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One of the BEST arguments for the role of religion in the Public Square

FIRST THINGS is the one essential publication for anyone searching for a serious inquiry into the issues of faith and religion in the public square. Whether one purchases a subscription via snail mail (it is a delight to hold and read, notwithstanding their ruminations about changing its format)or via the internet (a smaller carbon footprint for those who choose to make environmental concerns among their priorities) it is a must read and have.

Its' founding editorial voice, Fr.Richard John Neuhaus (RIP, 2009)offered the speech below at a public debate sponsored by the Economist Magazine in New York of the following proposition: That religion and politics should always be kept separate.

Clearly his position was cast in arguing the case in the "negative" - in opposition to the proposition (which was the overwhelming position of the majority of the audience, who expressed their pre-debate opinion in a show of hands vote); yet he brought to bear the solid argument for the "positive" benefits of respecting the voice of faith, both in its individual and corporate expressions, in all aspects of public life. By arguing from first principles, he concisely expressed the argument for the faith in politics, in economics and in every other practical venue of public and private life. And in the end, he won the day, swaying a majority to his position.

It is relevant to all who believe that issues of faith have a place in the public square, no matter the country or creed. I highly recommend it (and FIRST THINGS as well) to all.

I speak in favor of the separation of church and state, and therefore against the resolution that religion and politics should always be kept separate. Permit me to explain. To enforce the exclusion of religion from politics, or from public life more generally, violates the First Amendment guarantee of the "free exercise of religion." The free exercise of religion is the reason for the separation of church and state—a principle that aims not at protecting the state from religion but at protecting religion from the state.

In the First Amendment, religious freedom is of a piece with, indeed is in the very same sentence with, free speech, free press, free assembly, and the right to challenge government policy. Hence the resolution put before this house flatly contradicts the guarantees of a free and democratic society enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.

Secondly, I urge you to oppose the resolution because it is foolish to attempt to do what by definition cannot be done. Such an attempt can only intensify confusions and conflicts, further polarizing our public life. To exclude religion is to exclude from politics the deepest moral convictions of millions of citizens—indeed, in this society, the great majority of citizens. Thus the resolution before this house is a formula for the death of democracy and should be resolutely defeated.

What do we mean by politics? I believe the best brief answer is proposed by Aristotle. Aristotle teaches that politics is free persons deliberating the question "How ought we to order our life together?" The ought in that definition indicates that politics is in its very nature, if not always in its practice, a moral enterprise. The very vocabulary of political debate is inescapably moral: What is just? What is unjust? What is fair? What is unfair? What serves the common good? On these questions we all have convictions, and they are moral convictions.

It is not true that our society is divided between a moral majority of the religious, on the one hand, and an immoral or amoral minority of the nonreligious, on the other. Atheists can have moral convictions that are every bit as strong as the moral convictions of the devout Christian or observant Jew. What we have in the political arena is not a division between the moral and the immoral but an ongoing contention between different moral visions addressing the political question—how ought we to order our life together?

This ongoing contention, this experience of being locked in civil argument, is nothing less than democracy in action. It is Lincoln and Douglas debating the morality of slavery; it is the argument about whether unborn children have rights we are obliged to respect; it is the argument over whether the war in Iraq is just or unjust. And on and on. These are all moral arguments to which people bring their best moral judgment. In short, our political system calls for open-ended argument about all the great issues that touch upon the question "How ought we to order our life together?"

The idea that some citizens should be excluded from addressing that question because their arguments are religious, or that others should be excluded because their arguments are nonreligious or antireligious, is an idea deeply alien to the representative democracy that this constitutional order is designed to protect. A foundational principle of that order is that all citizens have equal standing in the public square.

But what about the institutions of religion such as churches or synagogues? They may understand themselves to be divinely constituted, but, in the view of the Constitution, they are voluntary associations of citizens who join together for freely chosen purposes. They are in this respect on the same constitutional footing as labor unions, political action groups, professional associations, and a host of other organizations formed by common purpose. In the heat of the political fray, all these institutions are tempted to claim that, on the issues that matter most to them, they have a monopoly on morality. All of them are wrong about that.

Religious institutions are also—some might say especially—tempted to claim a monopoly on morality. Whether it is the religious right or the much less discussed religious left, their leaders sometimes make a political assertion and then claim, "Thus saith the Lord." Jim Wallis, a prominent leader of the religious left and of the Democratic party's effort to reach so-called values voters, has even written a book with the title God's Politics. In his book, he lays out, among many other things, how the prophet Isaiah would rewrite the federal budget of the United States. This is presumption and foolishness of a high order. But the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion guarantees that foolish things will be done in the name of religion. Just as the guarantee of free speech ensures that foolish things will be said in innumerable other causes. We all—left and right, liberal and conservative—have a constitutional right to be stupid.

As I have suggested, religion cannot be separated from politics. More precisely, religion cannot be separated from democratic politics. But I do believe that religious leaders should be more circumspect and restrained than they sometimes are in addressing political issues, and that for two reasons. The first and most important reason is that the dynamics of political battle tend to corrupt religion, blurring the distinctions between the temporal and the eternal, the sacred and the profane. So the first concern is for the integrity of religion.

The second concern is for the integrity of politics. Making distinctively religious arguments in political debates tends to be both ineffective and unnecessarily polarizing. Citizens who are religious, like all citizens, should as much as possible make arguments on the basis of public reasons that are accessible to everyone. That is my advice to both the religious left and the religious right, to both Jim Wallis and Pat Robertson. But they are under no constitutional obligation to accept my advice, and, based on past history, they probably won't. Remember the constitutional right to do dumb things.

There is a long and complicated history by which the West, and America in particular, has arrived at our commitment to freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of political action. These freedoms, as they are enshrined in the First Amendment, are all of a piece. Our history and our commitment is not shared by everyone in the world. In most dramatic contrast today are Islamic societies in which, as many see it, the brutal choice is posed between monolithic religion or monolithic secularism. We have to hope that is not the case, but that is a problem for Muslims to resolve.

Thank God, and thank the American Founders, our circumstance is very different. Ours is a pluralistic society in which, by the means of representative democracy, all citizens—whether religious, nonreligious, antireligious, or undecided—are on an equal footing as they bring their diverse and sometimes conflicting moral visions to bear on the great question of politics—how ought we to order our life together?

The resolution before the house is "Religion and politics should always be kept separate." Because it violates the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion and associated guarantees such as free speech, because it is alien to the American experience, and because it could not be implemented without undermining the equality essential to a pluralistic and democratic society, I urge you to defeat this profoundly illiberal resolution.


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