Religion and Democracy

These remarks were delivered at Princeton on December 1 as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Center for the Study of Religion.  Religion, of course, is not my field of study and finding a proper place to draw a line between those beliefs that guide one's public decisions and those inculcated by religious training is a terribly difficult undertaking. The lecture series, to which people far more expert than I had previously contributed, considers the intersection between religion and politics and it was the political experience that I attempted to bring to bear on my own consideration of the issues involved in trying to reconcile the religious nature of American society with the Constitution's simultaneous protections of religious practice and prohibition against federal support for specific religious tenets.


I'm restricting my remarks today specifically to the role of religion in a democracy and particularly, a liberal democracy.  This, of course, will exclude any observations about societies like the one that existed in pre-invasion Afghanistan, in which both government and daily life were expressly based on the religious practices of the Taliban.  Nor am I going to consider whatever kinds of shadows may have been cast by religion in such places as mainland China or the Soviet Union, where religious practice was actively discouraged or severely punished.   I also intend to skip over those societies which are religiously pluralistic but in which a single religious belief plays a central role, as in India, where the majority religion has clearly shaped  attitudes toward providing social services, or a society like Israel which considers itself a religion-based state.

Instead, I want to focus my remarks very narrowly on the effect of religion in a political and social system in which the rules simultaneously protect the free practice of religion - and the free practice of multiple and diverse religions - against government interference, and, at the same time, protect the non-religious, believers in non-majority religions, and even the most offbeat religious sects against any attempt by government to impose or even promote any specific set of religious beliefs.  That's us.  "We may be a 'shining city on a hill' but the light we cast is not the light of any favored religion.

It is tempting, then, to describe the United States not as a religious nation at all but as a secular nation.  That would be misleading.  What we have is a society in which a specifically and determinedly secular Constitution establishes the ground rules for making public law in a nation that is, with equal determination, and sometimes quite aggressively, religious, a fact that was obvious to Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago, when he wrote of us that "public opinion, much stronger than the law, obliges every one to show himself at church and to abstain from diversion."

And yet the religion Tocqueville found in America in the 1830s, while central to daily life, and certainly central to life on Sundays, was not the religion of later periods of American history and not the religion of the so-called religious right of today:  in the churches, he wrote, "you will hear morality preached, of dogma not a word.  Nothing which at all can shock the neighbor, nothing which can arouse the idea of dissent."

There's no question that religion in the years since has succeeded in arousing dissent.  But is that a bad thing?

Let me be open about my own lack of conviction in this area.  My principal case against religion, when I have felt the need to make such a case, has been that religion breeds certitude and certitude is a potentially harmful thing to bring into a diverse community.  Therefore it seems fitting, I suppose, that I have no certitude here: like the lawyer I was trained to be, I can argue for the indispensability or religion as a motivating force for good or I can fall back on the multitude of examples of persecution, oppression, and bloody battlefields to argue that we might all be better off without it.

But the issue here is not solely whether religion is a good thing or a bad thing but what it's role is, and ought to be, in a liberal democracy.

First, let's look at the positive side of the ledger.  During the civil rights campaigns that led, ultimately, to the recognition that African-Americans were entitled to th e same civil liberties enjoyed by all other Americans, few political leaders, very few indeed in the regions of the country where racial discrimination was most pronounced, were willing to speak out against the multiplicity of horrors that far transcended substandard schools, off-limits hotels and restaurants, separate drinking fountains.  In the small Oklahoma city where I worked for a newspaper, no black faces ever appeared in print and no black woman was ever called Mrs.  Rare were the journalists who stood up to the prevailing bigotry; rarer still the politicians.  Who did?  The churches, just as churchmen and women had supported the Underground Railroad that helped black slaves escape from their purported masters in the 19th Century.  It's certainly not too great an exaggeration to say that if church leaders, mostly black but not entirely so, had not taken a stand for the civil liberties of African-Americans, we would live in a very different America today.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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