For America to escape a political climate that seems increasingly dysfunctional and riven by unruly and unwholesome passions, Elayne Allen believes it is necessary to bring faith back into the public square:
Viewed as clashes among various faiths, the intense fervor that characterizes our disagreements begins to make more sense. There’s been a spiritual vacuum left behind by the decline in traditional religion. In its place are politically polarized pseudo-religions—ones that have no God, nor any teachings that transcend the temporal realm, and that rely on temporal power to achieve their aims. For these pseudo-religions, secular, immanent, and political goals take on a theological status, and offer spiritual consolation for modern souls.
The cure, according to Allen, involves using the “soft power” of religion in a way that does not interfere with either religious freedom or with pluralism:
Pluralism is an irreducible, sociological fact of American life. It is not a set of norms that requires perfect neutrality in public spaces; instead, it creates parameters around what’s politically possible amid profoundly diverse views about first principles. In our secular and pluralistic age, a sensible politics recognizes that moral consensus is impossible; . . . pursuing perfect consensus would eventually require politics to become a blunt coercive instrument, no longer an arena of competition and deliberation.
So without seeking a confessional state, what does it look like for religion to wield influence? First, it means rejecting the idea that religion is a purely private matter that has no relevance in the public square. Above all, religious influence focuses less on rigging laws in order to achieve political power and more on the internal revitalization of religion, and on creating conditions that are most conducive to that revitalization.
But prioritizing internal health doesn’t mean retreat from the public square. Wise, mild, and indirect power in some cases might look like creating parallel institutions—for example, creating religious charter schools to exist alongside public schools. In other cases, it will mean trying to stymie extreme political views from reshaping socially important institution such as medicine, law, and higher education. Again, though, pursuing “soft power” for religions doesn’t mean seeking the power of the state, or even the influence of private institutions to drive out dissent or compel agreement. It just means intentionally creating conditions for authentic religions to flourish without seeking to dominate those who differ.