On Being “Compromised”

Over at the Mirror of Justice, Lisa Schiltz offers a brief recap of the Religiously Affiliated Law Schools conference that began yesterday and is continuing today, and which Mark attended.  Though I did not attend the conference, and so did not hear the exchange that she describes, this statement about a claim by Professor Michael Broyde caught my eye:

Michael Broyde from the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory sparked some friendly fireworks with his provocative claim that law and religion institutes at religiously-affiliated schools are necessarily compromised in their ability to engage in an intellectually honest pursuit of truth[.]

The idea of a scholar, or a scholarly center, being “compromised” because of the religious affiliation of the home institution is an interesting one and I want to explore it here.  Because I did not hear Professor Broyde myself, I will rely on Lisa’s report of his remarks — more to think through some of these issues than to attack anything he said specifically. 

I can think of three ways in which an academic institution or the scholar working in it may be “compromised” in the “intellectually honest pursuit of truth” by a religious affiliation.  Let’s take them one at a time.

 First, an academic institution may put explicit pressure on scholars to pursue or not to pursue certain avenues of intellectual inquiry, or to reach (or not to reach) certain preordained conclusions.  The institution could stifle and suppress certain kinds of research, or demand others.  And in this way, it would “compromise” its scholars, and the scholars would “compromise” themselves by acquiescing in its demands.  In the past, this sort of “compromise” may have occurred with respect to law and religion scholarship at various secular legal institutions, for example, in which work in the field was expressly discouraged and disdained.  That obviously is not the case at Emory, where the superb Center for the Study of Law and Religion directed by John Witte is flourishing.  I would be very surprised if Professor Broyde meant this first sort of “compromise” when he made his remarks.  If he did, I certainly can see how that would be a troubling phenomenon, but he and I must attend and participate in very different sorts of conferences.  I do not believe that I have ever attended a conference in which this sort of “compromise” was in evidence.

Second, one might think that a religiously affiliated institution is “compromised” and somehow less than fully “intellectually honest” because it has a general interest in a particular field of inquiry.  Sometimes one sees this referred to as part of the school’s “mission” but it could also be described in different and milder terms as simply an important subject for the school — part of the school’s institutional identity, so to speak.  This second meaning of “compromised” seems to me to rob it of its pejorative connotation, as well as to dissociate it from an inability to pursue “truth” in an “intellectually honest” fashion.  Some schools have particular methodological interests — in law and economics, for example, or empirical methods.  Some are committed to various socially ameliorative causes.  Some focus especially and have developed particular expertise in an individual subject — environmental law, for example, or international law.  And some are committed to inquiry about and engagement with religious traditions of various sorts.  The sociologist Talcott Parsons (about whom no one would allege any pejorative intellectual compromise) had this to say about the freedom of academic institutions to speak out about matters of special interest to themselves and their educational identity: “Corporate positions are justified . . . where the interests of the educational institution, the academic system, or relevant sectors of them are at stake . . . .” (See his very interesting 1968 piece, “The Academic System: A Sociologist’s View”).  Care must be taken to distinguish the first and second meaning of “compromise” so that the second does not shade into the first, of course.  But as a general matter, a scholar or an institute within a larger academic institution with a religious affiliation and/or commitment is not pejoratively “compromised” simply in virtue of the religious association.

The third possible meaning of “compromised” in this context is the most interesting, and also the most confused.  The idea here is that religious affiliation as to the individual scholar is itself “compromising” — itself an impediment to intellectual honesty — but only, or especially, when that scholar works at a religiously affiliated institution.  The position assumes that there is some collection of properties which conduces to intellectual honesty, and institutional religious affiliation is not one of these properties.  A deeply felt religious commitment is in itself a complicated affair when it comes to individual scholarly inquiry, but when it exists within an institution which also has a religious affiliation, it becomes more probable that the commitment will become “compromising.”

It is true that all of us are influenced in our scholarship by our commitments, our “prejudices,” in Burkean terms.  And that’s as true for those of us, and of our institutions, with religious affiliations as for those without them.  Yet it would be odd, and unfair, to claim that those without such affiliations and commitments are “compromised” or somehow intellectually disabled or incapable of “honest” scholarly work.  I daresay one would never hear such a claim today, and rightly so.  Worthwhile and interesting scholarly work comes in many guises, but it never stands above or somehow outside of prejudice, partial influence, and commitment.  The most interesting scholarly work is neck-deep in it.  In this third sense, the “intellectually honest pursuit of truth” is not hampered by “compromise.”  It depends on “compromise” — the compromise that comes from unique individual and institutional perspective as we do our best to find our way.

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