Monday, April 26, 2004

Confusion about Religion and Politics

The issue of church and state is not the same as religion and politics. Confusion on this point is nearly universal among journalists and politicians alike. Church and state has to do with institutions and practices. Here separation is the rule. Religion and politics has to do with the relationship between personal faith and its political expression. In their confusion, many think that separation is the rule here too. Religion, they think, is a purely private, inward matter and has no relationship to politics beyond inspiring a vague moral urge to do good things for people. There is much more to it than that for the serious religious person. Religion is a personal matter, but it also has consequences for social policy beyond mere inspiration. Here is where things get complicated. The truth in the separation position is that the political implications of religious faith should not be expressed in the vocabulary peculiar to a particular religious tradition but should be translated into language found in American history and tradition, especially in the founding documents. Christians in the political realm should not appeal to the Bible, Jesus, the Pope, or any sectarian dogma or value. As such, religious beliefs have no secular authority, are not a legitimate appeal in political discourse in the public realm. Christians, Jews, and Muslims should not argue politically for universal health care by appealing to the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures or the Koran but support it because it would contribute to liberty, equality, and justice for all, would promote the general welfare, enlarge the common good. Hence, personal religion can be expressed legitimately in the public and political arena if its peculiar theological vocabulary is translated into language common to all Americans as defined by our secular history, moral traditions, and social values.