Secularism on trial: the public/private belief distinction

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A lesson about secularism was revealed in Senator Lindsey Graham’s strange interrogation of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. The Senator reminded us of the importance of the distinction between private belief and public impartiality. When we say that justice is blind, we mean that public officials ought to aspire to impartiality and learn to bracket their beliefs.

Senator Graham’s interrogation of Judge Jackson

Senator Graham asked Judge Jackson about the depth of her faith and the frequency of her church attendance. The judge responded by pointing out that there is no religious litmus test in the Constitution. But the Senator persisted, asking Judge Jackson to rate her religiosity on a scale of 1-10.

Senator Graham then admitted, “I go to church, probably three times a year… so that speaks poorly of me.” Jackson still refused to answer, saying that she was mindful of the need to separate her personal religious views from her obligation of impartiality as a judge.

Senator Graham asked whether the judge would be impartial regarding religion. Without allowing her to answer, he said, “The reason I ask these questions is, I have no doubt that your faith is important to you. And I have zero doubt that you can adjudicate people’s cases fairly if they’re an atheist.”

The point here is that diverse people, including atheists, should be able to trust the impartiality of the judiciary. Secular systems are administered by people from all walks of life. Our officials—our senators and our judges—include religious fanatics, occasional churchgoers, and atheists. Secularism demands that these officials set their private faith aside when they execute their public duties.

No religious test required

Senator Graham’s aggressive questioning was apparently a reaction to questions that arose during the prior confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Senator Graham seemed to be making a point about those who attacked Justice Barrett’s faith and impugned her impartiality. If his line of questioning appeared obnoxious when directed at Judge Jackson, he seemed to suggest, then similar questions were out of line when Justice Barrett was confirmed.

I have reconstructed Graham’s point here, trying to make sense of it. One could question Senator Graham’s style and strategy, as well as the melodrama of our Supreme Court confirmation ritual. But this seems to be what he was aiming at.

Of course, many were incensed by his line of questioning. Senator Graham was mocked by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And the Interfaith Alliance tweeted: “Judge Jackson is right – there is no religious test in the Constitution. While senators can ask how a nominee’s religious beliefs would influence their rulings, using faithfulness as a metric to evaluate a future Supreme Court justice is completely inappropriate.”

This is the important point. Religious freedom is a bedrock principle of our secular system. Article VI of the Constitution clearly states, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This means that no one can be barred from office because of their religion.

This holds for atheists as well. Nonbelievers cannot be barred from office and should be free to exercise their own consciences. This is true despite the fact that only one member of Congress, Senator Krysten Sinema, identifies as “unaffiliated.”

Bracketing our beliefs

Our religious beliefs, and non-beliefs, should be irrelevant in public life. But we often forget this.

In an era of identity politics, we have lost track of the basic human ability to bracket our beliefs. Some even go so far as to deny that impartiality is possible. But the interrogation of Judge Jackson reminds us of why we ought to cultivate the art of impartiality.

Judges, doctors, teachers, and others should keep their personal beliefs private. They ought to behave impartially when executing their professional duties. This is not always easy. But the goal is a noble one. And it assumes that it is possible for us to distinguish between private belief and public duty. We can do this—and we should.

Senator Graham admitted this in his claim about the atheist on trial. He said that a religious judge should be able to judge an atheist fairly. The reverse is also true: an atheist judge should be able to judge religious believers fairly.

Secular impartiality

Justice is blind, as they say. And that’s a good thing. Secular systems of justice assume that the distinction between private belief and public impartiality is real and meaningful. In a secular system, public officials can and should treat diverse people with dignity and respect, while keeping private faith out of public judgment.

Impartiality is difficult. It requires training and practice. And sometimes we fail. But we will all do better when we understand the importance of bracketing private belief.

In the United States, there is no religious litmus test for office. There should be no establishment of religion. Each of us is free to believe what we choose. But public officials should keep their private beliefs to themselves.

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Changing clocks and playing with time

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There have long been practical concerns about our annual clock-changing ritual. It causes sleepiness, confusion, and accidents. In response, the Senate passed the “Sunshine Protection Act” this week, a first step to making Daylight Savings Time permanent.

But if the clocks move forward permanently, we might end up driving to work in the dark during the short days of winter. These practical concerns are important.

The idea of “protecting the sunshine” pushes us even deeper. If we can change our clocks, what else could we change?

Socially constructed realities

Twice a year, as we reset our clocks, we are reminded that our shared experience of time is socially constructed. Clocks are tools, created by us. They give us an image of time. But that image is a human creation.

A similar issue afflicts our orientation in space. In prior centuries, it was thought that heaven was up and hell was down. Our conception of space is also colored by the way draw maps. North is up; south is down. But in reality, we are on a globe hurtling through space. There is no heaven above or hell below. Up and down are a matter of perspective.  

If clocks and maps are social constructions, then what else is a matter of perspective? These days, our notions of sex and gender, marriage and the family are being reconstructed. Could it also be true that the economy, politics, and religion are social constructions?

Well, political borders are lines drawn on maps, often at the expense of those living in the borderlands. These borders are not God-given facts of nature. Religion itself is a social product. The world’s religious traditions evolved through centuries of interpretation and social conflict. This is also true of the economy. Feudalism gave way to capitalism and then to the modern globalized economy.

If clocks and maps are social constructions, then what else is a matter of perspective? These days, our notions of sex and gender, marriage and the family are being reconstructed. Could it also be true that the economy, politics, and religion are social constructions?

Dale McGowan recently suggested, “there is no normal.” After two years of pandemic weirdness, this is obvious. Is it normal for the sun to rise at 6AM or at 8AM? What time is the normal time for school or work to begin? And what is a normal workday or work week? Our temporal world is artificial. It is a way of organizing things. This is a social project. We can tweak it according to our needs and interests.

An inventive species

This does not mean that time does not exist or that anything goes. Almost three hundred years ago, the philosopher David Hume suggested that much of life is artificial but not arbitrary. As Hume said, “Mankind is an inventive species.”

We invented marriage, money, months, meters, and minutes. How long is a minute or a month or a meter? Those measuring tools are defined by us. They are the result of human artifice, governed by rules we created. Once they exist, the rules are not arbitrary. These rules regulate our shared experience. But they are not woven into nature.

Nature presents us with a reality that is neither artificial nor arbitrary. The sun rises and falls according to celestial patterns we do not control. The time it takes to bake cookies is governed by the chemistry of sugar and fat. And light travels at a constant rate. The facts of nature are real and unalterable.

But we can play within the givenness of time. We can choose to get up in the dark and see the sun rise. Or we can sleep the day away and come to life as the stars appear. We are inventive animals who have an amazing capacity to play, innovate, and create.

If we can make daylight savings time permanent, maybe we could also change the work week. Why not four days on and three days off? And what is so special about the 8-hour workday? We could change that as well. And who says we need 12 oddly numbered months and 52 weeks of seven days? We could reconstruct the year with 36 weeks of 10 days each, plus a holiday of 5 days at the end of the year. If we are reconstructing things, let’s get imaginative.

Mortality and hope

Our inventiveness does not mean we can ignore the temporal processes of the physical universe. Our lives are subject to movements that are beyond our control. In the end, time is our master. Most importantly, our bodies age. We will witness a finite number of sunsets and solstices. And then we die.

Considerations of mortality divide religious and nonreligious people. Some religions hope for eternal life. This is another human invention, an imagined time beyond time. Atheists, of course, have a difficult time making sense of that idea.

Life seems to imply time. Outside of time—in eternity—what would there be? There would be no change or movement. But change and movement are essential to life, thought, and play. Eternal life is mysterious and paradoxical. It frankly seems kind of boring. In eternity would there be music, art, and creative play? Those human goods only seem to make sense in a world of time.

Of course, theists often claim that without hope for eternity, life is meaningless. But the opposite may be true. When we realize that we are free to play within the givenness of nature, a different source of meaning arrives. We make meaning within the limits of time and mortality.

Once we see that much of life is socially constructed, we can reconstruct it in ways that are empowering and enlightening. We can make daylight savings time permanent. We can also turn time into music, or into money. The choice is ours. As we reset our clocks, we can also reset our lives.

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Tyranny from Plato to Trump

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens.

The book offers insight into the perennial problem of tyranny. Tyrants seek to grab power. They are supported by sycophants. And cheered on by fools. This is a political problem as well as a social and spiritual problem. There are tyrants in our families and in our businesses. There is also a tyrannical tendency in our souls. The same is true of the tendency to suck up to the powerful. And each of us can behave moronically, more interested in amusement than ethics or truth.

The cure is spiritual and political. We benefit from self-examination. And we need social and political guardrails that prevent tyrants from consolidating power.

The Ides of March: Is Putin a tyrant?

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Senator Lindsey Graham recently called for the murder of Vladimir Putin. He invoked the history of tyrannicide when he asked in a tweet, “Is there a Brutus in Russia?” Critics were outraged.

But the logic is simple: If Putin is a tyrant, tyrannicide is a plausible response.

To call someone a tyrant implies they are evil and incapable of change. Violence often follows. In my new book Tyranny from Plato to Trump, I demonstrate how widespread the accusation of tyranny is. John Wilkes Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln—”thus always to tyrants!” quoting Brutus as he plunged his knife into Caesar on the Ides of March.

Most Americans view Booth as a villain who murdered the Great Emancipator. But Booth was praised as a hero in Southern states. And so it goes. Tyranny is politicized and polarizing.

The epithet is easily thrown. Senator Ted Cruz accused then-President Obama of acting tyrannically. During Trump’s second impeachment, Representative Rashida Tlaib said Trump was a tyrant. Last year, Representative Loren Boebert called Biden a tyrant.

Now Putin’s aggression in Ukraine opens a new chapter. In response to Russia’s invasion, President Biden suggested that Putin was a tyrant. Nancy Pelosi said something similar. Given this rhetoric, Senator Graham’s call for tyrannicide is not surprising.

But let’s tread carefully. We are often loose with our language. In times of crisis, critical thinking gives way to violence and emotion.  

Is Putin a tyrant?

Tyranny is defined in various ways throughout the Western tradition. One obvious point is that tyrants tend to have a god complex, wishing to rule the world like a god, as Plato put it. This is a sign of hubris, which Sophocles said “gives birth to tyranny.” Milton further explained that a tyrant “reigns only for himself and his faction.” Locke added that the tyrant’s rule is lawless, saying that “tyranny is the exercise of power to which nobody can have a right…Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.”

Building on these insights, we might say that a tyrant’s hubris leads him to pursue and possess absolute, God-like power, without concern for morality and the law.

This rules out would-be tyrants, who lack unlimited power. It also rules out benevolent despots whose power is not selfish or prideful.

So is Putin a tyrant? Well, he does seem to have unbridled power. Protestors are jailed in Russia. Dissidents are poisoned. Putin’s power is not constrained by a constitutional system like our own.

It remains unclear, however, whether Putin views himself as a benevolent despot or if he is a self-aggrandizing tyrant with a god complex. Not that benevolent despotism is much better than prideful tyranny. But there is a difference.

A benevolent despot is more of a rational agent who seeks ends that he believes are good for his nation (however misguided he might be). But a tyrant is not concerned with those goods. He is only concerned with his own ego and power. Benevolent despots can be brutal and cruel. But with them, there is a possibility of negotiation.

With tyrants, things are worse. Their pride and narcissism are out of touch with reality. They do not care about the harm they inflict upon their own people. And they surround themselves with flatterers and yes-men who reaffirm them in their hubris.

So is Putin, an arrogant narcissist, surrounded by sycophants, who keep him out of touch with reality? Some commentators suggest that something like that is the case. But others suggest he is a disciplined tactician, playing chess in the world of realpolitik. The world is desperately trying to figure this out.

Is tyrannicide justifiable?

And what then of tyrannicide? If a tyrant is an irrational narcissist, then the only way to end tyranny may be through violence. The Greeks implied that tyrants were like wild animals. Plato said a tyrant was a “man transformed into a wolf.” Wolves cannot be negotiated with. They must be killed. The Greeks saw tyrannicide as noble work. Aristotle said, “high honors are awarded to one who kills a tyrant.”

But violence is risky and unpredictable. It can provoke backlash and lead to more tyranny. After Julius Caesar was murdered, notorious tyrants followed him including Caligula and Nero. And those of us who value human rights and the rule of law should remain skeptical of extra-judicial killing. Nonviolence can be effective—and is preferred whenever possible.

History’s final judgment has yet to be written. John Wilkes Booth is a villain who thought himself a hero. And even though we tend to admire Brutus as a tyrant-killer, Dante put him in the lowest circle of Hell, alongside Judas—because in murdering Caesar he betrayed a sacred friendship.

As we approach the Ides of March, it is useful to study literature and philosophy, as well as the news. Historical and literary models cause fear and trembling. History will judge us by what we do, and don’t do, as we write to the next chapter in the history of tyranny.

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Condemning aggressive war: The secular cosmopolitan consensus

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The broad international condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an example of the resilience of moral principles and a source of hope. This assault prompted the world to reassert the importance of a secular cosmopolitan vision of a peaceful, law-governed world. As I have explained in a book on the topic, secular cosmopolitan values affirm diversity and condemn violence. A brief history of this idea can inspire us to expand and solidify the emerging global consensus.

UN resolutions against Russian aggression

A broad coalition of countries has condemned the Russian assault on Ukraine in a Resolution of the UN General Assembly and in a Resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. The General Assembly Resolution had widespread support as did the UNHRC vote. Russia and four other nations—North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea, and Syria—voted against the General Assembly Resolution. Only Russia and Eritrea voted against the UNHRC resolution. In each case, China, India, and a few other nations abstained.

It would be better if those abstaining nations joined the majority. But international politics is not always a moral game. Nonetheless, the majority vote reaffirms basic principles of world peace. 

It is important to note that the coalition opposed to Russia includes countries with different cultural, religious, and ethnic/racial backgrounds: North American and European nations, Israel, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Japan. Despite their diversity, these countries expressed support for the basic principles of a peaceful cosmopolitan order.

A genealogy of secular cosmopolitanism

One familiar genealogy of cosmopolitan principles governing the morality of war traces the idea through Medieval Christianity. But the idea evolved beyond those Christian roots. Secular just war theory developed along with cosmopolitan principles of international law in the modern era.

We must be careful in reconstructing this story. Non-Christian traditions also provide tools for thinking about the morality of war and international relations. There are resources in Muslim culture, in Chinese thought, and in the religions and philosophies of India, for example. A Eurocentric genealogy can conceal the ugly history of colonialism. But a primer in the European story is useful for those of us in Western nations.

The Christian just war tradition emerged within Christianity out of a dispute between those who thought that Christian morality required pacifism and those who thought it permitted war. A related issue was how Christian values connect with national and political identity.  Were Christians supposed to turn toward “the Kingdom of God”? Or were Christians allowed to fight in allegiance with secular powers?

Christian pacifism typically appeals to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels—such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5). Christian pacifism is also often linked to a cosmopolitan religious vision critical of allegiance to states and armies. As Jesus said, his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). 

Christian just warriors look to other texts for inspiration. The Apostle Paul said, for example, that the sovereign is a minister of God who uses the sword to execute wrath on evildoers (Romans 13:4). Christians defended state violence as Christianity gained power in the late Roman Empire. 

Thinkers like Augustine made this argument by appealing to natural law. Augustine explained the idea of justified political violence with an analogy: fathers have a duty to protect their children, while states have a duty to protect their people. 

The dispute within Christianity continued through the Crusades, as Christendom embraced war as a religious pilgrimage, justified in defense of the Holy Land. As the Crusades ended and the Reformation began, Christian pacifism resurfaced as a response to the militancy of the Roman Church. Some Reformers, such as the Anabaptists, called for a return to the original pacifism of the Gospels. 

Christian conquerors engaged in colonial adventures at this time. But critics within Catholicism, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, argued for limits on the use of colonial violence. As colonial Christian powers set out across the globe, European nations went to war and sorted themselves according to their allegiance to the Roman Church.

The modern secular cosmopolitan ideal

The religious wars of early modern Europe led to the development of modern secular theories of morality and law. These theories used reason as a guide, rather than turning to the Bible. These secular theories developed along with the modern system of European nation-states. The idea of non-aggression between sovereign states emerged as an important principle. In the 19th and 20th centuries, international treaties and agencies developed, which sought to regulate warfare and defend state sovereignty. 

This approach failed to prevent the world wars of the 20th century. But the system of international law continued to develop after the Second World War with the creation of war crimes tribunals, the United Nations, and the formation of the International Criminal Court. 

This secular cosmopolitan system aims to establish international peace without invoking any particular religious doctrine or religious texts. The story told here has a Christian and Eurocentric focus. But the system has evolved beyond those roots. The result has been the kinds of resolutions mentioned at the outset.

Reaffirming shared values

The system of secular cosmopolitan law has not eradicated war—as the Ukrainian war shows. But it has created a shared vocabulary for condemning war crimes and aggression. 

This shared vocabulary is inclusive of diverse nations, cultures, and religions. Much more needs to be done to ensure that war is relegated to the history books. One important part of that project is to understand and expand the power of a secular cosmopolitan vision that affirms diversity and condemns violence.

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