Over on the University of Chicago law school’s faculty website, Prof. Geoffrey Stone posted an argument about embryonic stem cells that’s quite revealing, in its way. The post garnered some attention from other law professors, here and here , for instance. The always interesting Eugene Volokh weighed in , as did the serious analyst Rick Garnett.

The argument Prof. Stone makes boils down to this:

In vetoing the bill that would have funded stem-cell research, President Bush invoked what he termed a "conflict between science and ethics." But what, exactly, is the "ethical" side of this conflict? . . . What the president describes neutrally as "ethics" is simply his own, sectarian religious belief. . . . [I]n what sense is it "ethical" for Mr. Bush¯acting as president of the United States¯to place his own sectarian, religious belief above the convictions of a majority of the American people and a substantial majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate? In my judgment, this is no different from the president vetoing a law providing a subsidy to pork producers because eating pork offends his religious faith. Such a veto is an unethical and illegitimate usurpation of state authority designed to impose on all of society a particular religious faith.

There are a different ways to make this argument work logically, and Stone doesn’t specify the one on which he relies. One version might look like this:

(1) There can exist no purely rational basis for rejecting the federal financing of embryonic stem-cell research, and

(2) Ethics is by its nature a rational process. Therefore,

(3) When the president used the word ethics , he was either ignorant of the word’s meaning or disingenuous, since

(4) Lacking any ethical¯which is to say, rational¯grounds for rejecting the federal funding of this research, the president must have been relying on nonrational motives. Perhaps not all nonrational motives are constitutionally impermissible for a public official, but

(5) Religious motives are an explicitly prohibited form of nonrationality, and

(6) President Bush is known to be a strong believer in a religion that rejects the destruction of embryos for scientific research, which leads to the reasonable inference that his particular nonrational motives were, in this case, at least "unethical and illegitimate," and probably unconstitutional.

I think that’s what Prof. Stone actually had in mind, but it could run a little differently. He might admit that there exist rational (although, he believes, unpersuasive) reasons to oppose federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research: the libertarian rejection of government funds in science, for instance, or the political-theory claim (made, for example , by the nonreligious Frank Fukuyama) that the consequences of such research will prove dangerous for the democratic order. But since the president is a particularly strong religious believer, he must, in fact, have been unethically and illegitimately motivated by his irrational religion, even if he said or thought he was using rational analysis.

Either way, Stone’s argument demands that religious believers prove, far beyond any other public actors, that their public acts derive from rational motives¯and when their actions match the result that their faith seems to require, the result is, on its face, constitutionally suspect.

The various pieces of this argument are odd, but it seems to me that one runs across them more and more: the assumption, for instance, that religion is inherently irrational, and the assertion that religious reasoning is incapable of arriving at an extra-religious result, and the postulate that a sectarian motive is inherently illegitimate in a democracy.

Of course, the inquiry into a politician’s motives is always tricky, and trickier still is the attempt to match motives to the political rhetoric by which politicians try to persuade the public. If a nonbelieving senator uses religious imagery and vocabulary to speak in favor of a political measure, does that invalidate the bill under the Stone system¯or does the senator’s nonbelief provide sufficient secular motivation to pass muster? If a believing mayor uses utilitarian analysis to argue for a religiously approved result, does that save the result¯or does the mayor’s belief invalidate the argument?

The form all this takes in our current public discourse is a feeling¯typically on the Left, in answer to their opponents on the Right¯that because a large group of religious people are against some measure, the motive for opposing it must be religious. John Kerry moved onto this ground back in 2004, when he suggested that pro-life teaching is inherently sectarian and thus, he said, even though he was one of the sectarians who opposed abortion, he was required to support abortion. Think what this means: The fact that the Catholic Church supports a position now becomes the reason a Catholic politician must oppose it.

Back in 1984, in the famous "personally opposed, but publicly supportive" speech he gave at Notre Dame, Mario Cuomo noted that there exist nonreligious reasons to oppose abortion. "Surely I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion, not because my bishops say it is wrong, but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life¯including life in the womb," he said (although he quickly added that he didn’t hold this claim himself).

But the slope has gotten more slippery since 1984. This claim¯that because religious believers hold a position, there are only irrational reasons to hold it¯is just too useful to certain segments of the commentariat, for it invalidates in one fell swoop whole classes of public argument. You can see the claim at work, for instance, in all the recent books that warn against the coming theocracy. (Ross Douthat reviews a representative set of them in the new issue of First Things .) I wonder if the people who push this line have ever actually considered how dangerous it would be to win it? Do they really want to convince the large majority of Americans who are religious believers that their faith is incompatible with democratic politics? Do they think that people will, as a result, give up on their faith, or give up on their democracy?


In addition to which :

Robert Louis Wilken’s remembrance of his friend Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) includes this: "In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought . . . . to suggest . . . that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history are the dissidents, the heretics, whose insights were suppressed . . . . Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation." Elsewhere in the same August/September First Things , Avery Cardinal Dulles gives reasons for valuing the traditional teaching of the Church in his article, "The Orthodox Imperative." Educate yourself this summer with a subscription to First Things .

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