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What are the consequences for a liberal democracy that does not adequately represent a significant portion of its population? Recent surveys suggest, as Richard Blow has noted in the New York Times, that nearly 16% of the American population is not in any way religiously affiliated, and that this number does not have any counterpart within the institutions of American political representation. Instead most Americans continue to report that they want political representatives with strong, traditional religious beliefs. If we were to put this in terms of revolutionary French republicanism, a commitment to equality and liberty is anchored by a fraternity that in the American context seems to possess a distinctly religious character.

One of the persistent demands of contemporary liberal democracy is the demand for authentic political representation. This demand has led most liberal democracies to dispense with the idea that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men can somehow politically represent that rest of the population, particularly when that population has become as diverse as those in North America. There are of course very good reasons for this change in political thinking, but it is a change driven by a set of demands which have not been completely fulfilled, and this is largely because they confront other demands of contemporary society. One way of framing this would be in the terms of the example above, the French revolution: where some states have pursued the political ideals of enshrining individual rights in a charter or constitution, others have sought to maintain collective or community rights (language rights, say); most states maintain some sort of mix between the two for various historical reasons.

This helps, at least in part, to explain why it remains so difficult to imagine a President of the United States who is an avowed atheist. If recent surveys accurately reflect American political ideals, it is no surprise that American political culture remains closed when it comes to religiously unaffiliated. But the same drive that removes restrictions placed on political representation based on gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation also applies to religion and the freedom from it. In terms of actual numbers and the nature of the political discourse, religion continues to be overrepresented, particularly by Protestant Christianity. To adopt the language of the French revolution once again, the ideals of equality and liberty seem to be in conflict with that of fraternity. Even a significant number of American atheists say that they prefer political representatives with traditional religious values!

A few months ago at Patrol I reviewed An Awareness of What is Missing, in which Jürgen Habermas and several Jesuit scholars engaged in a conversation about conversation, discussing the political and social negotiation of convictions from religious and secular perspectives. What emerged from that debate was the importance of a conversation that is with others and not about others. Such a conversation begins from the premise that partners in dialogue take each other’s core convictions seriously and that their convictions are intelligible when presented in reasonable manner.

It seems to me fairly straightforward that we should extend this “conversation” to the realm of political representation. Given that there are no reasonable grounds for excluding the convictions of the religiously unaffiliated in our political institutions today, and the importance placed on convictions by all parties, grounded in faith or reason or both, we should follow in the first steps of President Obama – in his Inauguration speech, for example – and openly acknowledge the existence of those with no religious affiliation in our cultural and political life. As Charles Taylor has recently written on the nature of contemporary secularism, there is no going back to a time of “civil religion” and no moving forward to a time of “anti-civil religion” because both would conflict with our basic political goals and beliefs. Instead, he contends, we should move forward with “good faith attempts” to institutionally secure the basic principles of equality, liberty and fraternity through common goals. One small step in the process of articulating those goals to ourselves in order to realize them, I would suggest, is opening up American political culture even further to the possibility of communicating reasonably from both religious and non-religious perspectives, and the stipulation that this must be a shared conviction ultimately grounded in respect and trust.

For those of us with religious convictions, this means recognizing that in political society today we must be citizens capable of speaking in two registers, that of faith and reason. It also means actively making room for the representation of the “nones”.

About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

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