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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Leslie Griffin on the New Politics of Religion

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Leslie Griffin, who holds the Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics at the University of Houston Law Center and has just published a casebook on Law and Religion, has an interesting post on – A New Politics of Religion? In it, she examines Senator (soon to be candidate) Barack Obama’s discussion of the influence religion should play in politics, in general and specifically Obama’s own Christian faith. Citing Obama’s own words to describe the classically liberal manner of approaching this balance, one of the most persuasive descriptions of the proper role of faith in politics I’ve ever heard:

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Griffin goes on to criticize Obama for failing to practice what he preached when in response to a supporter he “referred to his religious beliefs in order to explain his opposition to gay marriage but not civil unions.”

Thus, when pressed on a hard question, the senator took the easy way out–he did not immediately “translate his concern into universal, rather than religion-specific, values,” nor did he invoke some “principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.” This omission was unfortunate, because such values and principles are readily available in our constitutional democracy: we call them equal protection and privacy and religious freedom.

I haven’t read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, so I can’t be sure of the context in which those quotes were taken, but I don’t think it’s fair to call Obama’s statement hypocritical. It would in fact be dishonest of him to take a position based on his religious beliefs but then hide those beliefs and instead appeal only to universal beliefs to explain his position. I doubt anyone is truly capable of immediately expressing their subjective beliefs in universal terms. At best it’s a process. If Obama opposes gay marriage because he believes it’s not condoned in the Bible, then that’s exactly what I (as a constituent) want him to say. That said, then the demands of our deliberative, pluralistic democracy require him to go a step further – either to explain and justify that decision in a way relevant to all his constituents or in some cases, to recognize the difficult distinction between personal conviction and what is just to impose on the society one leads.

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