The Nuns vs. Ryan: The Futility of Basing Public Policy on Religion

August 22, 2012

An instructive reminder of the futility of trying to base public policy on religious doctrine is the current dispute between some politically progressive Catholics and Paul Ryan and his supporters regarding who is more faithful to Catholic teachings. 

A number of Catholic nuns have been traveling the country this year (the “Nuns on the Bus”) campaigning on social justice issues.  In particular, they have criticized Paul Ryan’s budget plan, arguing that the Ryan budget is anti-Catholic.  Some progressive commentators have endorsed this position, observing that Jesus would regard the nuns as better Catholics than Paul Ryan.  Is this the best argument that progressives can come up with for their positions—that Jesus would endorse their views?  Is some biblical passage about an alleged assertion of Jesus even relevant to a discussion of public policy?

Ryan, of course, has his own solid group of Catholic supporters who argue that people can reasonably disagree about economic policy, but that certain actions are “intrinsically evil,” such as abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and “government-coerced secularism”—whatever that means.  Therefore, the test of whether one is a true Catholic is their position on these intrinsically evil actions, not their position on budget matters. 

It is true that the Bible does frown on homosexuality. Moreover, although the Bible is silent on abortion, Jesus does not seem to have had a very favorable view of sexual relations in general, with at least a few sayings attributed to him condemning “fornication.”  And then there is the famous saying that a person looking with lust at a woman has already committed adultery in his heart (Matt. 5:27–28). 

But this is a fool’s game, isn’t it—mining passages in the Bible (or the Koran or any set of sacred scriptures) for guidance on what we should do on public policy matters.  For every verse that a proponent of position A can cite, a proponent of position B can cite a contrary verse.  Believers have been on different sides of the debates over slavery, women’s suffrage, segregation, capital punishment, war, immigration policy, and dozens of other issues, and on every occasion they have cited some religious authority as support for their position.  You name the issue and you can find some passage somewhere, or some interpretation by a religious official, that can support either side of any debate. 

Isn’t it time that we grew up and made our own arguments without citing some religious authority?  Moreover, isn’t it the case that if we truly want to engage others in debate as opposed as to just yelling at them, we need to frame our arguments in wholly secular terms? There is one indisputable prerequisite for democratic discourse to be successful: the participants in a discussion must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate reasons that others offer for their views. That is not possible if religious doctrine is offered as a justification for public policy positions.

I recognize that a person's religious beliefs will influence her or his outlook.  But if that person wants to engage fellow citizens in a discussion about the correct course of action to take, she must structure her arguments in secular terms.  There is nothing onerous about that requirement.  In fact, it operates as a much-needed check on the soundness of one’s reasoning.  If one cannot reformulate a religiously motivated belief in terms that a nonbeliever might find persuasive, one should pause to consider whether one’s views are correct.  Perhaps you have misinterpreted God’s commandments.  After all, why would God ask you to advocate a policy that does not make any sense when you try to explain it to someone else? 

Moreover, formulating one’s argument in secular terms is necessary to show respect for one’s fellow citizens who may not share your religious beliefs. If all you’re doing in a discussion on public policy is preaching your own religious doctrines, you might as well shut up and just use your Bible or Koran as a weapon to beat people over the head with. Your message is: accept my religious doctrines; accept my religious doctrines; accept my religious doctrines.

So to both the nuns and Paul Ryan I say: stop arguing over who is more Catholic, and don’t try to obtain support for your positions by referencing Jesus, the Pope, or whatever religious authority you care to cite. Give me reasons for your position, not professions of faith.