Dr. J., Religion, and the Bigotry of Superficial Sophistication

When I was a kid in the 1970s, most liberal-minded adults, in order to make sure you knew that they harbored no racial prejudices, often went out of their way to say what they thought were kind things about minorities – which actually revealed just the opposite. So, for example, after watching a television interview of the great professional basketball star Julius Erving (aka “Dr. J.”), one of my father’s friends exclaimed, “That Dr. J is a real class act. He is so well spoken.”

For those of us in the room under thirty, this was cringe-inducing, even though we knew that the man who uttered that statement considered his comments a sign of sophistication on matters racial, that he thought of himself as an enlightened progressive mystically harmonizing with the Youngbloods, “C’mon people now. Smile on your brother. Evrybody get together. Try and love one another right now.”

His heart, of course, was in the right place. But the assumptions that gave rise to his observations about Dr. J. – that black people are not by nature classy or articulate – show that he in fact harbored racial prejudices, however generous his affections toward his African-American neighbors may have been. My peers and I cringed because of a truth about human conversation that we often do not admit: what is communicated in speech is often shaped less by what is said than what is not said.                             

Nearly a decade ago I gave a lecture at the law school of Texas Tech University on First Amendment questions concerning the teaching of intelligent design (ID) in public schools, which was the topic of my Master Juridical Studies (MJS) dissertation. Although at the time I had no real opinion about ID as a view, I have since published several pieces critical of ID, including a four-part online account.

Nevertheless, I still believe, as I did in 2004, that the Constitution, properly interpreted, does not bar ID from being taught in public schools under certain conditions, even though, as I have since come to believe, I do not think that any school should teach it. 

During the question and answer period, a biology professor asserted, “Your talk consists of cleverly disguised religious arguments.” To which I promptly replied, “I’m relieved. I was afraid you were going to accuse me of making bad arguments.” The audience laughed, for they instantly understood that what the professor had not said – that religious arguments are by their nature bad arguments – was in fact what he really believed.

Instead of accurately presenting his dispute with me as a conflict between two answers to one question – What constitutionally may be taught in public schools? – the professor reframed it as a struggle between two different subjects, religion and science. But, as I have noted elsewhere, the resolution of this legal skirmish is at root philosophical, and thus really about one subject.

Although religious citizens make up the vast majority of one side in this conflict, it does not follow that their case can be properly assessed by merely calling it “religious.” Yet, my questioner, in another venue consisting of only like-minded professors, would have been praised as having distilled for the audience the essence of the question we were contesting.

It seems, then, that in both our academic and popular cultures, all one needs to do in order to “resolve” any highly controversial issue that touches on questions tightly tethered to answers congenial to the sensibilities of religious citizens is to simply announce that the dispute is about two different subjects – “faith” and “reason” (or proxies, e.g., “religion” and “science”) – rather than about different answers to the same question. 

This bigotry of superficial sophistication is so widespread that even some of our friends cannot extricate themselves from it. Thus, on the matter of the HHS mandate, and its coercion of Catholic and other Christian employers to violate their consciences, these allies have chosen to limit their battle to making strong religious liberty arguments in the courts.

That, of course, must be part of any effort to vindicate one’s rights in this republic. But by failing to provide the philosophical arguments for why they hold these moral beliefs – both for the wider culture, as well as through adequate catechesis of their own religious communities – such religious groups are making a mistake.

They are inadvertently contributing to the view that their grievance is just another instance of “faith” trying to quash “reason.” They will be accused of confusing two subjects, “religion” and “health,” as if the Church were arguing that the Food & Drug Administration should acknowledge the epistemic legitimacy of believing in transubstantiation or the Immaculate Conception.

The dispute over the HHS mandate is about whether the philosophical anthropology of Planned Parenthood is the only rational one that citizens may embrace in both their public lives and how they conduct business. Put this way, it’s clear that the government’s answer is illiberal, extreme, and unjustified. 

So if you expect to affect policy – while at the same time failing to explain both the question that is contested as well as why the arguments for the Church’s position may be rationally held – do not be surprised when the Secretary of Health & Human Services praises you for being a class act and well spoken.



Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).