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Statecraft as Soulcraft: Secular Liberalism and the Neutral State

Statecraft as Soulcraft

This is the fifth part in a series on “Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.” Read part one, part two, part three and part four

In “Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft,” Francis J. Beckwith attempts to answer some questions that Christians have regarding the role of religious beliefs in the public square. In his fourth chapter, Beckwith discusses secular liberalism and provides responses to three types of arguments that its advocates put out.

What is Secular Liberalism?

Beckwith defines this term in term parts. “Liberal” refers to the belief that:

[B]ecause all citizens should be treated with equal regard, the resolution of moral disputes should be left to the individual rights-bearing citizen who has a fundamental right to be emancipated from all external restraints in order to properly exercise his liberty under the direction of his own freely chosen view of the good life.

Thus, the government should protect the person’s right to do as they please, so long as they don’t interfere with the right of some other person.

“Secular” refers to the idea that:

[T]he only permissible external restraints that may be placed on citizens are those that are both not dependent on a religious worldview and help ensure that the unencumbered rights-bearing citizen can exercise liberty without being interfered with and without interfering with the same liberty held by others.

This view is also held by a number of philosophers, legal theorists and politicians. Next, Beckwith provides three arguments put forth by advocates and responds to each accordingly.

The Golden-Rule-Contract Argument

This argument proposes that religious people ought not use the power of the government to pass legislation that would coerce people of other beliefs to act in the way they want. It is roughly modeled after Jesus’s golden rule and it seems to follow the way of the adage ‘live and let live.’

[pullquote]     Secular liberalism fails to provide us with sufficient reasons for its implementation.[/pullquote]

There are a number of problems with this argument. First, this imposes a basic standard of conduct that one must first assent to. But why ought we to assent to it, if morals are merely preferential? Second, the argument assumes that a person’s desires are equal to that of their good. But why ought we to think that, especially given that we cannot implement “religious” thought? Third, the argument is too abstract and not specific enough. It’s quite simple to say ‘Do good and love others’ but to clarify what the good is for others and what it is like to love other people is more difficult.

The Secular Reason Argument

This argument proposes that if one were to restrict human conduct, one must have a sufficient secular reason for doing so. But, Beckwith argues, this is nonsensical. “‘[S]ecular’ is not a relevant property of a reason that is offered in support of the strength or soundness of the conclusion that its advocate is advancing.” It is akin to arguing that the sum of all numbers is brown or that a dog has the property five. To illustrate his point, Beckwith compares the Biblical command to not murder and Kant’s categorical imperative. The former is religious while the latter appears secular. Ultimately, the terms ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ do nothing to assess the truth or falsity of the propositions. Some actual truth claim must always be made.

The Err-on-the-Side-of-Liberty Argument

This argument proposes that if neither side in any ethical debate has rationality on its side, then we ought to err on the side of liberty. That is, both sides may be offering good arguments, but neither side has refuted their opponents.  Beckwith believes this argument is “ingenious,” though the argument ought to be flipped to support erring-on-the-side-of-prevention. If on any given issue we are not sure which position is true, we ought to err on the side of prevention because we might be committing some moral wrong (like aborting human beings in the womb).

Though the preservation of liberty is vital to a liberal democracy, “the question of who is a proper subject of that liberty…is far more important.” Secular liberalism fails to provide us with sufficient reasons for its implementation. Even still, in reality, it “presupposes and entails its own understanding of liberty and the human good that answer precisely the same philosophical questions” that religious folks answer.