August 6, 2001
Owen probes cracks in wall between church, state
By Michael Terrazas firstname.lastname@example.org
Most Americans take for granted the fundamental principlessuch
as separation of church and stateon 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 Owens 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 todays sea
of postmodernism and examines the implications of this on political thought.
One repercussion, he said, is that Americas constitutional democracy
could suffer from the impact.
The Founding Fathers operated during a time when the worlds 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.
Its on its last leg, if its 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 postmodernthe
antifoundationalist, as he calls itcamp. 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. Bushs 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.
Its always good to be wary of making too much of intellectual
trends, as far as the broader culture is concerned, Owen said. But
I dont think its insignificant that theres a segment
of people for whom theres just a loss of faith that the American
principles are true.
Whats 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. Its there in Jefferson, its
there in John Locke. Jefferson thought the Constitution would promote
a general theological indifference, and you can see that its worked.
Most Methodists and Presbyterians today probably couldnt
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. Thats just very far from religion in
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; thats
part of what I conclude, Owen said. What Im 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, Everythings working according to plan?
Perhaps Owens next book will answer that question.