I have been meaning for a while now to link to this post of Eve Tushnet’s, which you really ought to read in its entirety:
The upshot: 1) "It’s the right thing to do" is not a neutral statement. All virtue-words are given content by a religious tradition, a philosophical tradition, or (this is almost always the case nowadays) both. And since philosophy at its best takes part in the same eros as religion, suggesting that only the "non-religious" philosophy is valid in the public square will only make our discourse banal.
2) "Civil religion" which changes no minds and touches no hearts = stupid and useless. It’s tapioca. Spit it out therefore, and seek sublime religious rhetoric of the kind which can awaken undiscovered longings even in the breast of a hardcore secularist.
3) To combine both of the above points: Neutral is boring. Neutral is banal. Neutral is also impossible, since even if you and I agree on the most efficient means of securing physical satisfaction (good luck with that!) we disagree on when, how, and whether justice, liberty, mercy, loyalty (which loyalties?), family, or sublimity should trump efficient satisfaction of wants.
In short, "You need to use secular arguments!" is bad philosophy and we should stop saying it. Show me pictures so I understand what your words mean. Don’t pretend we share compatible traditions of justice or freedom or equality or happiness. And I’d rather be accommodated than implicitly excluded… but I’d rather be wooed than accommodated.
(Again: the whole thing, I said.)
After a fair amount of what I’ll admit is has been largely undetailed reflection on the question, it seems to me to be possible to show, in a rigorously philosophical fashion, that a range of inescapable facts about human (un)reason and the nature of our ethical and otherwise normative concepts make the concept of an essentially irreligious moral discourse a philosophical non-starter. Please wait patiently for a decade while I finish my dissertation and then prepare a more detailed argument re: same. In the meantime, here is Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail on how to decide which laws demand obedience:
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Soul! God! Sin! Aquinas! Thank God, say I, that Dr. King had not had the opportunity to read his Rawls. I’ve put a couple of other choice, but rather off-topic, excerpts from tLfaBJ below the fold.
On the accusation of “extremism”:
… the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
And on the failure of Christians to stand for justice:
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.