A Conversation with Tibetans? Reconsidering the Relationship Between Religious Beliefs and Secular Legal Discourse

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Over cups of chai, a conversation between U.S. law professors and Tibetan exiles about the formation of a new democratic Tibetan government under the Dalai Lama goes awry. This article investigates why the misunderstandings occurred by presenting the context of the Tibetan and U. S. concepts of sacredness and secularity. The former Tibetan government and legal system are explained in some derail as well as the Tibetan wiew of the sacred and secular spheres in society. The deistic origins of the U.S. Constitution and the pervasive religious cosmology of the Framers are then described. These two similar positions are contrasted with the current modern and postmodern positions of an all‐encompassing secular sphere that defines and contains religion. The author argues that “sacred” and “secular” have changed positions, with secularity now having an unmarked positive value and being viewed by U.S. law professors as a necessity for a democratic political and legal system. As the conversation with the Tibetans demonstrates, the richness and power of an integrated sacred perspective is difficult to comprehend from a hegemonic secular public space. Reformulating this “inarticulate debate” will be necessary for a coherent conversation to take place.

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Law & Social Inquiry: Journal of the American Bar Foundation

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Reprinted in Law and Religion, Gad Barzilai, ed. (Ashgate 2007).

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