I am currently writing essay on whether religious believers who are elected to public office can — or should — check their religious beliefs at the door to their places of work, and in doing research I came across an article in The New York Times by Gary Gutting that I found thought-provoking.

Here’s an excerpt:

But should religious viewpoints, even on moral issues, have any role in our political debate?  Some say no, on the grounds that effective arguments require premises that virtually everyone taking part in the discussion accepts.  A religious argument, based on, say, the authority of the Bible or of the Pope, would therefore, be out of place in a public debate among citizens with every variety belief and disbelief.

But this line of thought misunderstands the point of political debate.  The goal is to reach consensus about conclusions, but not necessarily consensus about the reasons for the conclusions.   We have, for example, come to a consensus about extending full civil rights to all adult citizens, regardless of race or gender.  But some argued for this conclusion from the equality of all human beings as children of God, others from self-evident truths about human nature, and still others from the overall increase in happiness that would result from equal treatment.   Not everyone accepted the premises of all of these arguments, but that did not prevent such arguments from having an essential role in our national debate about civil rights.  They helped form what John Rawls called an “overlapping consensus,” in which different groups of citizens accepted the same conclusions from quite different arguments.  So there is no objection in principle to religious arguments in political debates.