Religion in Public Life

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200 pp., 6 x 9
Paperback
ISBN: 9780878406104 (0878406107)


January 1996
LC: 95-7073

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Religion in Public Life
A Dilemma for Democracy
Ronald F. Thiemann
Prayer in public schools, abortion, gay and lesbian rights—these bitterly divisive issues dominate American politics today, revealing deep disagreements over basic moral values. In a highly readable account that draws on legal arguments, political theory, and philosophy, Ronald F. Thiemann explores the proper role of religious convictions in American public life. He proposes that religion can and should play an active, positive part in our society even as it maintains a fundamental commitment to pluralist, democratic values.

Arguing that both increased secularism and growing religious diversity since the 1960s have fragmented commonly held values, Thiemann observes that there has been an historical ambivalence in American attitudes towards religion in public life. He proposes abandoning the idea of an absolute wall between church and state and all the conceptual framework built around that concept in interpreting the first amendment. He returns instead to James Madison's views and the Constitutional principles of liberty, equality, and toleration. Refuting both political liberalism (as too secular) and communitarianism (as failing to meet the challenge of pluralism), Thiemann offers a new definition of liberalism that gives religions a voice in the public sphere as long as they heed the Constitutional principles of liberty, equality, and toleration or mutual respect.

The American republic, Thiemann notes, is a constantly evolving experiment in constructing a pluralistic society from its many particular communities. Religion can act as a positive force in its moral renewal, by helping to shape common cultural values.

All those interested in finding solutions to today's divisive political discord, in finding ways to disagree civilly in a democracy, and in exploring the extent to which religious convictions should shape the development of public policies will find that this book offers an important new direction for religion and the nation.
Ronald F. Thiemann is a professor of Theology and of Religion & Society at Harvard Divinity School. He is author of Toward an American Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture (Westminster-John Knox Press, 1991) and Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise (University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).
Reviews
"Rich in probing distinctions and fresh terms for improving the precision of public debate over the separations and relations of religion and politics in modern America."—Theology Today



"This book puts forward the most sophisticated and subtle treatment available on the relation between religion and politics and church (synagogue, mosque, temple) and state. Thiemann has taken our impoverished discourse on these matters to new heights and higher ground."—Cornel West, author of Race Matters



"Of the large questions that have engaged and divided us Americans over the last generation, one of the most important and most difficult is this: What is the proper role of religion in American public life—in particular, in American politics? Religion in Public Life is a valuable contribution to the debate. Ronald Thiemann's voice is both thoughtful and distinctive."—Michael J. Perry, Northwestern University



"Thiemann makes a major contribution to the argument about the role of religion in the future of the American republic. Its combination of clarity and conviction is a signal achievement in an environment where analytic precision and religious depth are so often adversaries."—David Hollenbach, SJ, Margaret O'Brien Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology, Boston College