Interesting piece by David Dodenhoff on what it means to do scholarship within the auspices of a think tank devoted to a particular perspective, in his case, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. (By way of disclosure, I have written for WPRI in the past and am doing so as we speak and, yes, I have gotten paid for my work. No one ever tells me what to say.)
Dave criticizes the notion that you can dismiss scholarship on the basis of its provenance and I think he's right. We all have our reputations and respect for professional integrity. Lots of times people who do work for think tanks have, like me, other institutional affiliations that tend to provide whatever required additional discipline that can't be summoned from our own sense of integrity and struggles to be objective.
Of course, "conservative" think tanks look for conservatives in the same way that liberal ones seek scholars with a liberal bent. But the fact that you have an ideological predisposition does not mean that your work is slanted. We all have ideological predispositions (including predispositions to split the baby). My own view is that it is better to acknowledge them than to pretend they don't exist.
Dave admits quite candidly that a conservative scholar at a conservative think tank (and I suspect it works that way on the other side as well) often pick fat targets and low hanging fruit. I have done it myself. I was fairly certain, for example, that I would conclude that Healthy Wisconsin's residency requirements were constitutionally problematic before I wrote this piece. I wasn't writing on a blank slate.
But I think (and I'd suspect he'd agree)that conservatives and liberals need to challenge their ideological predispositions. A small example. I am struggling with a piece that addresses the asymmetrical manner in which the Supreme Court treats government speech bearing on religion. The rule - with a few exceptions largely based in history or pragmatism - is that the government as speaker ought not to endorse religion or irreligion.
The problem - noted by many - is that the government actually says quite a bit that amounts to a repudiation of people's religious perspectives and is quite free to do so as long as its statements are not expressly theological. The government can't, for example, say the Bible is wrong but it can promote things - like the normative status of homosexuality or, for you liberation theologists, the supremacy of markets - that, in the view of some, contradict the Bible.
This asymmetry violates most - if not all - of the rationales offered for nonendorsement, i.e., the avoidance of division, the promotion of political equality and the idea that no one should feel like a second class citizen based upon religion, and the protection of religion from the heavy hand of government.
What it does do is foster - or at least privilege - a certain type of religiosity associated with the Protestant mainline, i.e., faith is private and whatever implications it has for public life ought to be left out of discussion in the larger society.
One way to resolve this would be to get government out of the business of pronouncing upon matters with which religion is concerned. Part of me likes the idea because I am all about limited government, subsidiarity and the promotion of vibrant voluntary institutions.
But I have to acknowledge that this won't work. Its impractical to think that government will get out of the business of promoting values and religious diversity precludes limiting it to values that all of us can agree on.
So, I think, to remedy the asymmetry, we have to abandon nonendorsement. If government is to involve itself with things on which religion wishes to speak, then it has to allow religion into the conversation even if that means acknowledging the religious perspective of its citizens in a way that someone might construe as endorsing them. Its not the limited government solution but I suspect that it may the best one.