What You Should Think About Religion in Politics

October 10, 2007

. . . but it is very important for people not to be haughty in their religion, and there’s all kinds of admonitions in the Bible — haughtiness, rightfulness is a sin in itself.”

–George W. Bush

One of the most disturbing trends in modern American politics has been the legislation of morality. Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) displayed a profound lack of good sense when, faced with a concerned citizen’s question, he expressed a belief that political leaders have a duty to “legislate morality.” I believe this approach slightly misses the point of legislation and completely misses the point of the American Revolutionary War, not to mention other great American civic achievements like the Bill of Rights.

It is understandable why some people might have difficulty seeing this area as problematic. For many, a morality derived from religion is the wellspring of all that is thought to be good. For far too many of those, this includes the capacity to judge others as evil. It is unreasonable to expect all Americans, or even that minority motivated enough to participate in elections, to have a coherent philosophy informed by post-conventional moral thinking. On the other hand, for a leader of millions to lack such a useful faculty of judgment . . . is our political process really that bereft of selectivity?

Of course it is, but that is beside the point. My concern is that this nation, with its cultural foundation established by colonists intent on practicing religious beliefs at odds with life in an increasingly urbane England, should never go down the path of inflicting punishments on citizens unwilling to abide by religious strictures. Without really thinking about it, one might well believe this is an argument for legalizing murder and rape.

Of course, it is not, and that is very much the point. Legislation to ban murder and rape can be justified without any appeal to religious thought. Society as a whole is safer and more prosperous to the degree that innocent people can be protected from physical assault. Independent of any appeals to tradition or scripture or theology, there are enough strong arguments to constitute a compelling case for the criminalization of violent attacks.

When it comes to American public policy, only universal good makes sense as a touchstone for validating new laws. Of course this good need not extend across the literal universe, but it must apply to people of any faith. This includes people with no faith whatsoever. Respect for the Constitutional assurance of free religious practice provides a technical basis for upholding this standard. Respect for those victimized by predictable outcomes of legislative morality rooted in any specific faith or religious doctrine provides strong rational basis for upholding this standard.

It is not unreasonable to characterize the United States as “Christian” on a cultural level. Most of our institutions respect Christian holidays, and in most communities talk of religion implies that the subject is Christianity. However, it is both unreasonable and untrue to characterize the United States as a Christian nation in any legal sense. With painstaking care, the founders of this nation set out to establish a secular government in which a plurality of religions, in spite of disagreements in areas like virtue or sin, could co-exist in peace and harmony.

Every time a public figure drags religious convictions into a political discussion, it is (at least) a very small betrayal of our domestic tranquility. In those instances when it is not insincere pandering, it also manages to be a betrayal of reasonable civic discourse. One of our most popular Presidents, John F. Kennedy, went to great lengths during his national campaign to establish that, while he was earnest in his faith, he would never allow a religious concern to drive him to act against the best interests of this nation or its people.

Today, particularly with one of the two entrenched parties, it seems as if candidates are tripping over each other to demonstrate how quickly they would let their faith take precedence over their commitment to secular governance. While a sizable chunk of our own nation applauds some public figures’ refusal to accept the role of biological evolution in shaping the human form, the rest of the civilized world (perhaps along with the rest of our own population) looks on in stark dismay. Even if there were to be a President Huckabee, I doubt grant money would dry up for continued studies into archeology and natural history on subjects more than 10,000 years old. However, I wouldn’t expect policies from that White House to promote great strides in American biotechnology or science education either.

At this point perhaps some readers are thinking, “well, as a good Christian, I have nothing to worry about if public figures indulge in legislating their personal morality.” However, this is a much trickier matter than it seems at first glance. Just what is a Christian? By this I do not mean to indulge the sectarian invective Mit Romney has been receiving lately. Rather I want to call attention to the wandering standards of America’s most vocal Christians.

A religious movement that could be thought of as an ancestor to modern evangelical churches was at the heart of alcohol Prohibition. Though the faithful read scripture holding that the first miracle of Jesus involved transforming water to wine, the misery associated with alcohol abuse left many Americans convinced that the stuff should be banned. As enormous congregations formed around charismatic leaders, all manner of potential social movements could have emerged. What did emerge was a monstrous beast of political activism that led directly to one of the biggest and most painful failures in the history of American domestic policy.

The funny thing is, I believe most evangelical Christians no longer feel that there is anything wrong with alcohol commerce, or even with taking a glass of wine at dinner. The Bible didn’t change. In fact, personalities involved in megachurch leadership didn’t even change much. What really changed was that firebrand preachers no longer could maintain credibility while calling for tougher alcohol laws. Hindsight ended a movement that would never have picked up steam if informed by foresight.

Yet to possess that foresight, one must recognize that religious morality, even that held by a majority, is still a personal thing. If you believe God doesn’t want you to eat citrus on Tuesday, then by all means don’t eat citrus on Tuesday. At the same time, consider the consequences of a nationwide Tuesday orange and grapefruit ban. Does it do any good to people of faith who would voluntarily abide by the restriction anyway? Does it do real harm to people who believe differently and might enjoy a juicy vitamin-rich snack between meals?

In short, if any sort of taboo has a place in the lawbooks, it is because the allegedly sinful act is also a genuinely hurtful act. Organized religions tend to be pretty consistent about promoting humility. It requires a great failure of humility to believe that badges and guns have any place in compelling strangers to abide by your own church’s notions of right and wrong. The essence of maintaining order in a society of many faiths involves drawing this distinction and insuring that the personal nature of faith does not bleed into public policy.

To many, speaking of religion on the campaign trail may seem like a sign of personal virtue. In the context of a tolerant society blessed by cultural pluralism, it is quite the opposite. Exploiting the sympathies of religious voters may not be the dirtiest possible tactic, but it is an alternative to making a case for election into our secular government based on secular argumentation. It deliberately leads others astray from the political culture expressly insulated from religious doctrine by the Founding Fathers themselves. Simply put, making faith a matter of political consequence could only be pleasing to a deity that was intent on undermining crucial principles on which the United States of America was originally established. Does anyone believe God is truly against us in that way?