Author Brendan Sweetman delineates the difference between form and content in the arguments that arise between church and state, particularly in the area of traditionally controversial religious and moral issues such as abortion, gay rights, capital punishment, and euthanasia (Sweetman 232). Form, Sweetman contends, refers exclusively to the quality of the argument: if the argument is against the issue, typically it will be “portrayed as [a] religious argument” (Sweetman 232). If the argument is for the issue, typically it will be “portrayed as [a] secular, neutral argument” (Sweetman 232).
Once the arguments meet these classifications, invariably the religious argument will be “ruled out of order because of the legal separation between church and state” (Sweetman, 233). As a result, the content portion of the argument, namely the moral sticking point at the heart of controversial issues such as the legalized taking of human life, avoids discussion once the religious argument has been jettisoned.
The problem with this strategy is twofold: first, by using the form to circumvent content, “the secularist side claims the rhetorical high ground on the issue of form without having to significantly engage the argument about the actual content of the question under discussion” (Sweetman, 233). Not only does this strategy “discriminate against religious views,” it keeps thorny moral issues from ever being fully engaged with and discussed openly in the public sphere (Sweetman, 233).
Sweetman’s concern in regards to the behavior of legal courts stems from his belief that courts aid and abet the secularized view of the public sphere, and work as gatekeepers against the religious view (Sweetman 68). Sweetman claims that the judiciary “vigorously promoted” the concept that religion needed to be kept absent from all discussions of public and social policy, and that the courts were instrumental in building the “wall of separation between religion and politics” that now exists (Sweetman 68).
Sweetman believes that U.S. courts contain a liberal bias; in his mind, U.S. courts “side with the individual engaged in controversial activities and not with the person allegedly being harmed by them” (Sweetman 222). Sweetman also asserts that the U.S. courts promote the liberal view that “the state cannot interfere in …areas of personal preference, except to prevent one from harming others” (Sweetman 222). What constitutes harming others, Sweetman argues, has been too “narrowly interpreted by the U.S. courts” (Sweetman 222). Examples include “TV violence, changing sexual morality [and] whether the Internet should be censored” (Sweetman 222).
In evaluating Sweetman’s overall position, it is important to begin by saying Sweetman defends one salient point quite well. The virtual removal of religion from the public sphere does have an impact on personal spiritual understanding. Secular life does not necessarily feed the soul and the “naturalistic, psychologized model of human personhood over which therapists and psychologists” rule can quickly seem cold and empty (Sweetman 68).
Secular life can also over-emphasize the mind and rob life of mystery. Sweetman’s overall position then seems to indicate that “lower order, rational beliefs…[that] have [been] debated…publicly,” and shown to be “good for society” can be sublimated into the society as a whole not as a religion per se but as a “worldview…according to the wishes of the majority” (Sweetman 206). The reintegration of religion, with the public sphere, may promote more community-mindedness, and might also encourage innovative solutions to moral quandaries such as euthanasia, simply because it would allow these issues to be discussed openly, as opposed to being immediately shut down under the auspices of the separation of church and state.
Sweetman, Brendan. Why Politics Need Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2006. Print.