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Civic vs Religious Disagreement

It’s hard to underestimate the significance of the separation between church and state. Simply put, it grounds our answers to questions about how we should live together in civic obligations instead of religious beliefs. Or to put it another way: resolving civic disagreements does not require finding religious unity.

it appears that Christian nationalists and Trumpies have failed to honor this principle of separation, which raises the threat of religious wars. They’re not alone. It’s probably true that many “nations” are guided by the religion of those in power, and many of those use religion to exercise their power. It’s also true that Christianity has been used to justified slavery and American imperialism on the one hand, and human rights and inclusion on the other. If I would define a “good religion” and if everyone agreed with my definition, we might have a good government (according to my definition), but not a civic one.

The fact is that we don’t agree on what a “good” believer believes. It’s also true that most religious disagreement cannot be resolved through debate or argument. If someone praises God for saving their house during a storm when the storm destroyed their neighbor’s house, what can you say? You could say that God doesn’t save one family’s home and destroy another’s, but it’s doubtful that your claim for consistency or logic will have much impact. What can you say to those who see global warming as part of God’s plan?

Civic disagreements arise when participants have different opinions about what should be done. What should we do, for example, when stronger storms destroy more homes? Should we help people get more insurance, or build stronger houses, or move to safer places, or develop policies that decrease carbon emissions? Should we promote electric buses, tax air travel, shut down coal mines? Different opinions provide a chance to learn from each other.

In the civic realm, when someone disagrees with me, it’s a sign that they know something I don’t know. They may have different observations, or values, or different assumptions. If we share these differences, disagreement can be a source of mutual learning. I have been thinking and writing about the value of disagreement from my 1967 intern year at the Evangelical Academy in Germany where I watched workers and managers working through their disagreements together to my 2014 workbook Learning Through Disagreement. Such learning will never occur when “others” are seen as “unsaved’ or inferior.

Civic disagreements, of course, have their own assumptions, such as the best decisions arise from multiple voices, good arguments make a difference, and participants can learn from each other. Sharing with others such assumptions provides civic discourse with a basic platform for exploring the reasons for different proposals that arise from different social worlds, experiences, and reflections.

Some religious social worlds, of course, prevent such mutuality. For a true believer, some are saved and others have fallen. In the civic realm, religious beliefs are interpreted as assumptions and assumptions are not sacred. They can be changed. OK, it’s not that easy to deal with the assumed privileges of Christian nationalists. Still, it’s possible to imagine a different world: a world where others know things I do not, where others have the key to the door we need to open. That’s possible.

Remember that most civic disagreements are not about assumptions. They are about actions and policies. In some cases, participants cannot agree on an action because of divergent assumptions. If participants have been listening to each other, then such assumptions can be examined, appreciated, and integrated into the discourse. That may make them “all too human” for some, but just right for civic disagreements.

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Aug 10, 2023

Excelent article, as usual. Congratulations Marvin!

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