Passionate Convictions and Respectful Conversations

Faith in a Pluralistic Democracy
Emory University - Atlanta, Georgia
April 14, 2011

Last week, Democrats and Republicans in Washington reached an agreement that kept the United States Government from shutting down. That was the good news. But the time it took to reach the agreement, and the manner of reaching it, were both dispiriting.

This view was captured in the next day’s Washington Post in a story headlined: “Bitter fight makes both sides – and Washington itself – look bad.” The analysis read: “Washington is still broken … given the tortured negotiations and the claims and counterclaims … the public is likely to find fault with both political parties.”

This latest conduct of the nation’s business is, I believe, no aberration, but a fair reflection of the political age we’re in. Ideological differences seem more extreme, positions more entrenched, battles more acrimonious, compromise less common, friendly social relations among members of different parties more rare, and attacks on political opponents more personal.

Such divisiveness makes politics not only unpleasant. It makes it harder to come together to address our nation’s challenges. If we choose to attack our opponents before we have taken the time to understand them, if we prefer denunciations to genuine dialogue, if we seek political victory rather than constructive compromise, if it takes the specter of a government shutdown to force us into a grudging agreement, we will not be able to find solutions to the problems before us.

Many factors have contributed to the current polarization, but one important element– it pains me to admit – has been the rise of religious and moral issues in public debate. Whether the issue is abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, prayer in schools, or the proper role of government in addressing social issues—political appeals are often made to our religious convictions and the moral framework closely associated with them. Political debate is inevitable and can easily turn harsh. But when the debates center on issues at the moral core of our lives, it is all the easier for the debate to become angry. When an opponent rejects my view on a matter of morality, he or she can be seen as rejecting the whole moral frame that gives my life meaning. We are sometimes advised to: “avoid discussing politics or religion.” But when we debate these moral issues, we are discussing both politics and religion. And the discussion does not go on for long before the shouting and name-calling begin.

As these moral issues have risen in prominence in recent decades, political party affiliation has increasingly correlated with the degree of a person’s religious practice. It has long been the case, of course, that a person’s religious denomination was correlated with party preference, but now the strongest correlate is the degree of religious practice, with those who are more religiously observant in the traditional sense tending to migrate to the Republican Party and the less traditionally observant and more secular to the Democratic Party.

We thus have a situation in which the choice of political party is strongly, perhaps even dominantly, influenced by our deepest religious and moral convictions. This sets the stage for a stand-off on religious issues, and at least partly explains the current divisiveness. For while aligning a political party according to economic self-interest can lead to acrimonious divisions, as we have just seen, economic matters are generally more susceptible to agreement: one group can accept some but not all of what it wants, and the other side can do the same, without feeling it has compromised on a core religious conviction. Our religious and moral convictions have a certain ultimacy that resists compromise and lends itself to portraying one’s cause as divinely inspired and one’s opponent as not simply wrong but evil.

When the religious differences are taken up in the context of a partisan debate, the air of antagonism that can characterize an argument on core moral convictions can permeate the political debate across the entire range of issues. And on each issue, the antagonism provoked in earlier debate arises again, as people say semi-consciously to themselves and to each other: “these are the same people who opposed us on abortion, who opposed us on stem-cell research, on same-sex marriage” — and they look at the other side through the same angry lens that developed in debates over the core moral issues.

This intensifies the challenge of creating more civil public debate. If a debate on tax cuts were taken up, and people with the same religious practices were evenly distributed on either side of the tax question, it would be harder to demonize the other side in the way we so easily do today. It is just harder to generate the same disrespect toward someone whose religious views and practices you share.

Politics has always seen profit in demonizing the other side, and the fact that the parties can be divided largely across the lines of religious views and practices makes this approach impossible to resist. In recent decades, political activists in the two major parties have framed the issues and the candidates as a struggle between good and evil. Even if most voters reject this dichotomy, they can do little to change it – they can only respond to the choices they are given. It is not surprising, then, that respectful, reasoned, constructive dialogue seems ever more rare.


It should be no surprise that faith and religious-based moral convictions would play such a prominent role in public debate. For those of us who have faith, religious convictions are critical to defining our identity and forming our social networks; they shape our understanding of our highest individual good and purpose, and our understanding of what society’s highest good and purpose should be; they are the source of personal and communal challenge to do good, they console us in times of turmoil, struggle, and tragedy.

Yet while religious commitment has clearly played a beneficial role in, for example, the struggle to abolish slavery, history has shown that it can be used to fuel prejudice, intolerance of dissent, and even of slaughter – from the excesses of the medieval Crusades to sectarian killing in Northern Ireland to the tragedy of 9/11. Religious convictions have an almost unique motivational power. If we are to appeal to them, we must acknowledge that their power can be turned to both good and evil.

The distinctive motivational power of religious convictions is perhaps most evident in the tradition of martyrdom, prominent in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Book of Macabees in the Hebrew Bible tells the story of the sons of Macabee, who were ready to die rather than be forced by foreign occupiers to transgress the Torah. Christian martyrs since the first martyr St. Stephen, whose death by stoning is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian New Testament, have been specially revered in the Christian tradition. And in Islam, a martyr or shahid lays down his or her life fulfilling a religious commandment as a witness to righteousness. The first Muslim martyr was a woman, Sumayyah bint Khayyat, who was killed in Mecca simply for being a part of the new Muslim religion.

It is the ultimacy of the martyr’s sacrifice that makes him or her so revered in these religious traditions, for their commitment corresponds to the ultimacy of the demand that faith makes upon us. The teachings of faith play a central role in defining our relationship with God, our place in the world, what we ought to do, and what we can hope for. These truths are of such transcendent importance that, when necessary, the martyr is willing to sacrifice his or her life rather than neglect them.

The transcendent and all-encompassing character of faith is shown not only in the martyr’s willingness to accept a violent death for its sake, but also in the enduring and whole-hearted commitment of countless faithful believers throughout the course of their lives. Sr. Mary Scullion, a Catholic nun, and Joan McCannon, a committed lay woman, began in 1989 a short-term emergency center for homeless men who were not welcome in the city shelters of Philadelphia. Gathering others around them, and receiving a few seminal gifts, they worked over the years to found Project H.O.M.E. whose motto is, “No one has a home until everyone has a home,” and whose mission statement proclaims that the “work is rooted in the strong spiritual conviction of the dignity of every human person.” Project H.O.M.E is credited with cutting the homeless population of Philadelphia in half and, because of its education programs for its clients, 95% of those who cycle through these programs never live on the street again.

And it is difficult to come to Atlanta and not recall the example of a Baptist preacher from this great city, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He fought the injustice of discrimination, but he rejected hatred. "In the process of gaining our rightful place,” he said, “we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Dr. King died a martyr’s death on a hotel balcony in Memphis.

What makes his example even more intriguing is that his non-violent tactics were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu.

“Your love, O Lord, is better than life,” says the Psalmist. The martyr’s sacrifice and the humble, enduring dedication of a Sr. Scullian, Joan McCannon, Dr. King and countless other holy people are living testimony to this statement. History sadly shows, however, that religious convictions that can inspire holy people to give their lives – can also inspire others to justify taking life. The blood-letting of the religious wars in Europe in the 17th century are evidence of that, as are the violent acts by religious adherents in more modern times.

In an important work, American Grace, the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have shown that a strong religious life, regardless of one’s denomination, is correlated with a wide range of positive social behaviors, from volunteering time and contributing resources, to helping the needy, assisting a neighbor or a stranger, belonging to a civic organization, and participating in solving a civic problem.

Yet, the authors also unflinchingly point out that a strong religious life is also correlated with less tolerance for dissenting views.

Seizing on the negative manifestations of religious conviction, aggressive secularists argue that it would be better if religion were excluded from public debate. If our public life were rid of appeal to religious convictions, it is argued, it would be rid of much irrationality, intolerance, and acrimony.

No doubt, such uncompromising secularism is fueled by the more extreme expressions of religious intolerance and divisiveness, and vice versa. But, of course, any balanced view of the role of religion must acknowledge that eliminating it from our public life would remove the range of positive social attitudes and behaviors that come with it. And even if a secularist were to argue that such a thing would be desirable, it is hard to see how it would be possible. Politics is an ongoing discussion of how to make laws, collect revenues and spend money in ways that advance our values, and the voters – even if they wished to do so – would find it hard to engage in these debates without bringing in the values that define them.

Religious convictions will always make themselves felt in our national debate, and so the critical, practical questions for us are: how can our religious convictions and our religious institutions be a vibrant, constructive force for good in our national life, rather than a source of acrimony and divisiveness? How can the ultimacy which characterizes our religious convictions remain the motive for living holy and generous lives, while not serving as a tool to create divisions and demonize opponents? In this address I will be speaking as a Catholic in a Catholic setting, though I believe most of what I say can be applied to other religious traditions, and can apply also to instances of conflict where the points of division are not based in religion.


Among those who share the desire to encourage the positive contribution of religion while reducing the negative – some will advocate a relativist account of religious beliefs and claims. They will argue that if religious claims are not seen as absolute, then we remove the win-lose characteristic of religious debate – the characteristic that is the source of so much heat, and that prompts debates to be framed in the form: If you’re right, then I’m wrong, and I am not wrong!”

Relativism is a theory about the truth of religious and associated assertions that holds that they are meaningful and true, but their truth is indexed, as it were, to the individual or group who holds them. One suggested version of relativism holds that a claim may be true for the individual who believes it, while another contradictory claim may be true for another individual that holds that claim. Or, alternatively, a relativist account may hold that a claim is true for the community that holds it to be true, though another contradictory claim may be true for another community holding that second claim. So I may believe strongly that Jesus is the second person of the Divine Trinity, and another person may believe just as strongly that God is One and Jesus was a human prophet. Or, to change examples, I may believe that marriage can be only a commitment between a man and a woman, while you may believe there is no valid reason to deny marriage to a same sex couple. The relativist would say, the first claim may be true for me (or my group), while the second is true for you (or your group).

We can perhaps get an intuitive sense of relativists’ claims by considering their religious and moral assertions, as the relativist understands them, as analogous to our expressions of taste or preference. You and I may frequent the gelato shop down the street, and I may love their chocolate mocha, while you are just as passionate about their pistachio. We may engage in heated discussion about the relative merits of our favorite flavors, and we each may try to recruit our friends to become adherents of our preferences. But, although we feel strongly about our favorite flavors, and though we may appear to disagree, we really don’t. It is true that chocolate mocha is the tastiest flavor for me, while pistachio is the tastiest flavor for you. But we have to admit that there is no “tastiest flavor” independent of the taster, and so no way to appeal our dispute to an external, objective standard. Once we accept this, we can continue to be passionately committed to our preferences and even engage in some playful banter, but we recognize that we do not disagree.

Of course, debates about ice cream flavors are trivial; religious views on abortion or the nature of marriage are not. Nevertheless, the relativist holds, they are similar in that in each case the truth of the claims are relative to the group’s attitudes, and so people may assert seemingly contradictory claims and not disagree. Therefore, there is no point in arguing the truth of our separate claims, according to the relativist. The only issue worth discussing is how we will live together harmoniously while following our respective beliefs.

It is, perhaps, a certain concession to the relativist view that leads some to speak of our religious preferences rather than our religious beliefs.

Yet despite the popularity of such an account, and in spite of its often useful ability to allow the discussion of deep articles of faith in ways that do not offend those of other faiths, I do not think it is tenable as an understanding of religious and moral beliefs. Many have offered theoretical critiques of relativism, and I agree with those who hold that it is an unsuccessful and even a self-contradictory position. I will not, however, repeat those theoretical arguments here, but rather offer a separate critique: relativism does not solve our practical challenge of how religious convictions can remain the positive force in society while not becoming a source of divisiveness. It fails on both counts.

For, first of all, theological relativism solves the problem of religious conflict only insofar as religious people believe that it is an accurate account of their religious claims. Even if it is true that there is no absolute truth I express when I say Jesus Christ is true God and true man, I nevertheless may believe there is. And if I believe there is, then I also believe that you and I disagree on a truth of great importance. And if we believe we disagree, then we have a reason for taking sides, arguing with one another, and acting on the basis of our respective beliefs. We thus have a reason for passionate conflict. So relativism would fail to keep the peace that is its purpose, because it will be rejected by those whose behavior and beliefs it would moderate.

In the second case, suppose relativism prevails and people of faith somehow accept that there is no absolute truth at stake in their religious beliefs. Suppose further that my religious convictions call me to make great sacrifices, whether in giving my life to violent death or in service to others. But if I believe that the truth of these claims depend on my attitudes, why would I not change those attitudes and the dependent belief to a set that is less demanding? My beliefs would be no less true, and I could avoid some excruciating demands on my life.

Relativism solves the problem of religious and moral conflict only by emptying religious beliefs of their ultimacy. It undermines the motivational force of those convictions—the very force that made them a source of such positive and valuable contributions to society. Religious beliefs are important to so many millions because they are seen to issue from the highest authority and speak of what is of highest meaning and value in our lives. But relativism tells us that their truth is built on the shifting sands of our attitudes — and the meaning they give us is as transient as those attitudes. If we embrace relativism, we recognize that we do not disagree about such beliefs, but we may also discover that we do not care about them.


If relativism fails as an answer, both theoretically and practically, as I believe it does, we must return again to the question: How can faith play a role in public life in a way that enables it to serve the good — and not be corrupted into a force for bad? A final comprehensive answer is beyond the scope of this address, but I will offer three recommendations.

1) Recommendation one: Religious convictions must not be co-opted by partisan political interests.

Success in a democratic political system is achieved by building coalitions, and ultimately political parties, around important issues. As I mentioned earlier, a number of political scientists have argued that the rising prominence of abortion and same-sex marriage in American politics led to the migration of more religiously-motivated voters to the Republican Party and the less religiously-motivated voters to the Democratic Party. Because these issues touch on such central values—the sanctity of life and the character of an institution at the heart of our social life—it is not surprising that they have such a resonance with religious voters. And these issues have been profoundly influential in shaping the platforms of the political parties.

Yet there are two dangers with aligning religious convictions and communities too closely with political parties: first, some elements of the platform may not align with all our important convictions; second, the platform may be silent on values that are of great importance. A devout Catholic, for instance, may not want to identify fully with the Democratic Party because while she shares the Party’s desire to help the poor or protect the environment, she rejects its stance on abortion. Similarly, another Catholic might not want to identify whole-heartedly with the Republican Party because while he passionately endorses the party’s pro-life stance, he cannot embrace its position on immigration.

It is part of political life in a democracy that we join coalitions that advance issues we care deeply about while recognizing that they do not serve a number of other issues that are important to us. I am not saying anything against prudential judgments that lead us to enter coalitions and accede to compromise. My point here is that, as religiously committed people, we must be wary of allowing our religious beliefs, communities and institutions to be identified with any particular political party or agenda. Too close an identification ultimately weakens the religious voice in our society by placing religious convictions at the service of a partisan political agenda.

Many people can turn to a person who shares their Christian faith and not their political views, and ask “are you with us or against us?” — as if what defines “us” is not a shared faith in Christ, but a shared point of view on a matter of politics. It is certainly a good thing that conservative Catholics and Evangelicals may come together against abortion; and it is a good thing that liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, and secular feminists may unite to advance the status of women. But if the cause, whatever it is, becomes central and the religious tradition which supports it is subordinated, then these religious communities and their traditions can come to be seen as mere instruments in advancing a political cause. If this occurs, then the religious tradition and community becomes incoherent. The integrity of its character as a community of faith is sacrificed in the interests of forming a political action committee.

2) Recommendation two: Practice Epistemic Humility and Epistemic Charity

I am not for a moment arguing against vigorous advocacy by people of faith for principles that arise from their faith. In a pluralistic democracy, it is essential that each person advances their views in constructive, civil discussion, and that he or she welcomes those who advance contrary views.

The views of those with faith, of course, may be grounded in religion and therefore may have for the believer greater certainty. In the public forum, however, the believer must give reasons that are accessible to all, and their positions will be evaluated on the basis of those reasons. Yet the mere fact that certain positions are grounded in faith can make those who do not share that faith nervous, for they may fear that a person of faith may lack the openness to contrary arguments that one would hope for in a dialectical partner. Of course, adherents of secular ideologies have proven just as inflexible and resistant to contrary argument as the most ardent religious believer, and a fair and open consideration of contrary perspectives is something we should all practice. My concern here is with people of faith — and I want to suggest that we learn to cultivate humility about what we claim to be true.

It may be true that a belief of mine is inspired by God’s revelation, but my understanding and articulation of that truth is subject to human fallibility. Religious traditions with a long history have beliefs that have evolved over time. Whether it is the claim that the earth is the center of the universe, or that usury is contrary to justice and Biblical teaching, we have seen changes in our understanding of what has been divinely revealed and how we understand that revelation. If such development occurred in the past, we can expect it to occur in the future.

Consequently, even when we are speaking about truths believed to be revealed, the believer should exhibit a certain epistemic humility with respect to what she or he claims. With such humility, believers can hold both that their beliefs are grounded in divine revelation and yet also that our understanding of them can grow. A believer, then, can be open to the same self-criticism and flexibility in public discussions that her or his secular counterpart may show.

A second important characteristic is what I call epistemic charity. I may be convinced of a religious truth, and consequently, if another person denies this truth, I conclude that she or he is wrong. Yet, even if the person is mistaken, charity demands that such a person be treated with respect. She or he may not have heard the arguments, or understood them, or share my faith. In such a case, it would be wrong to condemn or be condescending to this person.

What I am saying may seem trite and obvious, but unfortunately it is not a common practice. There is an unsettling tendency in moral debate to portray those who disagree as evil, and otherwise decent people can be unsparing in their personal attacks. Very often, the persuasive force of those who proclaim the Gospel is undermined by the obvious hatred in their attacks.

3) Recommendation three: Recognize the Central Power of Witness

This leads to my final point about the role of faith in public debate. Communities of faith may participate in coalitions to achieve important political ends, and their participation may arise from a common faith and a transcendent commitment. But their primary call is to witness to transcendent truths by the way they live. And their actions have their highest value in testifying to the divine presence at work in the world and in their community. No political end should ever overshadow this call to witness, because no work is more effective than witness in achieving truly religious ends.

Indeed, if love is the greatest commandment, then the way we engage one another in public debate is not a means to an end, the means ARE the ends.

It is hard to imagine a more politically insignificant group than the generally poor or working class Christians of the Mediterranean world in the first century. Their deaths alone in various persecutions would not have created public reaction or protest sufficient to threaten the Roman Empire. But it was the courage and serenity of these Christians in facing their excruciating public deaths that spoke most powerfully, and it was such a witness that perhaps changed hearts. The same could be said of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Sr. Mary Scullion and Joan McCanon in Philadelphia, and many others whose witness had a more enduring effect than any short-term policy or legislative change.

One of the great risks of political life for Christians is the chance that the near-term political goals will undermine our ultimate goal – the call to witness. And I would argue that any act that undercuts our call to witness ultimately undercuts our political cause as well, if that cause is just. Our enduring goal should be the impact that comes when people see Christians living the truth of their faith in ways that even non-believers can admire.

Some agree with the primacy of the call to witness, but insist that their action is their witness, that advancing a cause in line with religion is witnessing to that religion. But I suggest that all of us with faith do some soul searching—particularly appropriate in this season of Lent—about how we witness in public debate.

I believe we offer our greatest Christian witness in the midst of our most difficult disagreements, when we make a genuine effort to treat the other person with respect, to appeal to common values and to conscience to win them over. Ultimately, truly Christian attempts to engage another in public debate must take the form of an effort to persuade.

If I feel Christian love and good will for the other side, then it would be my duty to persuade them. And if I want to persuade them, then how can I villainize them? People are not persuaded by those who attack their character.

But if I don’t try to persuade you, but only try to prove you wrong, then I’m not showing the respect that love demands. To stand apart, proclaim my position, and refuse to talk except to judge does not reduce evil or promote love. And if it does neither, how can it be inspired by God?


In the end, the challenge that prompted this talk – the question of how to preserve the positive aspect of faith and reduce the negative – all pivots on the matter of witness.

Genuine faith calls for a total commitment of one’s life. Unlike the shifting commitments of political coalitions that unite groups with overlapping but disparate interests, religious faith asks that we give ourselves fully to God, and be transformed. It shapes our view of the world, and does not simply accommodate it. It gives us our purpose, and does not simply serve our interests.

In T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Archbishop Thomas Becket returns to England having been exiled to France by King Henry II after a series of confrontations over the rights of the Church as against the King’s authority. Under pressure from Pope Alexander III, King Henry allows Becket to return to England as Archbishop, setting up a final confrontation. That ends in political failure but in a martyr’s triumph, as Becket is murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who believed they were carrying out the King’s will. Becket is immediately revered by the people as a martyr, and King Henry is compelled to do penance at Becket’s tomb.

As the play opens, while a chorus of women anxiously await Becket’s return to Canterbury, they chant:

Destiny waits in the hands of God, not in the hands of statesmen,
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
Having their aims turn in their hands according to the pattern of time.

Those of us with faith must engage in political confrontations, and do our best planning and guessing and maneuvering to see that critical interests are served. But, for us, the most important struggle is to remain true to the call of faith, and thus to witness — while humbly accepting that destiny does indeed wait in the hands of God.