Monday, February 18, 2008

Contra Obama: The Role of Religion in a Democracy

Thanks to the efforts of Lawrence Lessig and Randall Munroe, I have recently decided to endorse Barack Obama for President in 2008 (This isn't that notable; my endorsement is not highly sought after).

Obama spoke on the role of religion and Democracy back in 2006. As I endorse Obama, I was pleased to see him champion the same sort of universal secularism I generally favor. But in the interest of intellectual integrity, I have to take issue with a few of his arguments. (This is probably why no one sought my endorsement.)

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

In a democracy, no one group is expected to vote on behalf of another. Democrats do not vote on behalf of universal political principles, nor do Republicans. The religious do not vote on behalf of the secular, and the secular do not vote on behalf of the religious. The premise of democracy is that when we all vote according to our rational self interest, most people will end up getting what they want, and that's a good thing. Thomas Frank provides some unintentional evidence that we vote for our perceptions of the common good, rather than our personal (economic) interests, but Frank is surprised by this behavior precisely because it is not the inevitable premise of Democracy, as Obama suggests.

Secondly, Obama attempts to cast abortion as a uniquely religious concern. Don Marquis, for one, provides a completely secular argument against abortion. While this argument is not without its flaws, it shows it is a mistake to consider abortion a purely religious issue, analogous to mistaking theft as a religious issue simply because the religious generally consider it immoral.