In today’s online edition of the New York Times, University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting attempts a takedown of those who attempt to inject religion into secular political debates. His clear target is the religious right and the Tea Party who believe in limited government. Gutting writes that it is irritating to be confronted with “the irrationality of claims that distinctively modern questions about capitalist economics and democratic government were answered in the Bible 2000 years ahead of time,” such as those by the conservative Christian group The Family Leader’s Voting Guide.
Gutting has a point, but the problem with the piece–and much of the liberal disdain for conservative Christians and their Tea Party allies–is the same argument can be used to dismiss liberals who employ religious arguments on behalf of their own positions on the profoundly secular question of taxes, entitlements and the public debt. Coming as it did the day after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced congressional efforts to cut back on entitlement spending as part of a solution to the debt ceiling crisis, the omission was an extraordinary example of bias. The religious left is just as guilty as those on the right of trying to depict God as being on their side of the aisle.
As even Gutting concedes, the last thing we should want is a “naked public square” in which persons of faith and faith perspectives are marginalized in our political life. The movements to end slavery and segregation in this country would be unimaginable without the religious fervor that was the greatest single motivating factor for those who protested those evils. So let’s stipulate that both the left and the right have the right to invoke moral arguments on behalf of their priorities.
The problem arises when religious advocates distort debates about the proper rate of taxation or government spending into questions of religious principle. The Family Leader has every right to speak up on behalf of limited government as a moral imperative, just as the Catholic Bishops or the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism have the right to argue that cuts to entitlement programs are immoral. But when such groups speak in the name of their faiths in such a way as to depict their opponents as somehow immoral or irreligious, then a line has been crossed. It is no more the duty of an evangelical Christian to choose one side in the debt ceiling debate than it is of a Catholic or a Jew to be on the other.
Gutting is correct to question Family Life’s crossing of this line, but one is left wondering why neither he nor anyone at the Times thinks the same behavior is noteworthy when it is committed by far more influential groups on the left.