Religion has no place in policy debates. Because of the special nature of faith-based beliefs and values, religious arguments cannot bring anything valuable to the table when discussing the best political solutions to societal issues. When it comes to debating policy, then, we should simply ignore claims that draw exclusively upon religious faith and demand that the faithful provide other arguments — or exit the conversation.
The Elements of Policy Debate
Political arguments — that is, debates about what policy to enact — are generally about two things: pragmatic concerns (will it work? will the policy do what we want it to?) and values. If we’re arguing, say, about whether to expand charter schools in our state, we have both a value question (is educating children good or bad and should society provide it?) and a pragmatic one (will charter schools improve education for children?).
It’s clear that on both the value claim and the pragmatic one, people can differ, thus leading to debate. I may value educating children. You may say that education is overrated, and it’s real world experience that counts. I may claim that, from a practical perspective, public schools, run by the local government, offer the highest, most uniform quality. You could retort that charter schools, spurred by compeition, will produce better results. If the goal of our debate is to create policy (legislation allowing more charter schools or banning them, or perhaps a bond issue providing more funding to public education), then resolution must take the form of either compromise (both of us change our values or pragmatic perspectives a little) or one of us “winning” (i.e., the other admits he is wrong about his values or pragmatic claims).
The Trouble with Religious Arguments
So far, so good. But what happens when one or both parties in the debate ground their arguments in religious faith? What if careful textual analysis leads me to conclude that the Bible says charter schools are better than public? What if your imam instructs you to fight for public schools because that’s what Muhammad would have done?
What happens is the debate stops. There is simply no meaningful way for to proceed. Remember, for progress to be made, both parties must change their position partially, or one party must change completely. But when the parties ground their arguments in religious faith, such change is, in any real sense, impossible.
Furthermore, to convince someone that you’re right and he’s wrong, you need to demonstrate two things: the truth of your premises and the validity of your reasoning from them. But the truth of religious premises is off limits. You may assert that Jesus is the son of God and you may be right. Or you may be wrong. But how are we to know? If you have evidence of the kind that can be used to convince people, then you don’t need the faith that so often props up religious claims. If you lack that evidence and only have faith, then you can’t expect anyone who doesn’t share that faith to take your premise seriously.
Religion can — and, for many, does — inform values. And those values carry political weight. But when values conflict, and when that conflict is present within political debates, appealing to the religious faith underlying them simply isn’t helpful. No matter what your particular religion, the majority of people, to some degree or another, think you’re wrong. To say that those people should take your religious arguments seriously is to say that they should set aside their own faith — or lack of it — and see the world through yours.
That method of arguing is a form of that standard Washington catchphrase, “Let’s set aside our differences, move beyond politics, and do what’s right for America.” Translated, it means, “Will all of you stop disagreeing with me, recognize that my proposals are correct, and just get on with enacting them?” Religion is a special instance of that broader argumentative category, however. With religion, the truth of the “facts” underlying the proposals is off limits.
And that makes religion useless in political debates.