Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


August 6, 2001

Owen probes cracks in wall between church, state

By Michael Terrazas


Most Americans take for granted the fundamental principles—such as separation of church and state—on which their country was founded. But Judd Owen says that might be changing, and some people might begin to question the validity of core political beliefs. Part of the reason could be traced back to the very culture those beliefs helped form.

In Owen’s new book, Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism: The Foundational Crisis of the Separation of Church and State (University of Chicago Press), the assistant professor of political science traces the fiery plunge of Enlightenment-era rationalism into today’s sea of postmodernism and examines the implications of this on political thought. One repercussion, he said, is that America’s constitutional democracy could suffer from the impact.

The Founding Fathers operated during a time when the world’s most forward thinkers believed Man was a perfectible being, that The Truth Was Out There, waiting, and all humanity need do was look for it long and hard enough. That school of thought, to which Owen refers as “liberal rationalism,” is nearly extinct in 2001.

“It’s on its last leg, if it’s not dead,” Owen said. “So the question is, if that point of view was just another ‘faith,’ what is there to distinguish it from religious points of view, which are self-consciously of faith?”

In other words, if the separation of church and state is philosophically grounded in the belief that government should avoid theological entanglements and stay focused on the pursuit of objective “truth,” but instead it turns out that belief in such a truth is itself an article of faith (one no more or less valid than any other faith), in what condition does this leave the Ameri-can wall between government and religion?

“I think this is a question that is ignored by political theorists,” said Owen, who hastened to add that his book does not attempt to answer the question but simply to propel it into the intellectual discourse.

For the record, Owen does not count himself in the postmodern—the “antifoundationalist,” as he calls it—camp. He relishes a good defense of liberal democracy against any and all invaders. Owen even suspects a number of antifoundationalists themselves believe firmly in the Constitution but subscribe to the postmodern school precisely because it frees them from having to formulate an intellectual defense; if there is no rational way to prove the universal “truth” of liberal democracy, why bother even trying?

But the philosophical questions carry with them real-world weight. President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiatives have the more libertarian-minded Americans wanting to apply fresh mortar to the wall between church and state, but these concerns seem trivial next to, for example, the government-sanctioned oppression being carried out by the Taliban in Afghanistan, all in the name of God.

“It’s always good to be wary of making too much of intellectual trends, as far as the broader culture is concerned,” Owen said. “But I don’t think it’s insignificant that there’s a segment of people for whom there’s just a loss of faith that the American principles are true.”

What’s more, he said, the legacy of Jefferson, Hamilton, et al could be partly responsible for these intellectual tectonics in the first place.

“There was a tendency to promote, with regard to religion, an indifference to the truth,” Owen said. “It’s there in Jefferson, it’s there in John Locke. Jefferson thought the Constitution would promote a general theological indifference, and you can see that it’s worked.

“Most Methodists and Presbyterians today probably couldn’t tell you what the theological differences are between the two. So it seems very strange to us that people could have killed each other over, say, the nature of the trinity. That’s just very far from religion in America today.”

From the perspective of civil order, Owen added, this is a good thing, as it keeps New York and Washington from looking like Belfast or Beirut. “The downside is that it makes us stupid,” Owen said, and that it gives rise to the every-human-for-him-or-herself mentality of postmodernism.

“So liberalism is partly to blame for its own crisis; that’s part of what I conclude,” Owen said. “What I’m doing now is going back and looking at the Enlightenment to try to see the extent to which they could anticipate this. Would they have looked at our situation and said, ‘Everything’s working according to plan’?”

Perhaps Owen’s next book will answer that question.


Back to Emory Report August 6, 2001