Ross has covered most of Chait’s article pretty thoroughly with a biting tone and plenty of vim, but he seems to have overlooked the most glaring problem with Chait’s argument–the concluding line. Chait wrote:
If it makes sense to support public figures because they share our religious beliefs, then it also makes sense to oppose public figures who don’t.
Not that! This is supposed to be the killing blow, the conclusion that shows us why “faith-based politics” is ultimately so pernicious: it leads voters to judge candidates according to their beliefs! Religious beliefs, yes, but beliefs all the same. Unless we think that religious teachings have no effect on the education and cultivation of the minds of religious people, it seems entirely arbitrary to declare one set of beliefs off limits to public scrutiny and out of bounds for public discourse. The secularist declares quite confidently that voters should not take this into consideration, which is to say that voters are supposed to ignore what is generally granted to be an important element in the lives of most Americans. Yes, this does mean that voters will oppose public figures who do not share their beliefs, or at the very least this difference of beliefs will create an obstacle that the candidate will need to overcome and address. How is this ultimately any different from any other aspect of democratic politicking? Candidates, if they are to be successful, must reach voters “where they live,” so to speak, and so long as Americans are at least nominally religious we can expect public expressions of this and we should also expect the influence of these views on the government.
Separated from a coercive state apparatus mandating this or that doctrine, religious arguments or policy arguments that draw on religious language must rely on their persuasive power. If this kind of language has real persuasive power and my political opponents were using it, I could see the temptation to keep it out of public discourse as much as possible. Yet the core of the secularists’ own view of the world is that religious language is not persuasive (not to them anyway) and that appeals to Scripture, tradition and ethical arguments derived from these sources are spurious. In short, secularists want to bar the door to a styule of politics that they themselves find entirely unpersuasive on the grounds that it is…too dangerously powerful.
Then there was this section that jumped out at me:
The depth of American religiosity is precisely why secularism is so important. Since religion is premised on faith, theological disputes cannot be settled through public reason [bold mine-DL]. Even the most vicious public policy disputes get settled over time. (Americans now agree on slavery and greenback currency.) But we’re no closer to consensus on the divinity of Jesus than we were 200 years ago.
What would constitute a consensus on this? Who is “we”? All Americans? Christians have enjoyed a general consensus on this for a lot longer than 200 years. How wide and broad is the neo-Arian movement these days? There was a good deal more consensus about this among all Americans at a number of points in the last 200 years than there is now, if only because we used to be a much more religiously homogenous country to the extent that even larger majorities identified themselves with one part of the “Great Tradition” of Christianity or another. In a strange way, what Chait seems to be saying is that a lack of consensus about the final conclusions of a debate means that we should not have an ongoing debate. He takes for granted that there cannot be a consensus on such matters, since they are theological, but this is to misunderstand how theological claims are made and judged.
At the root of Chait’s claim is a conceit about theology that bears no relationship to what theology actually is. For the secularist and, I’m sorry to say, for more than a few believers, theology is something abstract and divorced from “real” religious experience. As the Fathers teach us, theology is best understood as prayer and spiritual experience and only subsequently as formal doctrine that expresses the realities encountered in that experience in technical and philosophical language. In the Church, those most expert at marrying these two, the life of prayer and spiritual experience and precise exposition of the Faith, are given the epithet Theologian (Sts. John, Gregory of Nazianzos and Symeon bear this title in the Orthodox Church). The danger of the conceit that “theological disputes cannot be settled through public reason” is that it encourages the view that religious life is purely experiential and subjective and has no rationality to it at all. This is what we all know as fideism, and it is not Christian theology (nor would other religious traditions recognise this arational form of their teachings). There are axioms at the heart of any theological system, just as there in any philosophical argument, but the demonstration of theological truths has been since the early centuries of the Church a decidedly intellectual and rational enterprise.
Obviously, divorced from praxis and a living faith this theology will not be sufficient, but there is a basic misconception here that theology exists outside the realm of the rational and is therefore unfit for public discourse. It is a matter of record, however, that public discourse in pre-modern Europe was frequently entirely theology, and the rhetorical and intellectual traditions we and modern Europeans inherited from that history remain suffused with a theological dimension and the practice of deliberating on doctrinal matters in public. Chait deploys the phrase “public reason,” which is a way of saying “a kind of reason that makes an a priori exclusion of anything related to metaphysics or revelation.” In other words, a deficient kind of reason. I agree that this sort of reason cannot settle anything, since it barely begins to grasp the fullness of reality.