Religion: Relevant to Public Policy but Shielded from Critical Discussion?
David A. Hollinger

This essay draws on my new book, Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular (Princeton University Press, 2022).

The United States today confronts a remarkable paradox: an increasingly secular society is saddled with an increasingly religious politics. In 2021, 29% of the national population identified as having no religious affiliation, but only 0.2 percent of members of Congress did. The US Supreme Court is dominated by Catholics who have radically expanded the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment while limiting the “non-establishment” clause in exactly the terms long advocated by the nation’s predominantly evangelical Protestant “Christian Nationalists.” Never before has American society experienced so rapid an episode of secularization, yet the theocratic noises of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics are louder than ever. 

Dealing critically with this paradox is made more difficult by the widespread reluctance to seriously question any idea advanced under the sign of religion. This informal ban on “the questioning of someone about their religion,” laments Linda Greenhouse, is the “last taboo in American society.” This ban “has been a gift to the religious right: the secular middle does not know how to talk back or even how to frame the questions.” The fear that one will be accused of being “biased against religion” has enabled conservative Christianity to exercise disproportionate influence over the public affairs of the United States, pushing aside liberal versions of Christianity and other perspectives, including secularism.  

One might suppose that we lived in a world of either/or: either religious ideas are relevant to public policy and thus subject to critical discussion, or they are not relevant and thus not a topic for debate. But instead, we live in a world of both/and: religious ideas are both relevant to public policy and excluded from critical evaluation. White evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics are free to pursue political initiatives in the name of religious faith while that faith remains largely protected from critical scrutiny. 

Our situation was made abundantly clear in 2020, when it was widely implied that Amy Coney Barrett’s devout faith was among the grounds for favoring her appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court, yet no one was allowed to ask just what her religious ideas were, and how they might be relevant to the issues that might come before the Court. Merely to ask was to risk being accused of anti-Catholic bias. Senator Diane Feinstein was impolitic enough —perhaps as a result of her obviously diminishing cognitive powers — to confront Barrett during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on her nomination. “Dogma and law are two different things,” and religion “has its own dogma,” intoned the California Senator. “And I think in your case,” she said to Barrett, “dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.” Multiple Republican voices charged religious bigotry. Senator Orin Hatch suggested that Democrats were demanding a “religious test.” Does one have to be “losing it” to be bold enough to risk such accusations? 

Can we not get beyond the feeling that we show respect to someone by refraining from criticizing their expressed religious ideas, no matter how out of touch with reality? This feeling has a noble history. It is a legacy from the days when religion was understood as a private concern, like the details of one’s marriage or bank account. Under the ordinance of that politeness principle, many Americans learned to give all religious ideas “a pass.” In keeping with this tradition, we commonly subject to critical scrutiny ideas about almost everything except religion. If we hear someone say that women cannot do first-rate science, or that African Americans are just not as smart as Korean Americans, or that taxation is essentially a form of theft, or that the Americans won World War II with minimal help from the Soviets, or that global warming is a hoax, it is okay to challenge the speaker with evidence and reasoning. Not so with any idea presented as part of someone’s religious faith. 

The restraint on open discussion is all the more troubling because the particular religious outlook that threatens democracy today has been promoted and defended by evangelical preachers bound only loosely by modern standards of epistemic plausibility. Robert Putnam and David Campbell concluded, on the basis of exhaustive investigation, that about three-quarters of the Americans whom social scientists define as deeply religious “reject evolution altogether and believe instead that God created human beings fewer than ten thousand years ago.” There is no doubt about where the faithful got these ideas, and what groups of clergy were best positioned to disabuse churchgoers of their illusions. It is no wonder that millions of evangelicals were an easy mark for Donald Trump, and were ready to believe his Twitter stream of falsehoods. “People here in the heartland will keep electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots,” remarked the white Appalachian bard Joe Bageant on behalf of his ancestral tribe, “until it is possible to get an education without going into crushing debt.” The more knowledge people have about history, society, and nature — as distinguished from technical and vocational training, which has less decisive consequences for citizenship — the greater their capacity to evaluate the claims and counter-claims that always confront voters in a democracy. 

Might the United States today be well served by a robust, public debate about religious ideas? It is easy to disparage hope for honest conversation. To doubt the power of argumentation about virtually any contested topic is often invoked as a mark of sophistication. Argumentation in itself is rarely enough in any worthy cause, but without it we are all the weaker. Moreover, forthright debate has been basic to American democracy since Jefferson invoked “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” Democracies disparage argumentation at their peril. The paradox of an increasingly religious politics in an increasingly secular society is intensifying. It demands a vigorous response.  

To be sure, truth is more easily accepted when advanced by members of one’s own tribe. Intellect works best when accompanied by fellow-feeling. But tribal epistemologies are not beyond challenge, and tribal boundaries sometimes change. Religion is not impervious to argumentation.  This is shown by the history of Protestantism in the United States. Liberal versions of the faith gained popularity with the spread of education about history, society, and nature. Inherited understandings of the Bible lost out to evidence and reasoning in regard to the Darwinian Revolution in natural history and the historical criticism of the Bible. Liberalization and secularization were propelled by knowledge and argumentation. Today, non-believers and those believers who respect modern learning have a great deal in common, and can together argue against ignorance and dogmatism. “The credulous man,” wrote W. K. Clifford, “is father to the liar and the cheat.” 

It is all too easy to retreat into ironic detachment and the pseudo-realist claim that argumentation is futile. Sometimes it is futile. But not always. The good things about the political and legal traditions of the United States were made by people who gave it a try. ♦

David A. Hollinger is the author of nine books, including After Cloven Tongues of Fire (Princeton, 2013) and Postethnic America (Basic Books, third edition, 2006). He is a former President of the Organization of American Historians, and is Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

Recommended Citation

Hollinger, David A. “Religion: Relevant to Public Policy but Shielded from Critical Discussion?” Canopy Forum, October 21, 2022.