On being a religious professional: the religious turn in professional ethics.

Author:Minow, Martha

What divides Senator Joseph Lieberman and Chief Justice William Rehnquist? I assume many things, such as the street between the Capitol building and the Supreme Court, but it strikes me as surprising that Democratic and Jewish Senator Lieberman has argued that individuals' religious beliefs and practices should guide their professional conduct while Republican and Lutheran Rehnquist has disagreed. Attorney General John Ashcroft may represent the bridging example: he certainly thought his religious views should animate his role as a legislator, but recently indicated that professional duties at the Department of Justice would require him to enforce laws with which he has had religious objections.

These are not simply isolated individuals. The growing attention to what it means to be a Catholic lawyer, a Jewish judge, or a Christian doctor occupies not only pages in academic journals but also bulletin boards and panel discussions at professional schools and, increasingly, broad public debate. (There is almost nothing, by the way, about Moslems, Hindus, or members of other religions, and my remarks, unfortunately, will do little to remedy this lack.)

Why is there a turn to religion now in discussions of professional conduct? What are the benefits and worries that this turn signals? And what paths can individuals and institutions use to navigate the emerging debate over the place of religion in professional life? These are the questions that I will explore here.

  1. WHY NOW?

    It is not obvious what to use as a baseline, and I do not pretend to offer scientific assessment, but even a casual observation detects surging interest in the specific relevance of particular religions to professional practices and the general pertinence of religion to public debates. Take the law review literature. Attention to religion and professional practice always occupied specialized religious journals, such as The Catholic Lawyer, (1) but now mainstream journals are in the business. (2) When Thomas Shaffer and Robert Cover wrote in the early 1980s connecting religion and the work of lawyers, (3) theirs were rare voices. But it is not unusual now to see religious sources--ranging from the Talmud to papal teachings--cited in law review footnotes. (4) Howard Lesnick's recent book is a deep and wide meditation on religion in dialectic with law over the past thirty years. (5) The more typical legal scholarly treatment is a narrower enterprise. It begins by noting an apparent crisis in the legal profession or a decline in ethics among lawyers. It then advises a search for virtue and goodness that religious teachings, beliefs, and institutions can assist. (6) Some observers have noted that critics, since time immemorial, have decried the ethical crisis of the legal profession, (7) but the cries became louder and more widespread after the Watergate scandals. The thinness of professional ethics, uninformed by religion, is another repeated theme. (8) Many endorse Sandy Levinson's critique of professionalization as "bleach[ing]" out important aspects of the individual, such as religion and ethnicity. (9) Others join Stephen Carter in criticizing the trivialization of religion in contemporary life and disdain for religion in the academy. (10)

    In medicine, rising interest in spirituality and the role of religion in healing has produced scholarship, conferences, training, and research centers. (11) Fueled perhaps by patients' concerns, this trend also reflects greater interest in spirituality among younger doctors. (12) Respecting the specific religious beliefs of a diverse patient group has become a vital agenda for hospitals, medical schools, and nursing training not only to guard against discrimination but also to enhance the quality of care and results. Religion, in short, is a very hot topic in medical ethics today.

    These changes in the legal and medical professions are part of larger trends. Whatever your qualms about President Bush's proposals to increase government support for faith-based initiatives, (13) candidate Gore endorsed very similar initiatives. (14) Both have personal convictions leading them in this direction, but they also have sophisticated pollsters. Their pollsters no doubt found trends similar to those documented most recently in a study entitled For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life. (15) Produced for the nonprofit Public Agenda group and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, this study summarized findings from 1,507 half-hour telephone interviews of adults in the general public conducted in November 2000, and a mail survey of religious leaders, public officials, and journalists. The study found that a large proportion of respondents believe that religion helps improve individual behavior and conduct. Indeed, 69% of respondents answered that "[m]ore religion is the best way to strengthen family values and moral behavior." (16) Eighty-five percent answered that parents would do a better job raising their kids if more Americans were to become deeply religious; 79%, that crime would decrease; and 69%, that greed and materialism would decrease. (17) The largest majority--96%--agreed that "one of the greatest things about this country is that people can practice whatever religion they choose," and more than half (58%) agreed that belief in God is not necessary to be a moral person or to have good values. (18) And 52% of respondents worried that an increase in intolerance toward people with unconventional lifestyles would increase if more people became deeply religious. (19) Only a majority of Jews and nonreligious people--when examined separately--opposed prayer in public schools. (20) In contrast, a large majority of all those sampled-70%--favor daily prayer spoken in the classroom, and 56% thought school prayer is "one of the most effective ways to improve the values and behavior of young people." (21) And again it is 70%--perhaps the same 70%--who said that they want religion's influence in America to grow. (22)

    Behind these survey results, I suspect, are two short-term and one longer-term phenomenon. First, it is no small matter, I think, that the baby-boomers are getting older. As boomers age, they--we--have looked for ways to raise children in a violent and commercial world, and also looked for meaning and support in dealing with both material success and personal challenges, such as illness and the deaths of friends and family members. Coincidentally, boomers largely control mass media, private institutions, and public debate. This enables us to project our own concerns onto the public stage even more directly than when we tried to steer the political and cultural agenda through activism in the '60s.

    Second, in the recent decade, wide perceptions of national and global problems have led many people of all generations into spiritual and religious searches. Local scandals can have this effect. Remember how President Clinton turned to ministers not only for forgiveness but also for their public relations effect? More profoundly, drug and alcohol abuse, related crime, and the persistent poverty of many, alongside the raging and at times conspicuous consumption of others, lead many to seek grounds for critique and reform. Internationally, inter-ethnic violence and genocide, and the international versions of widespread suffering alongside remarkable bounty, generate similar searches for intellectual, political, and moral critique, resulting in mobilization and response. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, churches, synagogues, and mosques became filled with people searching for reassurance, community, and belief.

    But a deeper, longer trend across longer time spans is also vital to this transition. The past two centuries mark a period of secularization followed by recent expressions of religious reaction. After the religious wars in Europe, political thinkers such as John Locke argued for separating church and state, and political actors such as Thomas Jefferson tried to institutionalize such ideas. (23) Yet from our vantage point, even such people assumed far greater scope and influence for religion as a feature of public life than we see in today's society. If separation of church and state served as a norm at all in the eighteenth and nineteenthth centuries, it applied only to the federal government, not states or localities. (24) Just taking the academy as an example, the separation of religion from the study of philosophy did not occur until the twentieth century; training clergy remained a primary purpose of leading institutions of higher education throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The debate over prayer in public schools often turns into contests over history, but no responsible historian would deny that publicly-funded schools throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries taught the Bible and presided over prayers without much opposition (25) --that is, without much mainstream opposition, for the integration of religion and public life in the United States largely meant Protestantism. The common school movement in particular confirmed a Protestant culture. (26)

    In contrast, Catholic leaders in the nineteenth century saw public schools as failing to serve their community; as the century wore on, anti-Catholic movements pushed for compulsory school laws in order to block the development of parochial, Catholic schools. (27) It took a Supreme Court decision that rejected compulsory public schooling as a violation of parents' abilities to influence their children's upbringing to put such laws to rest. (28) But during the same period, Protestant leaders inspired the social gospel movement that influenced the shape of Progressive era reforms, including the encouragement of evangelical missions that at times conflicted with the religious commitments of increasing waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. (29) Many of these...

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