John Witte Jr.: Religious views should be welcomed in our public life
Religion should be part of our political and legal conversation, says a law and religion scholar. Yes, it can make politics and lawmaking more complicated and contested, but also more realistic.
October 9, 2012 | Religion is not merely a private matter, with no role to play in our public life, said John Witte Jr.
“That’s not what the Constitution demands, it’s not what the culture needs, and it’s ultimately not where religion should settle,” said Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
Instead, religion should be an active participant in our politics and lawmaking.
“We need both public and private expressions of religion in all peaceable forms,” he said. “Religious views should be welcomed into public life, because they provide leaven for the polity to improve, and valuable examples and practices of how to organize our lives and laws in a better way.”
Witte is the Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law, Alonzo L. McDonald Distinguished Professor, and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. A specialist in legal history, marriage law and religious liberty, he has published more than 200 articles and journal symposia, and 26 books.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about law, religion and faith in the public square. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why a center on law and religion?
Initially, the center was designed to address questions that were falling between the curricular cracks -- church-state relations, canon law, issues of how a religious legal system fits in a modern, secular, constitutional state.
But increasingly, it also became an opportunity to think about hard questions that have spiritual and temporal dimensions -- issues such as human rights, family, charity and education.
Gradually, the center grew into a focused inquiry into faith, freedom and family viewed across the three Abrahamic religions and designed to retrieve the wisdom of the tradition and reconstruct it for our day. We try to develop a richer, interdisciplinary conversation about some of the fundamentals that divide religious and political communities and societies around the world.
Q: What has been the role of faith generally and Christianity in particular in shaping our understanding of law and the issues you mention, such as human rights and family?
Certainly in the Western legal tradition, Christianity was one of the backbones of many legal, political and social institutions that we take for granted today. At least from the 5th to the 18th century, Christianity provided many of the ideas and institutions of marriage and family, human rights and constitutionalism and more on which the Enlightenment and modern liberalism continued to build.
Much of that historical contribution is lost on contemporary church people. Even theologians and church historians don’t look at the legal and political implications of what the church and its theologians have rendered.
Many people in law and politics today, if they know about that theological heritage, think it’s simply scaffolding that went into the construction of the modern liberal state, and that now, the scaffolding can be taken down and the state and its law can exist without the support of the church and of its religious institutions.
Our starting assumption is the opposite: that religion is often a permanent part of the infrastructure of modern law, politics and society.
One thing we’re trying to do is to expose those religious foundations and dimensions, retrieve some of the richness of the tradition, demonstrate that there are enduring religious arguments about law and politics that the tradition introduced that can still be used and maintained in a postmodern, post-establishment, globalized, pluralistic society.
Part of that effort is to encourage the church, as it wrestles with new legal and political questions, to recognize that many things are not new under the sun. Our predecessors in the faith dealt with these same issues, and it’s important to mine the wisdom of the tradition before we make or accept precipitous changes.
It is too easy to say, with the Western liberal academy, that religion can simply die a happy death as rationalism and scientism have taken over. It’s too easy to say that religion is simply the irrational sputterings of the uneducated.
The reality is that we face a great awakening of religion around the world, and we don’t know how to deal with it. We are thus trying to find enduring models of interdisciplinary conversation in law and religion.
Q: Much of what you write about -- marriage, separation of church and state, faith in the public square -- is literally from today’s headlines. Why these issues now?
First, these are enduring questions for the West and for many civilizations around the world. Issues of church and state, of political and religious authority, have always been among the hardest contested questions. They resist easy solutions, and they always come back.
Second, we in the modern scientific era like to have clean analytical categories -- that some things are spiritual, some are economic, some political or legal. But we’ve begun to realize that those analytical categories, though helpful for teaching, don’t get to the reality of life and learning.
Many big things in life -- faith, family, human rights, education, charity, warfare -- ultimately involve spiritual and temporal questions and need the insights of a variety of disciplines and specialties.
Third, in the last 15 years, dramatically since 9/11, we have a new, serious and sophisticated conversation partner in Islam. Here is a culture just as sophisticated as Christianity that is making strong new claims upon our social, political and legal life. That too is precipitating new headlines and new contests.
Q: You’ve written that the rise of the Christian right isn’t a challenge to the integrity of American politics but to the apathy of American religion, and that it should be met by the rise of the Christian left. Basically, you contend that people of all faiths should take part in the marketplace of ideas. Why?
Part of that is my answer to the 1970s understanding of separation of church and state that said, “Religion is private; religion is dying; religion has nothing useful to say and is an illegitimate conversation partner in modern law, politics and society.”
That’s not what the Constitution demands, it’s not what the culture needs, and it’s ultimately not where religion should settle.
We need both public and private expressions of religion in all peaceable forms. Religious views should be welcomed into public life, because they provide leaven for the polity to improve, and valuable examples and practices of how to organize our lives and laws in a better way. Religions should be part of deep political conversation, and they should be taken into account as we craft our state laws and policies.