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Faith, liberalism relationship discussed

Christine Egan | Thursday, February 5, 2009

About 40 people gathered in Hesburgh Center to hear a debate concerning the “relationship between faith and liberalism,” as put in the question by A. James McAdams, director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

Mark Lilla, a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, recently wrote his answer in the provocative book, “The Stillborn God; Religion Politics, and the Modern West.” His opponent, Notre Dame’s own Professor Daniel Philpott, wrote a blog response to the book’s claims, but yesterday the two men were given a chance to meet and debate face to face.

Philpott began the debate by saying that religious philosophy has always been crucial to the expansion of liberalism, and that a true divorce of the two is not possible. He added that religion lays a foundation for modern liberalism.

“Arguments for religious tolerance,” Philpott said, “are rooted in biblical thought.”

Philpott said that theology itself defends religious freedom, and was the root to such movements as early feminism and the civil rights movement.

Lilla countered that statement later by saying despite being correct; Philpott was neglecting biblically endorsed racism, denial of education to women, and hierarchy in the home.

“[The Church said] a right to religious freedom is a right to human dignity,” said Philpott.

Then Lilla took his turn and began it with his definition of political theology.

“Political theology,” Lilla said, “is a doctrine that gives institutions a legitimate authority based on divine revelations.”

Lilla said that the separation of church and state does not include culture, values, or religious arguments, and that in fact, all of these things can exist under the separation. He also said that different governments have different levels of separation, for example, he said that in the UK all religious schools are government funded.

Lilla said that his opponent made very good points, and even agreed that, “The idea of separation of church versus state comes from Catholic thinkers and the protestant idea of individuality of religious experience.”

Yet, Lilla went on to say that this fact has nothing to do with legitimacy.

“We can’t be sure what God wants from us in political life,” Lilla said. “And human-beings ruling themselves is sufficient for legitimacy.”

Yet, Lilla, despite saying the separation was a good thing, also said that total disregard of theology was not the best approach to governing.

“It is a good thing we’re past political theology for legitimacy,” said Lilla, “But it is not a good thing to jettison all the theological appeals.”

Lilla used the example of human dignity in government and the concept of the soul to conclude his argument. He asked if it was possible to define or defend human dignity without the theological concept of a soul.

The end of the debate marked the beginning of a bigger conference at Notre Dame involving the separation of church and state.