Our presidential election campaign is picking up steam, and money is being raised as never before, mostly to convince voters that the other party’s guy is a very poor choice to be president. Most voters have already dug in and need little convincing that their views are a kind of political light that must prevail over the opposing darkness. It’s as if we have brought religious sectarianism into our politics as they have been doing in Iraq and now in Egypt.
Our federal Constitution, however, calls for separation of church and state — no establishment of any religion by the police power of the state, and freedom of belief for all. But what we need today to restore greatness to our country is a separation of politics from every kind of religious prejudice.
Politics turns on free speech, rights of free assembly and petitioning the government so the state can’t pass laws to punish us if we bring religion into politics. So we must call on individual self-restraint, on the power of civic virtue, on the right understanding of constitutional democracy — on a mature, uniquely American cultural wisdom — to keep religions out of politics. What is legal isn’t always just or wise.
Our practice of being wary about the contaminants that come with religious zeal is venerable. It is echoed in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but was a formative influence before and during our Revolution.
The worst of our politics today arises from religious certainty regarding salvation and its equivalent zealotry among secularists and atheists. Matters that should be for private conscience and action are brought voluntarily into politics in order to usurp the powers of the state and to impose behaviors and beliefs on citizens of different faiths.
What started off in the 1970s as fear on the part of the Catholic Church and many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants over the social and cultural consequences of what were believed to be religiously unrighteous sexual practices has become an intolerant political movement standing militantly and uncompromisingly against “liberals” and “big government.”
The stridency and unforgiving nature of religious conflict has been applied, at times vindictively, to completely secular issues such as taxation and the financing of our health care needs. This has been destructive of our democracy.
The anti-clerical left, in the name of truth and science, is always up for a fight against what it considers to be religious obscurantism, and has matched presumed narrow-mindedness with unforgiving disparagement of faith-based beliefs on social issue after social issue from contraception and abortion to homosexual marriage. It treats advocates for low taxes and small government as heretics opposed to right and justice.
Abortion — at the heart of our culture war — is at the very bottom a kind of religious issue. Anyone’s understanding of when we should say that human life begins is more faith-based than scientific. Does anyone know as a matter of uncontestable fact exactly when a human soul enters a body to make it a moral agent? Some believe at one date; others disagree. What proof do we have to insist that one is absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong?
Lost in this culture war have been the arts of democratic success: compromise, good will, respect as a fundamental norm, common sense, good humor, a sense for the tragic, humility, and many other most becoming virtues. In short, our divisive contentiousness has driven us far from realizing in our lives the best of human goodness.
Both sides throwing the sands of heresy at each other need to be reminded forcefully that politics is not the place for religious evangelism.
— Stephen B. Young writes columns for Politics in Minnestota’s Capitol Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times