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A Role For Religion In Public Service

3613 words - 14 pages

A Role for Religion in Public Service

ABSTRACT: In this paper I discuss recent scholarly work on ideology, mostly by Europeans, that exposes a secularist bias in current political theory, invites a nonderogatory concept of religion, and (I argue) justifies more flexible church/state relations. This work involves (1) redefining ideology as any action-oriented ideas, whether destructive or ameliorative, including both secular theory and religion, then (2) drawing on hermeneutical and critical studies of the power/ideology relationship to rediscover a role for ‘utopia’ as a social catalyst for amelioration. I then call attention to the relevance of ‘mission’ to this work. For in both secular and sacred contexts, missions are defined and assigned to individuals or groups to enhance some aspect of the organizing entity’s sense of purpose and possibility. What stands out in each instance is that the sense of mission is not passively epistemic but actively project-oriented, goal-directed. It can be used with reference to any end or goal that is at least implicitly normative and which people seek to attain. A mission moves people, however, only if it is tied to some belief-based social identity which can be interpreted as oriented to that end. A case can be made, accordingly, for accommodating religious views in our political discourse, for they have a history of directing people’s thinking beyond what is to what ought to be, and without them we are ever more inclined to tolerate mediocrity in ourselves and despair in others.

While secular theorists continue fine-tuning their exclusivist model of the public sphere, others see a need to open the public forum to multiple voices, including those of religious groups. In particular, recent post-Marxist reconsideration of the concept of ideology, mainly in Europe, invites some modification of absolute separation. This reconsideration involves two phases. First ideology is redefined as any action-oriented ideas whether destructive or ameliorative including both secular theory and religion. Then hermeneutical and critical studies of the power/ideology relationship help us rediscover the role of 'utopia' as a social catalyst for amelioration.

As exemplified by Newspeak in George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four: destructive ideology is used not to convey information but to provide a truth-indifferent rationale for institutional policies and practices. Such obfuscation has been a government staple, not just in the former Soviet Union but in the West as well, where governments have misrepresented their coercive activities as fending off "bandits" earlier in the twentieth century and "terrorists" more recently. What matters for my purposes is that one might similarly appeal to religious beliefs to justify pursuing a goal that is not obviously religious at all.(1)

Special terminology is needed, then, to distinguish religious beliefs from mobilized religion. For this purpose some writers(2) use the term...

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