Religion and Policy

Religion's been on my mind a lot lately. It's come up in a number of blog posts and articles I've read recently, and there have been some acrimonious debates on the topic at Panda's Thumb and elsewhere. All this thinking about religious issues has sparked a crisis of belief for me. That's nothing new, really. It happens so often that I've got my own mug down at the crisis center. I've actualy become almost comfortable with the uncertainty.

I mention this because it might explain why, after reading this post at The Island of Doubt, I went and read Barack Obama's speech at the Call to Renewal Conference. And why I read it again. And again. And why, after reading it three times, I still have some very mixed feelings about it.

Obama is a gifted speaker, he argues well, and he makes some extremely important points in the address - but he also says some things that leave me feeling a bit uneasy:

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology - that can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith. As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap -- off rhythm -- to the choir. We don't need that.

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

So far, so good. I'm less sure about what came next:

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I don't think that anyone should be asking people to leave their beliefs behind when they enter the public sphere, and I don't think anyone is asking that. I think that secularists are asking that the religious not try to legislate their own particular beliefs into everyone's laws, and that they have more respect for the differing beliefs of others. I think that secularists are asking that the religious not demand acceptance of their values or views as a price for their support, but that they instead base such judgements on the issues.

So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It's going to take more work, a lot more work than we've done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.

Obama is right - the distrust needs to be addressed head on, and openly - but I think we've already got some good ground rules for collaboration. One even has a name - it's called the "First Amendment," and it marks the limits of reasonable compromise. In fairness, Obama does raise that point, even if some of what he says a bit later on makes me wonder how well he understands it himself.

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

He also addresses the need to base policy on more than religion, regardless of belief:

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Also a good point. Unfortunately, he loses it not that much farther down in the speech:

But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

Maybe I'm being too harsh here - one out of three isn't bad, after all, at least as a baseball batting average - but two of the examples he picked as things that the secular should compromise on are really, really bad.

He's right. When it comes to public mention of God, context matters a great deal. That is why the "under God" part of the Pledge is such an egregious violation of separation. The words weren't always in the Pledge. If they were, I wouldn't have such a huge problem with them. The words "under God" were added to the pledge well after its origination, and they were added at a time when atheism was frequently linked to communism in public discussions, and when communism was considered to be the enemy of all that America stood for. Context matters, and the context for the addition of "under God" included a very strong implication that atheism is fundamentally unAmerican.

He's right. Many faith-based programs and groups have good track records. I know of few (if any) secularists who object to the programs themselves. Funding is a different issue. Demanding that public funds only be distributed to groups that do not discriminate and do not actively attempt to convert people to their faith is not an issue where there should be compromise. The government should not be in the business of deciding which faiths get government help to spread their religion, and it should not be in a position where it is providing money that will only be used to hire someone of a particular faith. Both favor specific religious groups, and place the government in a position where it is playing religious favorites. That's bad for everyone.

There is a debate over the role of religion in public policy in this country, and that debate does need to be addressed. While we are addressing it, however, we need to remember that the mere existance of two arguments does not imply that the truth lies somewhere near the middle. The religious and the irreligious have equal rights to participate in public discourse and debate in this country. This equality exists because the Constitution specifically provides for a secular government. Those who think that was a good idea should not have to sacrifice any of those protections for the privledge of gaining support from the religious.

More like this

Barack Obama is right. Barack Obama is also wrong. Not only should this not be surprising, it should be welcome. Because no other position is tenable when it comes to the subject of the role of faith in politics. Obama, widely considered one of the brightest hopes for the Democrats come 2012 (if…
Netroots Nation, the big lefty political/blogging meeting, is organizing sessions for their conference in August. Unfortunately, they seem have given up on the idea of a secular nation, because this one session on A New Progressive Vision for Church and State has a bizarre description. The old…
Mitt Romney gave his big religion speech yesterday. It is a standard piece of anti-atheist propaganda. America is a relgious nation, those darn secularists are trying to take God out of the public square, I'm as crazy religious as all those evangelicals I'm pandering to even though they regard my…
The only two sure things in life are death and taxes, the old saying goes. I think by now we can safely add a third certainty - reading a Phyllis Schlafly column will leave you baffled that someone could write such nonsense with a straight face. Her latest column, about the Supreme Court's current…

michael, an interesting,provocative blog.many of us teeter on the cliff of this is all there is versus an afterlife [ whether heavenish, hellish or just a reincarnation recycling].having survived a tour of viet nam in the infantry, i've teetered towards the this is all there is side.however, in my work as a psychiatric nurse, if people have a faith, i'll use that to help them build a barrier against killing themselves.this brings me back to what i see as a main point in your blog. don't make laws on the basis of current beliefs. look at where we've been and who we are now and where we want to go. i'm sorry to say that looking at the elected officials currently and even after the next election,they are as close to their people as we are to venus.keep writing and keep looking. me

"That is why the "under God" part of the Pledge is such an egregious violation of separation."

Heck, the pledge was created in the first place, by a socialist! The reason he urged schools to take it up, was to sell more flags (he owned a flag business). The entire pledge creeps me out....young children chanting allegiance to a FLAG, something they can't possibly understand? Sounds a lot like mind control to me.

Anyway, that's not why I stopped by to comment. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed the entire post. Great insight.