In reply to my post, “Religious Right, Meet Religious Left,” Jamelle Bouie writes:
I’m not sure if you can equate religiously motivated politics with trying to “use the force of government to advance their religious agendas.”
Having a theologically based political belief is no different then having a philosophically based one. So for example, there are Christians who believe that Jesus’ admonitions about caring for the poor compel them to advocate — politically — on behalf of the poor.
They aren’t necessarily trying to impose a religious belief, but their actions are motivated by said belief.
Bouie distinguishes between advocating a policy from religious motives and advocating a policy that advances religious doctrine. This can indeed be a useful distinction.
Here are some examples of advocating a policy from religious motives, when the policy itself does not explicitly promote a religious doctrine. Various Christians want to outlaw abortion, because they believe that abortion is forbidden by God’s will, yet a law outlawing abortion need not explicitly mention any religious belief. Other Christians want to politically restrict the human emission of carbon dioxide, because they believe they have a religious duty to “save the earth” from such emissions, but those restrictions themselves do not necessarily promote Christian beliefs. Notably, many people who aren’t Christians also want to politically restrict such emissions. Many theists want to forcibly redistribute wealth to the poor, because they believe such redistribution is demanded by their religious precepts, yet statutes enforcing such redistribution need not mention religion. Many atheists also advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth to the poor.
Here are some examples of “trying to impose a religious belief” in the sense of using politics to advance a religious doctrine. Many “conservatives” (as noted) want to divert tax funds to schools that teach particular religious doctrines. Many conservatives also want government-run schools to teach creationism as science. In times past, various countries have passed statutes requiring people to attend some particular church. In the Middle Ages, the Inquisition murdered people for expressing beliefs heretical to Christianity.
However, as useful as this distinction is, it does not accomplish what Bouie thinks it does. I am not concerned merely with criticizing instances of political force that advance particular religious doctrines. I am also concerned with criticizing those who would “use the force of government to advance their religious agendas” in the broader sense. For example, I oppose the outlawing of abortion because it involves the illegitimate use of governmental force. In other words, I oppose the (initiatory) use of governmental force across the board, not merely when that use of force advances some particular religious doctrine.
Those who wish to outlaw abortion are indeed “trying to impose a religious belief” in the sense that matters. No, those who want to outlaw abortion are not trying to force me to say, “I accept that God forbids abortion,” but they are trying to interfere with the liberty of my wife and me to control our own lives. (As a side note, it turns out that my wife and I have discovered this wonderful invention called “birth control,” but we would not rule out an abortion if, for example, a pregnancy threatened the life of my wife. Of course, some Christians also want to outlaw birth control.)
In other cases, bad policies can be motivated by religious or secular ideologies. In such cases, does it really matter what the motivation is? Yes, it does, for two reasons. First, a full refutation of the case behind the policy is impossible without an understanding of what’s motivating the policy. A Christian and a Marxist might both advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth to the poor, but they’ll have different reasons for doing so (even though I agree with Leonard Peikoff that leftist collectivism is basically derived or borrowed from religious collectivism). Second, one cannot assess the potential cultural power of a particular policy proposal without knowing what’s motivating it. For example, in his June 12 post, Peikoff argues that the “anti-industrial Greens” will have “short-lived” success, but that religion is capable of much stronger and longer-lasting cultural influence.
As a side note, I strongly discourage writers from using the construction “advocate on” or “advocate for.” What does it mean to “advocate on behalf of the poor?” Advocate what? It is possible to advocate the forcible redistribution of wealth to the poor. It is possible to advocate Policy X. Let us stop this empty “advocating for” positions that are never specified. I oppose this egalitarianism of advocacy, this presumption that all forms of advocacy are created equal, regardless of what is being advocated. If you have the guts to advocate a particular policy or idea, then have the guts to name that policy or idea.