Monday, September 05, 2005

Religion and Politics Again

"The issue for both sides is not so much what Roberts believes is right or wrong. Rather, it is the degree to which he believes religious morality may be permitted to influence public policy." The Washington Post, September 5, 2005. Here we go again -- confusion about religion and politics in relation to separation of church and state. The quote concerns the likely questioning of John Roberts in his confirmation hearings to be a justice and now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If John Roberts believes as a Catholic that abortion is wrong, that is fine. But as public policy he must support that view on the basis of the laws, traditions, and values of American history and culture, especially those enshrined in its founding documents. This means that while it is perfectly legitimate to espouse values that are rooted in religion, in terms of law and public policy he must articulate those values in the language common to all Americans.

The most profound understanding of the relation of religion and politics I know of -- except, of course in my own writings! -- is found in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in an address at the University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984. He was dealing with the question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound to adopt a position against abortion in accordance with the teachings of the church. His answer was that he was not necessarily bound to do so. Here is what he says:

"Our public morality, then, -- the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives-- depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not --and should not -- be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either. . . . the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

Yes, we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But. no, all religiously based values don't have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it."

I could not have said it better myself. However, I would stress that any prevailing consensus of values among the American people itself must finally be judged by the founding documents, especially the Constitution.

1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same problem as religion and politics.

2. He recognizes that religiously-based values have a legitimate place in public political discourse, but they have no privileged status since we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.

3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the society as a whole, whether they promote peace, justice, freedom, and equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some specific religion or denomination.

4. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a compromise of the personal morality they espouse as persons of faith.

If a person running for office believes, e. g., that abortion is wrong because the Bible of the church says so, it is perfectly legitimate for her or him to try to persuade other Americans to oppose abortion. However, --and here is the crucial point -- the persuasion must, or should be, be in terms of values, principles, and beliefs embodied in the secular history of the country, not because the Bible or the Church says so. Religiously-based values should be translated into the language of American history in terms of whether it will further the common good. Appeal to the Bible or the Pope as such is not valid or pragmatically advisable. The Bible and the Pope as such are not authoritative for American political philosophy. If there is a correspondence between what the Bible and the Pope teach, on the one hand, and the laws, traditions, culture, the Constitution, and a consensus of Americans in general based on whatever authorities they follow,on the other hand, fine. But the support in the public realm must be based on the latter not on the former. And a consensus of contemporary values must finally be tested by the Constitution. Segregation was supported -- by some on allegedly religious grounds -- by large numbers of people in 1950, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

In short, it doesn't matter what a political proposal is based on, whether the Bible, the Koran, Hindu or Buddhist sources, or an atheistic moral philosophy. The only thing that matters is whether it is acceptable to a majority of voting citizens and can pass the Constitutional test as judged by the courts. Clear thinking may get lost in the heat of battle and succumb to slogans, deep-rooted religious or secular bias, or false premises that ignore vital distinctions. Let us hope, however, that we can at least avoid simplistic generalizations that say we should adopt a policy because the Bible or the Pope or the Koran supports it or reject it for the same reason.

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