Back in October I wrote on this website that people concerned with secularizing discourse on public policy, and thus secularizing government, might have more success in achieving their goal if they appeal to pluralism (“let’s make arguments all Americans can understand”) rather than strict church-state separation (“hey, you can’t say that!”).

Some religious believers countered that the more secular our discourse on public policy becomes, the less it will involve discussion on moral beliefs and values, if at all.

Yet as Christian blogger Robert Hunt points out, a secular state doesn’t abandon talk of moral beliefs and values. It simply requires a different approach to discussing them.

Does the secular state abandon the possibility of being a moral state?

The answer is no. The secular state does not abandon being moral. Indeed moral discourse remains firmly a part of political discourse. One need only examine the recent US presidential campaign to see this. It does, however, shift the basis for moral decision making in two ways. First, determining what is moral is moved away from decisions made by a religious establishment to decisions made by the majority of citizens (at least in a democracy.)  And secondly this decision making process takes place through public debate and appeal to information available to and known by all or a majority of citizens rather than to a privileged revelation or interpretation.

So to use a contemporary American example, if you want to argue that marriage should only be between a man and a woman you must show that your view is based on information and analysis available to everyone (or at least a majority) rather than a particular sectarian interpretation of scripture. You cannot appeal to the Bible, the Qur’an, or a particular interpretation of either and necessarily expect that your fellow citizens will accept its validity.

This is even more the case in the United States, where the constitution explicitly forbids the government to engage in establishing sectarian religious views in law.

The great advantage of the secular state is that it requires citizens to be engaged across religious and sectarian divides in order for it to implement a moral order. Citizens and their leaders must seek the universal rather than the particular for the state to function.

The transition to a secular state has not been easy in the Muslim world, or indeed in the non-Western world. Secular states are associated with both colonialism and Western nations that appear to many  to be highly immoral. Yet the alternative, a religious state, appears from its modern manifestations to be the way only toward endless sectarian violence and the oppression of religious minorities. 

Well put, Mr. Hunt.