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.

At a time of great threat, the United States, in its quest for security, became involved with a number of brutal and repressive dictatorships around the world in the belief that they would be of assistance to us in hindering Soviet expansionism.  At the same time, liberal church leaders developed what came to be known as "liberation theology".  To be honest, I strongly disagreed with most of the positions liberation theology came to support - I believed them to be concerned - and properly so - about abuses by anti-Soviet governments of the right but blind, perhaps purposefully so, to the equally horrid abuses of governments of the left.  Nonetheless, they did play a role in focusing attention on some of the unsavory leaders with whom we had made common cause in our efforts to resist the very real threat of that time.

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 Oklahoma City, religion-motivated men and women care for children, feed the hungry, help the homeless, perform overseas charity, and serve the city leadership in countless roles.  Simply put, men and women whose inner fires are stoked by the teachings of religion play a major role in the "exceptionalism" we claim for America.  Compare the degree of voluntarism in religious America with that in secular Europe and you'll instantly see how religious faith has added to America's goodness and its capacity to do good.

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 America, nor may a national leader decree an official faith and take us off to war to spread its truth. That is not the threat religion poses in our day.

Let me come back to the question of certitude.  The United States has a government predicated on several central ideas.  One is that the people govern: they do so indirectly, through representatives, but while that control is indirect it is very real: the President of the United States,  himself selected by the people, has no final say over program creation, spending decisions, or tax rates.  It is only the peoples' representatives who decide such things.  By constitutional design, members of Congress are required to be selected from specific constituencies.  The Constitution also prohibits any religious test for service in federal office.  Members of Congress are required to take an oath of office to defend and uphold the Constitution.  The oath includes a commitment to "well and faithfully discharge the duties" of the office.  Putting all of that together, the constitutional obligations and prohibitions and the sworn affirmations, it is clear that members of Congress are to make their decisions based on three specific kinds of input.  The first is tied to the narrow and specific links between a legislator and his or her constituency, which is quite different from, say, the British parliamentary model.  It is obvious therefore that there is a "representational function" and that a legislator is to listen to the concerns and preferences of the citizens.  That doesn't mean those views must be followed, but they must be heard and considered.  Second, a legislator is required to consider the Constitution and what it permits and what it does not allow.   Finally, in fulfillment of the obligation to "well and faithfully" discharge the legislator's duties, he or she must carefully consider the merits of the various proposals on which a decision is required.

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.