A Catholic leftist and a humanist secularist took opposite sides in a debate about religion and government hosted by the Yale Political Union on Tuesday night.
Secularist Ronald Lindsay argued that religion should be kept out of government, while Catholic Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig advocated for religion as a necessary element in a democratic society.
Over the course of the debate, Lindsey and Stoker-Bruenig, alongside various undergraduate speakers, broadly addressed the role of religion in government. Lindsey, president and CEO of the education nonprofit Center for Inquiry, argued that religious language obscures public discourse, while Stoker-Bruenig argued that religion should continue to be integrated in the language and culture of government.
“Religion is always going to be a private language,” Lindsey said. “In a democracy, we need to reason together, and we can’t do that unless we use language that is available to everyone.”
Lindsey emphasized the difficulties of both understanding religious language and refuting religiously-based arguments. However, he did not dismiss religious arguments outright, but rather argued that if an individual has a religiously-driven belief, they should be able to formulate a logical, secular explanation to back it up.
Stoker-Bruenig countered Lindsey’s argument that religious language makes political discourse inaccessible, claiming instead that language does not have to be religious or nonreligious in nature, but should be understood by everyone. In response to Lindsey’s assertion that religious beliefs must be expressed in secular terms during policy discussions, Stoker-Bruenig pointed out that asking a religious person to conceal their true beliefs about god constitutes a sin in many religious traditions.
She went on to discuss the “civil religion” that government tends to rely on, referencing the veneration of American heroes and the American government that is commonplace as a form of nontraditional religion. Stoker-Bruenig pointed out the discrepancy between a government presenting itself on the one hand as an impartial, bureaucratic institution, and on the other as a system representing universal values that citizens often fight and die for.
“It’s like being asked to die for a telephone company,” she said, emphasizing necessity of civil religion in inspiring citizen’s loyalty.
Stoker-Bruenig also pointed out the role of religion in checking unjust or hegemonic political discourse, pointing to examples of religious activists like Martin Luther King Jr.
This view of religion’s critical role in shaping public policy was echoed by many students on Tuesday, who spoke in favor of religion in government. During his speech, Alex Garland ’17 stated that it is impossible for him to separate his personal religious values from the way he thinks about public policy.
The role of religion in dictating morality and moral beliefs was also hotly contested by various student speakers throughout the night. In a fiery speech condemning religious influence in government, Sahaj Sankaran ’20, pointed out that religions preserve a set of unchanging morals, which are incompatible with the idea of progress common in liberal democracies.
Lauren Lee ’20 countered this point, arguing that the recent election of Donald Trump — which she called an example of human fallibility — is proof that nations need something, like religion, higher than secular reasoning. Lee said religion in government is “something stable that will provide order and unite people in pursuing the moral good.”
Overall, the debate was widely viewed by attendees as a success, in terms of both the eloquence of the guest speakers and the level of YPU member engagement. The event was unusual for the YPU, which usually only hosts one headlining guest.
YPU President Lina Xing ’17 emphasized the civility and intellectual courage of the various student speakers in debating such a contentious topic, especially in the midst of an emotional post-election campus atmosphere.
“There is a need in this country to understand the political coalitions we don’t belong to,” Xing said. “I think we demonstrated that really well tonight.”
Correction, Nov. 20: A previous version of this article misstated the name of one of the speakers. His name is Ronald Lindsay, not Richard Lindsey.