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Bruce Ackerman ’67 Debates Stephen Carter ’79 on the Role of Religion in the Public Square

WATCH THE VIDEO OF THE DEBATE

In the third installment of the “Debating Law & Religion” series at Yale Law School, Professor Bruce Ackerman ’67 and Professor Stephen Carter ’79 debated what type of reasons can be legitimately referenced in public deliberation. Titled “Rational, Reasonable, and Religious? The Role of Religion in Public Reason,” the debate April 20 drew about 100 participants, including faculty and students from the law school, the divinity school, and various graduate departments, as well as Yale College.

Professor Ackerman opened the debate by proposing a dualistic conception of life within the liberal republic. The foreground is constituted by distinctive concerns about how the state should be organized and managed; whereas the background consists of our distinctive personal affiliations, of which religious identity is a part. Since, according to Ackerman, we all participate in the foreground, the common activities of maintaining the state should be bound by certain express and implicit rules of engagement—chief among them, a shared commitment to liberal justice.

Describing himself as a conversational anarchist, Professor Carter argued against any principled exclusion of certain kinds of reasons. In contrast to Ackerman’s model that determines in advance what kinds of reasons are acceptable, Carter prefers an approach in which all reasons are admitted into public deliberation but only those that prove persuasive will eventually be accepted. One of the dangers of systematically excluding certain kinds of considerations from public debate, according to Carter, is that some citizens will become disaffected. Religious citizens who cannot speak candidly in public reasoning might very well conclude public life is not for them. Furthermore, Carter wondered if Ackerman’s exclusive account of public deliberation fails to take private commitments seriously and might tend towards civic totalism.

In response, Professor Ackerman argued that if public deliberation included non-public reasons, including religious ones, there is a danger that we will talk at each but fail to talk to each other. Carter acknowledged that allowing different kinds of reasons into public debate might be messy but insisted that it was worth the risk.

Moderator and co-organizer, Kenneth Townsend JD/MAR '12 summed up the session, "While the debate did not resolve the complex and controversial issues raised in the discussion, it went some way to better understand the competing perspectives and their implications."

Attendees appreciated the opportunity the debate provided to articulate them. Yale College senior Larry Gipson noted, “This was a rare opportunity to hear two of the most intelligent professors at Yale engage one another in a topic they both had thought about for years, namely: how to include all citizens, religious and secular, in a liberal democracy.” Ray Treadwell ’11 commented, “I’m not surprised a debate on religion in public discourse produced a standing-room-only crowd. Interest in religion is rising.”

Launched this spring 2011, “Debating Law & Religion” is a new series jointly organized by Visiting Professor Patrick Weil, Townsend, and Jaclyn Neo JSD '14, under the sponsorship of the Dean’s Office. The first and second debates were also extremely well received. In the first, Professor Robert Ellickson ’66 and Professor Paul Kahn ’80 spoke to a packed lecture room on the mosque building at ground zero. For the second session, Professor Weil debated Professor Cecile Laborde (currently a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies) on French laïcité and the burqa ban, drawing various provocative questions from faculty and students in the crowded audience.

As Neo pointed out, “The popularity of our debates shows that law and religion is extremely relevant, and that there is a continuing need for a forum here at Yale to discuss related topics."

The series will continue in the coming academic year.