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Faculty Profile: Sam Calhoun

Sam Calhoun

Sam Calhoun

What is the proper role of religion in public discourse? Can explicitly religious values inform public discussion on questions such as health care, abortion, and stem cells, or should these questions be addressed in purely secular terms? What duty does a personally religious scholar owe to his students when discussing such topics? As a believing Christian and a law professor, these questions define Professor Samuel Calhoun’s scholarship.

In Grounding Normative Assertions: Arthur Leff’s Still Irrefutable, but Incomplete, Sez Who Critique, 20 J. L. & Religion 31 (2004-2005)), Calhoun explains his view that belief in God is fundamental to the moral foundations of law. The article is a response to Yale scholar Arthur Leff, who argued in Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law, 1979 Duke L.J. 1229, that attempts to ground secular, universal norms are doomed to fail. Through rigorous logic, Leff demonstrates how even obvious statements such as “babies should not be napalmed,” can be countered by questioning the authority of the asserter; or “the Grand ‘Sez Who?’” Calhoun concurs with Leff that no moral statement can be definitively shown to be true in a universe without a Supreme Being. If God is introduced, however, normative assumptions can be securely grounded, although Calhoun acknowledges that looking to God for moral truth has many challenges.

Prof. Calhoun’s first engagement with the issue of religion in the legal and public spheres came earlier, in an article entitled, Conviction Without Imposition: A Response to Professor Greenawalt (9 J. L. & Religion 289 (1991-1992)). Greenawalt’s article was an attempt to define when good citizens of a democracy can rely on their religious convictions. Calhoun expands on this premise by articulating a strict principle of not imposing religious beliefs on others in society. For both the practical reason that not everyone is religious and the theological reason that Christians should not force their beliefs on non-believers, Calhoun argues that civil discourse is best served by religious people carefully self-monitoring the influence of these values on their arguments and decision-making. While not requiring a Christian to forgo all involvement in politics, this “non-imposition principle” would “disable the Christian from seeking laws which for him have no independently-compelling secular justification.”

By 2003, Calhoun reconsidered the non-imposition principle for Christians. In a book review of Elizabeth Mensch and Alan Freeman, The Politics of Virtue: Is Abortion Debatable? (16 J.L. & Religion 405 (2001)), Calhoun discusses his earlier article and concludes that he no longer believes these strictures are appropriate to impose on religious believers. Instead, he posits that beliefs based on religion have the same right to contend in the political arena as beliefs based on anything else, and that it is “abhorrent” to require believers to check their values at the door as the price of entry to political conversation. Christians, though, should exercise prudent political judgment in deciding when to seek laws that implement Christian values.

This revised approach was exemplified in a 2008 article, May the President Appropriately Invoke God? Evaluating the Embryonic Stem Cell Vetoes (10 Rutgers J. Of L. & Relig. 1 (Fall 2008). After President Bush invoked his religious values to explain why he was limiting federal funding for stem-cell research, he was severely criticized in many corners of the media and academia for improperly combining religion and government. Professor Calhoun, however, defends President Bush’s reliance on religion as appropriate under both historical precedent and because religious believers have the same right to apply their values in politics as agnostic or atheistic citizens. In fact, he concludes, outraged secularists were merely attempting to privilege their own values over religious values.

In his scholarly writings, Professor Calhoun leaves no doubt about his stance on many controversial issues. For example, he has published several articles strongly defending the pro-life side of the abortion debate. As a teacher, though, he takes very seriously his role of respecting and encouraging student discussion from all points of view. In his abortion seminar, he confronts this conflict head on. Impartiality in the Classroom: A Personal Account of a Struggle to Be Evenhanded in Teaching about Abortion (45 J. Legal Educ. 99 (1995)), is his account of the first time he conducted the seminar and the difficulties he experienced in attempting to present both sides of the issue fairly when his own pro-life beliefs were so well-known by the students. With his practical approach and inner turmoil candidly chronicled, this piece provides a useful model for partisans of any stripe who are called on to provide a balanced presentation.

Questions about religion, society, and the law are not going away; if anything, they are becoming more and more prominent. In his scholarship, Professor Calhoun defends the importance of including religious values in the discussion. And in his teaching on controversial subjects, he works to make sure that all points of view are represented.

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