Wednesday, July 27, 2005
One of my favorite blogs is run by the University of Wisconsin's Prof. Ann Althouse. A few days ago, she had a post called "When government says what the 'true religion' is," commenting on Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent statement in the wake of the 7/7 bombings that the "moderate and true voice of Islam" needs to be "mobili[z]ed." Ann asks, "how can [Blair] say what the true interpretation of a religion is?" Similar questions were raised, a few months ago, by Eugene Volokh, regarding a proposed sex-education curriculum in Montomery County, Maryland. The proposed curriculum supplied "facts" -- including "facts" about religion -- designed to counter certain prevalent "myths" about homosexuality.
What should we think of Blair's comments? On the one hand, it seems hard to deny that liberal governments have a strong interest in the content and development of religious traditions and doctrines. (I wrote an article about this interest a few years ago). In fact, it seems to me that liberal governments have an interest in convincing people -- whether they belong to the religion in quiestion or not -- that the religion in question really teaches in accord with liberal values. After all, religion matters to many people, and it shapes the citizens on whose judgment democratic governments purport to rely. It is better, then, that religions inculcate some values, commitments, and loyalties rather than others. As I wrote in my article,"Governments like ours are not and cannot be 'neutral' with respect to religion’s claims and content. [T]he content, meaning, and implications of religious doctrine are and have long been the subjects of government power and policy. Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching." On the other hand, there's the longstanding maxim that governments like ours should not -- and perhaps even may not -- take "cognizance" of religion, or "entangle" themselves with religion.
What do people think? Would it be wise or wrong [or unconstitutional?] for a government to undertake, as a matter of policy, to push the doctrines of a particular religion in a government-approved direction, or to support a particular government-approved faction within a religious tradition, in order to serve what the government regards as the common good?