Position papers on the ongoing debate surrounding the role that religious belief should play in American public affairs.
From the introduction by Martin E. Marty, defensively titled “Faith Matters,” this collection has the sound of a project funded by grants from large, respectable foundations, employing a resolutely brave, we’re-confronting-the-issues-here tone but coming up with stunningly inoffensive conclusions. Elshtain (Divinity/Univ. of Chicago) starts off promisingly with an analysis of de Tocqueville’s advocacy of religious affiliation as a public good, but she soon wades away from consideration of the problematic aspects of his own religious positions (not to mention his ambivalence about democracy) into more familiar complaints that “dogmatic skepticism . . . is corrosive of all faith and all belief save the unexamined belief in skepticism itself.” Al-Hibri (Law/Univ. of Richmond) courageously asserts that “we need to foster honesty and appropriate disclosure in the public square” and “our position in the world and our role in it must be studied more seriously.” Haynes (Freedom Forum) urges those disturbed by the introduction of religious discourse into public schools to find common ground with those affronted by the omission of religion from the curriculum, offering as a paradigm what he calls “the civil public school,” which acknowledges the importance of religion while avoiding sectarianism. Os Guinness (Trinity Forum) pleads for a reenergized “public square” inspired by the theism of the Founding Fathers. It would be hard to find anyone who disagrees with these temperate statements—who’s going to speak up for more dishonesty in the public sphere, or greater divisiveness and more name-calling at the local Board of Ed meetings? But that’s exactly the problem: real dialogue starts with confronting real differences, and conflicts of interest that cannot necessarily be resolved through a little good faith and earnest intellectual endeavor on all sides. In fact, a little corrosive skepticism might have been just the thing here.
Well-intended but bland responses to a contentious topic.