Recommended Reading: The Importance of the Right Question

The speaker materials from the last J. Reuben Clark Law Society Conference are now available online. When I spoke with people who attended, I heard the most buzz about an address by Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen entitled, “The Importance of the Right Question.” Professor Christensen argues:

Unfortunately, too many of us are so eager to debate and get on with the right answer and the solution, that we often forget even to think about whether the right question has been asked. Lawyers pride themselves on their ability to ask penetrating questions, but I honestly think that the only people who are worse than lawyers at asking the right questions are business managers; and that the only people who are worse than managers at asking the right questions are Mormons.

The rest of the address gives examples of business and church leaders who ask the right questions.  One of the legal examples he cited was the question of separation of church and state. A Chinese colleague of Professor Christensen pointed out to him how vital religion was in American democracy:

[A]s religion loses its power over the lives of Americans, we are living on momentum.  It is a momentum that was established by vibrant religions, and then became a part of our culture.  Today there are many people in America who are not religious, who still voluntarily obey the law, follow through on their contracts and respect other people’s rights and property.  This is because certain religious teachings have become embedded in our culture.  But culture is not a stalwart protector of democracy’s enabling values.  When people stop going to their churches, or if our churches lose their power over our culture, our system will not sustain itself.  What other institutions will teach these values to Americans with the power required to guide their daily behavior?

The debate on the extent to which religious expression can be allowed in public life has been vigorous, and religion is monotonically losing ground. Whether it is the Ten Commandments etched into the stone of state and court houses, nativity scenes in public squares, the ability of school choirs to sing religious songs or having prayers at public school graduation exercises, religion increasingly is being pushed out of public view and public discourse. We have let the enemies of religion frame this debate incorrectly. Somehow the advocates of separation of church and state can’t understand what my Chinese friend saw so clearly – that the religious institutions whose role on the public stage they hope to minimize are in fact among the fundamental enablers of the civil liberties that we all now enjoy.

It’s worth reading the whole thing. You can view the talk here or download it here.