When Gene Schaerr took the job of defending Utah’s constitutional stand in favor of real marriage (you know, man-woman) a couple of weeks ago, he committed the indiscretion of letting some colleagues know via email that his new responsibility had religious significance for him. He saw “defending the constitutionality of traditional marriage” as “a religious and family duty.” Shocking! The Salt Lake Tribune was prompt to report the disapproval of those who see the abolition of marriage as we know it somehow as a “constitutional” imperative. “Schaerr’s entire motivation” for taking this anti-equality case, opined Fred Sainz of the “Human Rights Campaign,” is to impose a certain religious viewpoint on all Utahns – and that’s wrong. When you become an attorney, you take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, not any particular religious doctrine.”

The possibility that Mr. Shaerr’s religious and familial obligations (and not Sainz’s own zeal for the abolition of marriage) might align with an attorney’s obligations under the U.S. and Utah constitutions apparently did not occur to the “human rights” activist. This reflects an attitude of complacent secularism that has become so common as to be almost uncontested, even by those religious believers who are its targets. This attitude rests on the assumption that to be “rational” means to be anti- or at least non-religious. In fact many today who think of themselves as “rationalists” prove it to themselves by simply dismissing tradition and religion as “irrational,” thus saving themselves the trouble of actually reasoning about the good life for individuals and for society.

No doubt Mr. Sainz is very confident that his view of “human rights” is rational and that Mormonism is irrational. In fact progressives find their agenda of ever-expanding rights, that is, the state-enforced elimination of all barriers to individual self-expression, especially where sex is concerned, so manifestly rational that there is no need to offer reasons for it – or to explain why it does not apply so much to property rights, not to mention the rights of the unborn. Obviously, in Mr. Sainz’s view, to interpret the rights protected by the Constitution rationally is to interpret them as opposed to traditional and religious moral authority. The progressive agenda of such a selective but boundless expansion of “rights” must therefore be what the Constitution really means by the protection of “life, liberty and property.” How can Constitutional rights be other than the rights that we progressives demand and that those irrational and prejudiced believers resist?

I don’t believe it takes much dispassionate reflection to see that the equation between rationality and the progressive expansion of sexual self-expression is dubious at best. The first question of practical reason (rationality applied to moral and political matters) is the question of the good, or of purpose. Will the elimination of traditional restraints and of moral and legal structures supporting them make life better on the whole for individuals and communities? Will the further emancipation of rights from responsibilities and from the natural facts surrounding the making of babies -and the making of babies into responsible people and citizens– improve life for us and our children and our children’s children?

I believe the evidence of reason is heavily against the progressive commitment to such ongoing emancipation, but let us grant that such questions of profound and long-term consequences will always be rationally debatable (at least until it is too late). What is manifestly not rational is to fail to ask the question: will the invention of more “rights” make our lives better?   And the foisting of these rights upon some invented “constitutional” imperative is hardly an excuse for this failure.

The supposed “rationalism” of rights is no substitute for a reasonable discussion of fundamental and long-term goods. To frame the question of “rights” in the plainly rational context of the question of purpose, that is, of what is good on the whole for our communities, is to see that there never has and never will be a single, simple, demonstrable “rational” answer. Views of the good that contend in the public square will always draw upon deep sources of personal and collective experience; such experience is framed and enriched by beliefs about permanent things and in many cases articulated and supported by institutional religions.

Even our beliefs in individual rights and in progress derive from a sense of the sacredness of the individual that is patently derived from Christian belief, even when we have forgotten its source. The only alternative, therefore, to welcoming religious traditions into the public debate would be the absolute rule of pseudo-scientific “experts,” whose reductionist expertise cannot possibly qualify them to settle questions about what makes life worth living. Progressive liberals can complain that religious views about marriage and family are not based on reason alone – but then no understanding of the good life or of the common good is based on some “pure reason,” and the secular progressivism of ever-expanding “rights” least of all.

Secular “rationalism” appears superficially to be rational, because it focuses on means and suppresses the question of ends or purposes. If you assume thoughtlessly that the individual must be ever further liberated – that is, severed — from family, community and tradition, then one “rational” means to this end is obviously to redefine away the family and to limit the freedom of religious institutions to resist this redefinition. But if you reason more deeply and question this “progress” towards ever more isolated, disoriented and thus weaker “individuals,” then your reasoning must be open to insights from religious and other traditions. The most rigorous reasoning sees beyond simplistic “rationalism” to the sources of goodness that reason cannot itself fabricate.

When reason is construed narrowly so as to exclude higher or more fundamental purposes, it becomes secular “rationalism.” This rationalism serves the cause of liberation from traditional moral restraints and responsibilities, whether the individual rationalist knows it or not. By defining reason so as to exclude higher purposes, the rationalist relegates moral concerns central to our religious traditions to the category of the “irrational.”

We religious believers often accept this categorization too readily, throwing out the baby of reason with the bathwater of secular rationalism. We rightly take revealed truth as the anchor of our reasoning, but then we sometimes wrongly appeal to revelation or scripture or prophecy alone as an excuse to neglect the task of reasoning together about what is good. But both scripture and modern prophets urge us to accept the responsibility to reason together to secure a good moral, political and legal environment for ourselves and our posterity.

For example, when Elder Christofferson urged us in General Conference (April 2009) to foster moral discipline in our families and our society, he used arguments based upon careful reasoning as well as appeals to revelation:

The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion.

  The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments.

The fullest use of reason, Elder Christofferson shows, must be open to revealed insights.  At the same time, our reliance upon revelation must not lead us to despise reason’s role in the pursuit of truth: “[T]he intelligent use of agency requires knowledge of the truth, of things as they really are (see D&C 93:24).”

The way we understand “reason” has a decisive influence on our institutions of higher education, and these institutions powerfully shape the assumptions and attitudes of a rising generation of leaders. Our universities, alas, are more and more committed to a narrow, secular view of reason. Of course, in most academic fields, the question of the meaning and scope of reason hardly even arises, but this is because it has already been settled.

The very specialization of the academic disciplines reflects a belief in scientific progress that can only happen if old philosophical and religious questions about the good life and the good society are relegated to dying intellectual traditions, to non-progressive backwaters such as political philosophy. Scientific social science looks at human beings from at standpoint outside of moral and spiritual concerns (more or less as a rat psychologist looks at rats), and postmodern humanistic disciplines (for example literary criticism, much of philosophy) repay the favor by assuming that all morality is constructed by human beings and is relative to historical circumstances.  

Unfortunately this often hidden alliance between specialized scholarship and secular rationalism is working its influence in LDS higher education as in the academic world at large. Most often this turn towards a secular idea of progress and away from a traditional interest in fundamental goods is an unintended by-product of the way our universities are organized. By accepting the authority of the specialized secular disciplines, the great majority of professors in practice accept the underlying assumptions (even when they do not accord with their personal beliefs) and pass them on to their students, especially the brightest and most ambitious.

The religious commitment of most faculty at LDS institutions remains strong, but it is increasingly undermined by an ill-considered allegiance to the powerful secularizing trends of the academic enterprise as a whole.   For example, in the inaugural issue of new Mormon Studies Review, published by BYU’s Maxwell Institute, Stephen Taysom, a BYU graduate in History now teaching at Cleveland State University, calls for a new “maturity in Mormon Studies.” To be regarded as a mature discipline “that is held in esteem by the larger academic community,” he argues, will require that we distinguish “the rules of scholarly inquiry” from “those that govern eternal truth.” Implicit in these standards is the premise that Mormonism is “a cultural phenomenon … a human construct.” “Like it or not, this is what the academic study of religion is about.” These are the assumptions Mormons must accept if Mormon Studies is “to find a place in the larger academic world.”

It should be emphasized that, although Taysom’s argument is featured in this inaugural volume, it would be wrong immediately to conclude that he is speaking for the Maxwell Institute. Still, it is clear that he is right that the Maxwell Institute is eager “to find a place in the larger academic world,” and that the secular assumptions he describes tend to dominate in that world. To resist this domination, the Maxwell Institute, like the rest of BYU, will have to articulate an idea of scholarly “maturity” that does not buy into secular rationalism by separating the scholarly enterprise from an interest in eternal truth. This is why I have argued, in an article (“Keeping Faith in Provo”) just published in First Things (a prestigious national magazine concerned with religion, philosophy and politics) that it is dangerous for LDS educators to “accept without reservation the understanding of humanity that is implicit in the academic mainstream,” and that we urgently need to cultivate “alternative intellectual frameworks open to our essential religious commitments.”

Latter-day Saint scholars, students, and all who love truth as the highest aim of both reason and revelation must resist the secular limitation of reason to secular rationalism. We must embrace a fuller understanding of reason, precisely because the most rigorous reason knows its own limits, and is therefore open to the goods of tradition and revelation.