RELIGION IN A DEMOCRACY: INTRUDER OR GUIDING LIGHT?
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
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
And yet the religion Tocqueville found in
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
At a time of great threat, the
President George W. Bush recognized that faith-based moral teaching and a commitment to volunteer activities made religious institutions effective partners with the federal government in addressing the needs of the community's most desperate citizens. His faith-based initiative has been embraced and continued by the current Administration.
In my own community, in
End of discussion, right?
But while our Constitution embraces religion and protects religious practice against government interference, it nonetheless draws a line between religion and government by ensuring that they will be separate entities and prohibiting any government action to promote any religion at all, even if the majority of Americans were to subscribe to a single faith. Religion is an unquestionable force for good. It can also be - and throughout history it has been - a force for abuse, coercion, terror, and war.
That, however, is not where I want to take this. The Spanish Inquisition is not likely to re-emerge in modern
Let me come back to the question of certitude. The
And that's the whole of it. Obey the Constitution, consider the interests of constituents, judge legislation on its merits. Anything else is an intrusion into the process and an interference in the carrying out of constitutional obligations. In today's political world, there are two such common interferences. One is the presence of political parties engaged in nonstop partisan warfare in which loyalty to one's team may trump independent judgment or constitutional obligation. The second, which concerns us here, is predisposition based on the teachings of one's other club - the church or synagogue or mosque to which one belongs. Religious institutions naturally, and properly, have tenets; it is in their nature to proclaim what they perceive to be truth. It is precisely this certitude that has led the Bishop of Rhode Island to preclude Representative Patrick Kennedy's taking of communion in his own church because of his views on a particular political matter on which he and the church's teachings are in conflict. Congressman Kennedy has not allowed the church teachings to alter his political position, but it is certain that there are members of Congress whose political decisions are based on the teachings received from pulpit, Sunday school, or the particular scriptures to which they subscribe. These teachings - beliefs - truths - may make the holder a better person but may at the same time interfere with the ability of that person to base his or her secular political decisions on the requirements of the law, the Constitution, or fair and impartial reading of legislative proposals.
Consider this. There are approximately 300 million Americans. The largest religious bloc in the country is Christian, and yet one of out four adult Americans is not Christian. The largest number of those who identify themselves as Christian further identify themselves as Protestant. And yet nearly half of all American Christians are not Protestant. The largest single group of Christians are the Catholics, and yet three-fourths of American Christians are not Catholic. Four million Americans are Jewish. Nearly 40 million Americans are non-religious or secular. In a nation of such incredible diversity - and a diversity protected by the highest law in the land - for any man or woman to write public law based on the teaching of his or her own religious circle is a direct violation of the most basic tenets of what it means to be an American. That does not mean, of course, that people should not feel free to hold deeply to certain religious beliefs, nor should they be precluded from attempting, peacefully, to persuade others to share those beliefs. It does mean that if they are public-service oriented - and many religious people are - they must choose between whether to engage in public service through the private sector, which many do, or through government service, in which they must willingly choose to base their decisions on the Constitution and the concerns and preferences of many who lie outside their political circle and service to whom must not rest on sectarian scripture.
Why do I make this distinction? Because all too often in our complex modern age, decisions are being made which place strongly-held religious views and the obligations of a constitutionally secular society at odds. Consider the debates over the scientific use of stem cells to seek out cures for terrible illnesses. Consider the situation faced by Terri Schiavo's family and doctors. Consider the religion-based litmus tests applied to candidates for public office, including the presidency, seats in Congress, and federal judgeships. Each attempt to apply a religion-based test to the consideration of one's qualifications to serve in federal office is a direct violation of the Constitution in a country which is neither Christian nor anti-Christian, but simply non-Christian, non-Jewish, non-Buddhist.
Where does this leave us? Is religion in a democracy an intruder or a guiding light? That frankly depends entirely on whether those who believe in religion - and I think almost all Americans can find that religion may be an extremely powerful and positive force - are able to follow their faith in their daily lives and follow the Constitution in their public decisionmaking. To quote one far more knowledgeable in the world of religion than I or anybody else in this room, the answer depends on whether one is willing to render unto God that which is His and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.
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