Baylor University professor speaks on integrating faith in law, society


For many in the public dialogue today, the association of religion with a person’s beliefs makes those beliefs irrational, said a prolific author and Baylor University professor on Feb. 20 in Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Gentile Gallery.

Delivering a speech entitled “Taking Rites Seriously: How Courts and Legal Scholars Diminish Religious Belief,” Francis Beckwith, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, addressed issues related to the relationship between religion and the legal sphere.  These topics were outlined in a handout provided to the audience.

Beckwith said, “If you leave this lecture with any lesson … or any advice: consider entering those professions that simply do not [consider] and aren’t aware of the complexities and the sophistication of theological traditions that many people opine about.”

Beckwith explained that the opinions that law and society are adopting regarding religion are heavily influenced by small groups of Academics at “insular institutions.” He described these institutions as being unexposed to the integration of faith and learning and Catholicism’s intellectual heritage.

As a result, “They tend to think that theology is simply nonsense and there’s nothing to it,” he said.

Referencing the conclusion of historian James Hitchcock, Beckwith said, “Since roughly the 1940s, the Supreme Court and most federal courts generally treat religion as … irrational, dangerous and divisive.”

Beckwith went on to cite court cases described by Hitchcock, as well as the opinions of various legal theorists that illustrated this faulty idea of religion being irrational.  He also described the prevalence of the idea in supreme court jurisprudence that religion is solely a private affair.

Beckwith specifically commented upon the continuing controversy of the Health and Human Services mandate regarding artificial contraception and abortifacient drugs.  He said that while the religious liberty aspect should be argued, the response should go even further.

“We also have to make the public argument outside the courts that this is something that is reasonable to believe,” he said.

Beckwith explained that one mistake of using an argument based only on religious liberty is the seeming contrast between faith and reason. He said those who don’t know about theological tradition “tend to think that ‘Oh, the Secretary of Health and Human Services … is issuing a mandate having to do with health.  Health is grounded in medicine, medicine is grounded in science, science is grounded in reason.  You guys believe something based on faith, so it’s faith versus reason.’”

Another major point of Beckwith’s speech was his critique of what he terms ‘secular rationalism,’ which, according to the audience handout, held that “religious beliefs are irrational because they are based on (1) unprovable claims … (2) incontestable claims … and (3) claims that cannot change or develop because they are insulated from the ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification.”

Freshman Tommy Valentine said he learned of the courts’ approach to religion. “Many of them simply aren’t educated in … the Christian philosophical tradition, so they’re very narrow-minded,” he said.

“I think we definitely need more Catholic lawyers and philosophers and people who can go out into these fields and … fill the void that’s been created by a lack of education,” Valentine said.

Franciscan University associate vice president for academic affairs, philosophy professor and department chair Jonathan Sanford was responsible for inviting Beckwith to speak at the university.

Sanford said he wanted students to hear and reflect on Beckwith’s  “legal expertise and his philosophical expertise and the energy with which he addresses contemporary problems and, most recently, issues having to do with religious liberty.”

Beckwith is a professor of philosophy and church-state studies as well as assistant director of the philosophy graduate program and co-director of the Program on Philosophical Studies of Religion at Baylor University.  He is also the author of numerous books and articles on various religious, political and legal topics.

His speech was a part of Franciscan’s spring 2014 Distinguished Speaker Series and was co-sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs and the Henkels Lecture Series.

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