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A bemused reception greeted British Member of Parliament Carol Monaghan when she arrived at work earlier this month in Westminster. Like many practising Christians, she had attended an Ash Wednesday service where her forehead was marked with ash in the shape of a cross. Most of her colleagues reacted with typically British awkwardness, and sometimes with curiosity. But the media reaction was more intense. The BBC asked whether her actions were “appropriate.” One political opponent implied that she was “promoting sectarianism.” The old debate about religion’s presence in political life was re-ignited, this time on social media.
The fact that a Christian attended church on an important date in the religious calendar hardly sounds like news. Yet open displays of religion are practically unheard of these days in British politics. For Damian Thompson, the event was further evidence of the “steady secularisation of British political life.” Arguably, this process is near complete: the idea that politicians should keep their religious views to themselves has almost the status of dogma, at least since ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair was silenced by one of his advisors with the reminder that “We don't do God.”
But now it seems that this process of secularisation is also being mirrored in political lobbying by religious groups. The researcher Steven Kettell recently reported his finding that Britain’s ‘Christian right’ are drawing on secular norms and values to support their political activities. For example, in justifying opposition to gay marriage, Dr. Dave Landrum of the Evangelical Alliance refers to the negative “impact on children” that same-sex unions will have.
What’s interesting about this development is that from a liberal perspective, this move should be applauded. By opting for secular rather than religious arguments, these conservative organisations are actually drawing closer to the liberal ideal of neutral discussion—the idea that when engaging in political debates we should keep sectarian beliefs out of the picture. So it’s not just politicians who shouldn’t mention Jesus (or Muhammad or Marx for that matter). All of us should keep controversial views to ourselves.
The ideal of neutral discussion has long been popular amongst liberal political philosophers. For example, Charles Larmore famously argued that:
“when two people disagree … each should prescind from the beliefs that the other rejects … in order to construct an argument on the basis of his other beliefs that will convince the other of the truth of the disputed belief.”
Applying Larmore’s argument in practice, when we disagree over an issue like gay marriage we should shelve our most controversial values and convictions. Conservative Christians must shelve their belief that St. Paul condemned homosexuality, just as liberals who champion autonomy must shelve their belief that there must be total freedom in personal relationships. Instead, we should seek common ground and give a ‘neutral reason’ for supporting it—like appealing to the well-being of children, which is something all reasonable people care about.
Why is it important to give such neutral reasons? One argument is that in doing so, we engage directly with what distinguishes our opponents as people—their rationality. If you care about treating your opponent with respect, you should recognise that it would be wrong to ask them to lend their support to a policy based on a reason they oppose.
On a more common-sense level, you might say that presenting neutral reasons is necessary in order for opponents to engage with each other at any meaningful level. Perhaps this is one reason why discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses arriving on my doorstep never last very long: our arguments rely on such different assumptions that we inevitably talk at cross purposes.
Or, someone defending neutral discussion might say that it’s just intuitive to accept that personal views should be left out when making group decisions. They might make a comparison with selecting candidates for a job. Here it would clearly be inappropriate to bring in the consideration that one candidate is a family member, and the same applies to religious beliefs.
But is neutral discussion really useful, healthy or even rational when debating public policy?
In the case of picking a candidate for a job, it is right to leave out personal views because these are only expressions of personal preference; they aren’t relevant in finding the best person for the role. In contrast, religious beliefs are not merely expressions of preference, they are beliefs about the way things are and what is right. Conservative Christians believe that their sectarian reason—the authority of the Bible—takes them towards the right answer to any policy question under discussion. If it’s true that God exists and condemns homosexuality as a sin, then this has serious implications for policy on same-sex marriage. In that case it seems strange to ask people to leave out considerations that they believe are most salient to the issue at hand.
We might also worry that asking people to present neutral reasons rather than those that are most important to them is to encourage citizens to be dishonest. It asks that they wear a cloak over their deepest beliefs and motivations. It makes them pretend to be concerned with reasons that in fact don’t actually motivate them. This is problematic because we want to encourage citizens to be virtuous and honest, not two-faced and deceitful.
But it’s also a problem because we want to reach better answers to policy questions. By shelving what people believe to be pertinent considerations, we blunt the tools at our disposal for reaching a resolution that might at least be workable. If the aim is consensus, this consensus will be more meaningful and longer-lasting if it’s based on what people really believe—the values in which they are invested—rather than on reasons that are made up in order to get the other side on board.
Lastly, is it true that mutual respect requires neutral discussions? As the scholar William Galston has argued, we show respect for someone’s rational nature simply by engaging with them and attempting to reason with them. This suggests that the best way to conduct respectful public discussions is to be truthful about our different reasons and to try to get to the bottom of where, at root, we disagree.
All this may be of little relevance to the Conservative Christians interviewed by Kettell. As the quotes from his interviews show, the move by this constituency to publically embrace non-religious reasons is motivated by a desire to persuade and gain support, rather than to show respect for the rationality of their opponents. But it is certainly of relevance more generally for thinking about whether we should argue for neutral discussion as a key principle in the public sphere.
If the pursuit of neutral reasons encourages dishonest communication and comes at the expense of progress towards a meaningful consensus, then liberals should scrap this idea. It would be far more respectful, and far more helpful for resolving disputes about public policy, to be honest about the reasons behind our beliefs.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t look for things on which we might agree. Finding common ground and a ‘shared mission’ might be the only way to get hostile constituencies to engage with each other. Perhaps a search for mutual territory is the way to bridge the chasm that has emerged in the politics of many countries over the last twenty years. But once we’ve found a way of starting the conversation we need to be honest about the beliefs we hold dear. How our variously-sectarian arguments then fare in public discussion will be a good indicator of their strength.
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