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A review of Why Politics Needs Religion. By Brendan Sweetman.

Feb 15, 2007

InterVarsity Press, 2006.

We are told that religion and politics don’t mix. But it is often the irreligious who make such claims. Secularists do not want people of faith to have any input into the political process. But given that the majority of the world’s population is religious, it is reasonable to expect religion to inform and flavour the political debate.

There are at least three ways in which religion can influence and interact with politics. One is the sacred public square model, in which religion takes over the public arena. This theocratic model is best exemplified in the Islamic view of religion and politics, in which there is no sacred/secular distinction.

Another is the naked public square model, in which religion is decidedly and deliberately absent from the public arena, being a privatised faith relegated to the purely personal sphere. This is what the secularists and atheists are gunning for.

Finally there is the civic public square model, in which competing religious belief systems are allowed to slug it out, intellectually and ideologically, in the public arena. In this model various religious arguments are made, and may the best man – or religion – win. That is the model argued for in this book.

Image of Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square
Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square by Brendan Sweetman Amazon logo

Sweetman, an American philosophy professor, claims that all religions have a right to enter the social and political debates of the day. Modern pluralism is not threatened or harmed by allowing religious argumentation about current social debates. In fact, it is strengthened by it.

He insists that all worldviews have a genuine place in the democratic process, and that non-religious positions promote their own worldviews, just as the various religions do. Indeed, he demonstrates that even secular humanism is a worldview and a religion.

A worldview, says Sweetman, is a philosophy of life, dealing with such issues as the nature of reality, what it means to be human, and how we think about right and wrong. It also contains certain life-regulating beliefs. Clearly the major world religions deal with such considerations, but so too does secularism and humanism.

And all worldviews have a faith component. That is, not all of their claims and beliefs can be fully and absolutely proven or established, so there is a belief commitment. Every worldview, even the secular worldview, has this faith component.

Philosophical naturalists, for example, have a commitment to the belief that all that matters is matter. It is not something that can be proven with absolute certainty, but is instead a philosophical presupposition.

There is nothing wrong with having such faith commitments, Sweetman suggests. We all hold to some beliefs without absolute surety, but we have substantial and reasonable grounds for holding to such beliefs. Thus religious folk can have strong, probable and rational grounds for holding to various beliefs, just as secularists do.

In this volume Sweetman spends a fair amount of time demonstrating just how secularism is in fact a worldview, even a religion. He shows how these secularists are not just against certain things (religion, God, the supernatural, etc.) but in fact have many things they are positively promoting and advocating, such as their philosophical naturalism, their materialistic reductionism, and so on.

Moreover, many secularists want in fact to establish a “seculocracy”. They want to see established by law their views on a whole range of issues, be it evolution, moral relativism or a fully naked public arena. These goals can be clearly seen in the various Humanist Manifestos that have been produced (1933, 1973 and 2000).

Sweetman next argues that if secularism is as much of a worldview and a religion as is Christianity, then both should be treated the same: both should have equal access to the public square, and both should be allowed to set forth their case, and let the people decide which is the preferred option, at least on various public policy issues.

But secularists do not even want the debate to take place. They act as if they alone should have exclusive access to the public arena, and that all religions must be privatised affairs, with no influence whatsoever in the social and political spheres.

But Sweetman says that all worldviews should have this access to the public sphere. He teases this idea out by looking at several contentious debates, such as the abortion issue, and shows how in a pluralistic and democratic society, those with religious convictions can just as properly, and reasonably, put forth their case as the secularists.

Indeed, as the author argues, politics needs religion. If the state is to treat its citizens fairly and equally, then it must create a level playing field in which all religions and worldviews are allowed to flourish and promote their vision of the public good.

It is possible that secularism might prevail. Or some religion, like Christianity. But that is what a democracy is all about, letting the people decide what set of core beliefs and values they wish to model their nation on. A fair and democratic political system will allow vigorous debate on the issues that concern its citizens, and not allow one group (increasingly in the West, the secularists) to have an unfair monopoly over the public arena.

This book deserves wide reading, if we are to forestall the secularists from cutting off the much needed debate on the important issues of the day.

[885 words]

14 Responses to A review of Why Politics Needs Religion. By Brendan Sweetman.

  • Abortion is a good example where the secularists have imposed their “religious” beliefs upon society. Not content with just having achieved the “right” for a woman to murder her unborn child, they even force those of us who hate abortion to fund it through our taxes! This is nothing less than secular tyranny.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • Another example of religion doing some good should be remembered this year, because it is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Yet the abolitionists would be called “religious right” if they were alive today. Conversely, the pro-slavers were the ones who demanded that religion stay out of politics. E.g. Lord Melbourne, a future Prime Minister of the UK (and the eponym of Australia’s second city), spruiked: ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.’ See Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: Christian hero.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Unfortunately I must confess to a total inability to follow Mr Muehlenberg’s reasoning here. (I have not, I must admit, read Sweetman’s book). “Sweetman,” according to Mr Muehlenberg, “says that all worldviews should have this access to the public sphere.”

    Right, does the phrase “all worldviews” include Islam? If it does include Islam, then how can granting such access be reconciled with the aversion towards Islam demonstrated by Mr Muehlenberg so often elsewhere? (For example, in his championship of, for instance, The Sword of the Prophet?) And if, on the other hand, it excludes Islam, then how does such an attitude of suppression (and enforced privatising of Islam) differ from the atheism Mr Muehlenberg correctly deplores?

    Sooner or later, it seems to me, commentators such as Mr Muehlenberg are going to have to decide what their actual stance towards Islam is. If Islam is to be reprobated, then we can say goodbye to all hopes of Muslims giving us any support in the fight against abortion, buggery, contraception, etc. If, on the other hand, Islam is not to be reprobated – if it is to be allowed its own place in the public square – then there seems little point objecting when it throws its weight around against the likes of Catch the Fire ministers.

    Of course, there are plenty of people (more especially among American evangelicals of the Rapture type) who can get around this dilemma perfectly easily, because their Christianity is not Christianity at all: it is simply endless agitprop on behalf of the Israeli state, with consequent demonising of all Muslims everywhere. This at least makes logical sense; but I do hope that Mr Muehlenberg operates at a higher theological level than that.

    R J Stove, Melbourne

  • I find that one of the greatest hindrances to informed debate by Christians in the political or public arena is the negligible level of apologetics’ training given at the local church level.

    I have spent the last 2 days in a Narrative Therapy workshop (I’m a family counselling manager) in which the presenter, a university teacher, said that the underpinnings of this therapy were from postmodernism which promoted these views:

    1. There is no self. Self is constructed in relationship with other people.
    2. There is no reality.
    3. There is no truth.

    I challenged the premises and consequences of such a view. I knew of two other Christians in the smallish group and the most that one contributed to the statement, “There is no truth,” was that she was a Christian. No challenge to postmodern views was provided. I felt like a “lone ranger.”

    But I observe that no matter what evangelical church I attend, apologetics is not considered a prime equipping task in this secular era. Until apologetics gets the kind of place it was given in the early church fathers, we are going to struggle with equipping believers for this critical political and public ministry.

    Spencer Gear, Hervey Bay, Qld.

  • Thanks RJ

    But why can’t a person support Muslims making their case in the public arena (within obvious limits, eg., not calling for the overthrow of the Australian government), while also being concerned about radical Islam and the clear danger it poses to the free West? I don’t see a contradiction here.

    Yes I believe Christians and Muslims can and should be co-belligerents on family and life issues. But that does not mean that we turn a blind eye to the threats posed by militant Islam.

    As to the CTF case, it is one thing to say that in a democracy Muslims should have a right to argue their case in the public square. It is quite another for an activist judiciary to introduce divisive vilification laws and allow Muslims to use them as anti-Christian clubs, stifling freedom of speech and religious debate.

    Again, I see no contradiction here. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Spencer Gear makes a very good point that many churches fail to equip their flock to practise the biblical commands to defend the faith (1 Peter 3:15, Jude 3) and to demolish contrary arguments (2 Cor. 10:50. Compare Why Johnny Can’t Believe: On the Failure of the Church to Educate and What? A Christian mind?
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • The recognition of ‘superior objectivity’ solves the supposed conflict between religion/politics; revelation/science; faith/reason. Bill quite rightly points out the secularists often have subjectivities they conveniently deny & ignore. If the Bible is more objective than the Koran; and Jesus more objective than Muhummad; and Christians more objective than secularists; then that should determine society’s dominant worldview.
    Phil Guerin

  • Bill,

    I’m highly amused that you approve of the writings of a liberal Jesuit leftie like Sweetman.

    I take issue with your claim that secularists, whoever they are, “have an unfair monopoly over the public arena”. What evidence do you have to support this assertion?

    Christian Right lobby groups in this country frequently quote census figures indicating that 70% of Australians are Christian. Add in the other religions and you have to conclude that “religion” already has the major influence on public policy.

    Are you suggesting that most Christians are actually secularists? If they are, perhaps it is for good reason. Despite your admiration for a “survival of the fittest” approach to the public square, most people, believers or otherwise, have had enough of sectarian conflicts, yet that is exactly what you seem to be endorsing.

    A secular society is actually far fairer to all religious belief than one dominated by a particular faith. Secular states such as Australia and the USA assert freedom of religion (as well as freedom from religion) in their constitutions. Why on earth would you want it any other way?

    Bronwyn Kingsley, Brisbane

  • Thanks Bronwyn

    But it is exactly because Sweetman is not some conservative evangelical that his arguments should carry all the more weight, especially for people of your ideological persuasion.

    And only a thoroughgoing secularist can ask for evidence of the rise of secularism and increasing religion-bashing in contemporary Western society. For starters, see the articles in my persecution section of this website for documentation. As an example, see this review of mine: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/13/a-review-of-persecution-by-david-limbaugh/

    If you are not just asking a rhetorical question here, but are genuinely interested, you should also peruse Yale University’s Stephen Carter’s important 1993 volume, The Culture of Disbelief.

    As to your point about “sectarian conflicts”, are you saying there should be no public debate on religious issues? Should it all be banned in your view? Please declare you hand here.

    As to religious belief being treated fairly by secular states, it depends on what you mean. Religion has been given a run in countries like Australia and America exactly because they were for so long far from secular, but awash with religious belief and practice. It is only as they become more and more secular that pressure mounts on religious beliefs. Thus many secularists today, including your mate Dawkins, are not interested in religious freedom. They are anti-religionists who want to see the public square wiped clean of any religious views. Are you with them or against them on this one, Bronwyn?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    Contrary to the claims of the Religious Right, the founding fathers of the United States of America knew the dangers of an injudicious mix of religion and the power of government. They had seen the tyranny that was spawned by the Calvinist theocracies of the early colonies, and they wanted to build a constitutional model in which religion could freely exist but in which particular religious belief could not be imposed on the people against their will. Most of the examples of “persecution” in your Limbaugh article are nothing more than the upholding of that constitutional separation of church and state. Activists who attempt to push their particular beliefs on the community in government schools must expect strong opposition. That is not persecution.

    The “public square” as you put it, is a different matter. Today’s public square is probably best represented by the Internet, where anyone with a viewpoint is free to say whatever they please, subject to the laws of defamation and incitement to crime etc. I see absolutely no evidence that religious viewpoints are threatened, and I ask you once again to substantiate your claim that “secularists have an unfair monopoly over the public arena”.

    I also question your claim that secularists “want to see the public square wiped clean of any religious views”. Dawkins admittedly has little respect for religion, but he has no power to stop you or any other believer proclaiming their beliefs.

    And if you want my personal views, I’m a strong supporter of the principle of freedom of speech and our constitutional guarantee both of freedom of religion and freedom from state-sponsored religion.

    Debate is one thing, but when religious viewpoints intersect with political power, society at large is invariably the loser. The noisiest religious lobby in this country is from the far Right, and it focuses its political power almost exclusively on wedge issues – abortion, contraception, homosexuality etc, yet these are emotive, personal issues that drive people apart and give religion a bad name. If religion contributed something positive to political debate instead of trying to force its “thou shalt not” busybody morality on the entire population, its views might be taken seriously. Perhaps its no coincidence that the rise of the Religious Right is contemporaneous with the decline in religious belief and the rise in secularism.

    Bronwyn Kingsley, Brisbane

  • Thanks Bronwyn

    But you seem to be out of your depth here. There is no “constitutional separation of church and state”. I have discussed this elsewhere. See for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/10/20/separation-of-church-and-state/ The truth is, the fathers intent with the First Amendment’s religious clause was to limit what the state could do, not what the church could do.

    And the overwhelming majority of America’s founding fathers were men of deep religious faith, and had no intention of keeping religion out of politics altogether. Even Jefferson did not argue for this. While they may well have had concerns about sectarian conflict in Europe, they certainly did not try to minimise the role of religion in the new nation.

    As to the rise of the so-called Religious Right, Yale’s Stephen Carter ably documents that this was due to the encroachment of secularism aided and abetted by an activist judiciary, a partisan media and an anti-religious elite. Thus is it was simply a reaction to a pre-existing secular offensive. See also the 1984 volume, The Naked Public Square by Neuhaus for more on this.

    The same with the Internet. The nearly complete dominance of the mainstream media by leftist/secularist opinion helped in part to fuel the rise of the Internet, blogging, and so on, where more conservative and religious voices could finally get a more fair hearing.

    Since you so dislike religion, it is not surprising that you see no evidence of religious viewpoints being threatened. But you can start with Victoria’s Religious Vilification laws. Plenty more examples can be discerned by more objective observers.

    Your final point is the weakest and the silliest of the lot. As I just wrote in my newest post, there are countless millions of blacks today who are exceedingly grateful for the fact that religious convictions intersected with political power, as you put it. “Society at large is invariably the loser,” you claim. Try telling that to the freed slaves. Indeed, try convincing them that those Christian politicians were dead wrong to push their “‘thou shalt not’ busybody morality” onto the rest of society.

    And try telling the 100,00 unborn children killed each year that abortion is none of there business because it is just an “emotive, personal issue” as you glibly put it.

    I am afraid your anti-religious bigotry continues to blind you to historical fact and moral truth. It just makes your arguments appear increasingly vacuous and amoral.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    I presume your failure to “approve” my response means it hit too close to home. You have no answer when your assertions are shown to be false, so best just censor it.

    Well it’s your website and you can do what you please, but do you realise how foolish and insecure you look?.

    Jerry Falwell started this rubbish almost 30 years ago. It’s no truer today than it was then, but he certainly became a rich man frightening the gullible. Perhaps if you stopped attending Summit conferences, we wouldn’t have to put up with this recycled American garbage.

    Bronwyn Kingsley, Brisbane

  • Thanks Bronwyn

    Yes, I did not publish your last comment, but not because it was unanswerable. It easily was, as have been your other comments. I did not publish it because, as you rightly said, this is my website and I can call the shots. I have laid out the conditions for blogging with my rules. As you know, I have given you a very good run on this website (all of your other comments have appeared, I think, which is better than what most Christians get who send in comments here). So spare me the silliness about censorship and the like.

    My main concern for you in particular and this website in general is simply this: I believe Christianity is true, and that all people will one day stand before their maker to give an account of themselves. As the Apostle Paul has said, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel”. It is my responsibility to share biblical truth with one and all.

    You have admitted to a Christian upbringing which you have rejected. I do not know anything about your background. But I have given you a good run in the hope that you are open and receptive to what is being said here. But each new comment of yours seems to indicate that you have closed yourself off to an objective pursuit of truth, and instead simply want to argue for argument’s sake. If so, as the blogging rules state, do it on your own website.

    As incredible as it may sound to you, I really am not interested in debate for debate’s sake. I am not interested in point scoring. I am not interested in merely winning arguments. I am interested in getting the truth of Jesus Christ out to as many people as possible. I also hope to explain, as best as I understand, the implications of the Biblical worldview.

    My only concern about you is not to score intellectual points or to engage in endless debate. My real desire for you is that you reconnect with Jesus Christ, the only source of hope, truth and life in this world. That is my only concern.

    Thus whether you like it or not, I have been praying for you, and others on this blog site. I am happy to enter into serious and honest discussion with those who are genuinely pursuing truth and are willing to follow the evidence where it may lead, in a spirit of humility and openness. But for those who have already made up their minds, and simply want to argue because they like to argue, then I am not interested. As to where you fit in this scenario, I leave that to you to decide.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • but I do hope that Mr Muehlenberg operates at a higher theological level than that.

    by judging one theological level as higher than another, you are just proving the point that everybody thinks their opinion is higher, better, more correct than everybody else’s and would seek to put pressure on someone else to conform to the ‘higher theological level’ (i.e. their own)

    do you realise how foolish and insecure you look?.

    Jerry Falwell started this rubbish almost 30 years ago. It’s no truer today than it was then, but he certainly became a rich man frightening the gullible.

    and again, Bronwyn has used the kind of subjective invective like ‘foolish’, ‘insecure’,’rubbish’ and ‘gullible’ because she too feels that her own stance is superior

    on the one hand, you have the views of the book being reviewed, which advocate equal representation of arguments into the debate and then on the other, you have the type of ideologists who are not used to having their stance contradicted and who respond with mud-slinging…i think it proves the point of this blog nicely

    Dee Graf

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