh impossible to deliberate on what truths the law should express without citing their religious priors.

And this, secondly, allows their co-religionists to hold them responsible for their claims. The tendency of liberal societies to bifurcate religion and politics into two separate spheres — one private, one public — encourages religious participants in political deliberation to equivocate somewhat about their motives and beliefs, as it’s not really possible in that political context to interrogate them. Yet it should be. As long as the religious are going to participate in governance, it’s going to be better, not worse, to argue out the legitimacy of their claims on their own grounds, rather than accounting for all religiously motivated argumentation as both void and unassailable on the grounds of its privacy. Politics are already religious, as I have argued, and are intrinsically so; in that case, it’s better that we be clear and direct about our convictions than cloak them in a flimsy veil of privacy.

Lastly, when religion is entirely privatized and politics dominates the public realm totally, there is little with sufficient moral weight to check political hegemony. There is a reason totalitarians seek to swiftly snuff out religious dissenters, and there is also a reason that religions nonetheless endure. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were able to resist hegemonic — and unjust — political exercise not out of reserves of private religious virtue, but because they produced religious objections to the evils of their respective states and pressed these cases politically, in public. From this perspective it is easy to imagine why the modern nation-state might insist that religion be privatized and ejected from the public sphere; it should be equally easy to imagine why we should resist that effort.

And this doesn’t apply only to fringe cases where extreme resistance measures (as against fascist regimes or racist violence) would otherwise be excused even by garden variety liberals. Indeed, destructive ideologies exert hegemonic control over our everyday, ordinary lives, and in many cases seek to exclude religious reasoning much to their benefit. Eugene McCarraher argues, for example, that in contemporary society religion has been displaced by a kind of Mammon-worship precisely to facilitate the dominance of global capitalism…

The full speech can be read here.