The proper interaction of religion and politics (or government, which is what politics is mainly about) is an important question and hotly debated in the blogosphere. However, much of the debate tends to be dogmatic. Those who are "religious" seem to argue that religion is good while those who are not religious seem to argue that religion is bad. I have occasionally expressed the view that when I get promoted to God, and have to decide what scourges to eliminate, I will first look at religion and cancer and then eliminate religion first, because it has done more harm than has cancer. I now have a few doubts about this position, and the purpose of this article is to stimulate some discussion of the matter.
A suit was recently filed claiming that the Federal Government
violated the Constitution by contracting [with] a Roman Catholic entity to help victims of human trafficking.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was imposing its beliefs on victims of human trafficking by not allowing federal grant money to be used for contraception or abortion. . . .
The suit asks the court to stop the department from allowing its grants being spent in a way that is restricted by religious beliefs.
Contracting with a religious organization to provide humanitarian assistance which is consistent with its religions doctrines, even though the organization declines to provide ancillary services which are inconsistent with those doctrines, strikes me as neither bad or unlawful; there are doubtless many other organizations, religious and otherwise, willing to augment the organization's services along those lines. More to the point, I don't understand how Governmental support for an organization which declines to do something contrary to its religious beliefs (as distinguished from insisting on doing something solely religious in nature) constitutes anything approaching an establishment of religion. The situation would be quite different if an organization required, for example, that recipients of Governmentally supported benefits attend mass, confess their sins, or pray in order to receive those benefits. Still, there must be some valid basis for the notion that religious doctrine should have absolutely no impact on Government. Right?
This subject cannot reasonably be discussed (should that even be possible) without first attempting a working definition of religion. That is difficult, because it is quite easy to be excessively inclusive or exclusive. The following attempt at definition is based primarily on my perceptions of Christianity because, although I am not one, I think I have a better understanding of Christianity than of any other religion. And, of course, in the United States Christianity is at the moment and has historically been the most widely professed (if not all that widely followed) religion. For the purposes of discussion, Christianity will serve as an exemplar for religion, although it is not the most widely professed in the world. This is also useful because for most of us Judeo-Christian tradition is probably the most familiar.
My offered definition is:
A dogmatic attachment to and acceptance based solely on faith of statements of "fact" as expressed in or somehow derived from a Holy Text or other recognized authority, such as the Old and New Testaments, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed, coupled with specified moral prescriptions and proscriptions, such as those expressed in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Some moral prescriptions and proscriptions are taken more seriously than others, but nevertheless widely recited. This also appears to be true of the dogmatic but amoral beliefs. Expressions of the dogmatic beliefs seem not to change very often, although some of the moral views do change somewhat with time.
The moral precepts of religion in the United States appear to have a far greater impact on social issues than do the related dogmatic precepts. The doctrine of the Trinity, although an integral component of Christianity, appears to have little if anything to do with practical morality or how people interact. The other doctrinal teachings seem to have equally little to do with practical morality, with the exception of the existence and purposes of Heaven and Hell. These are seen as rewards and punishments for good and bad moral conduct, and hopes and fears of going there can be powerful inducements toward morality for those who seriously believe in them.
I have nevertheless included in the definition of religion acceptance of matters of doctrine, as in the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, because without at least some of those or similar doctrines, I can see little to distinguish Christianity and other sects from several (but not all) other religions or, indeed, secularism. I recognize that many people consider themselves Christians despite rejection of such doctrines as the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, Heaven, Hell, etc. Thinking that words need to have at least some discernible meaning, they don't fit my definition and I therefore do not consider them Christians. I ask that this definition, like a marriage performed on a cruise ship and good only for the duration of the voyage, be accepted for the purpose and duration of this article.
Issues of Good vs. Bad are commonly seen through the lens of religion, even by the non-religious. This is probably natural, since many — and perhaps most — of the principal notions of good and evil generally accepted in the West are derived from religion and, more remotely, from the cultures in which those religions evolved and from which they were taken. They also became major parts of the cultures in which those religions became dominant. This also seems to be the case in non-Western countries. For one very simple example, most Christians and others in the West disapprove of the stoning of adulteresses (I understand that Jesus spoke out against it) even more than they disapprove of adultery (also viewed as sinful), while some Muslims appear to think stoning appropriate under and indeed commanded by Holy Writ*. Suppose for a moment that a religious organization's opposition to the stoning of adulteresses caused it to decline to provide services to assist (e.g., medically) those engaged in the gathering of stones for that purpose. Like a refusal to provide abortion and contraceptive services, this refusal would be based on a less than universally accepted religious view, and could be seen as the establishment of religion — far fetched, perhaps, but not ridiculously so.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians similarly has substantial religious connotations. The threads of recent BC articles on the conflict involving Gaza amply demonstrate this, should there be any doubt.
It has been argued that "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." What religion? Do religions the adherents to which demand the conversion or slaughter of the adherents to other religions require freedom or, indeed, even permit it? Do such religions promote freedom? I think not. This leads to the discussion of whether the links between religion and politics in Western society can be avoided and of whether and the circumstances under which they should be.
Religion seems to be an important factor in the current debates in the United States on numerous contemporary social issues. A few examples are:
Evolution and Creationism
Prayer in schools
Display of religious symbols in public places
Medical care — euthanasia, blood transfusions and taking the case out of the hands of the Deity in general.
Religion also seems to be a significant but possibly less dispositive factor in debates on other contemporary issues. For example:
Indeed, it seems (at least to me) that it would be impossible to separate religion and its teachings from these and other matters of contemporary morality because, aside from concepts based on religion, there seem to be few readily accessible concepts of good and evil beyond, perhaps, the advice to "do no harm" and the Kantian Categorical Imperative, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Both are neat ideas, and the world would possibly be a better (albeit even more confused) place, were they to be universally accepted. However, the negative advice to do no harm provides little useful guidance as to what should be done, as just about everything — eating and even using a computer to write this article, for example — causes some harm to someone or something; the advice provides no guidance as to what constitutes cognizable good and evil. The positive Categorical Imperative is rather a complex notion, but not all that helpful either. The various precepts and proscriptions of standard religions are set forth simply and in some detail (e.g, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), and are therefore easier to figure out (if difficult to follow) and more practically useful than Kant's idea, although it seems quite similar to the Golden Rule. Nevertheless, various religious notions of morality can lead to total disarray and mayhem when conflicting religious perceptions, prescriptions and proscriptions intersect.
I do not mean to suggest that religion provides the only useful, or always useful, guidance for society and therefore for Government. Those of us who consider ourselves non-religious seem able to get along OK without its multiple doctrinal trappings. However, our societal notions of good and evil are inextricably intertwined with religious perceptions, prescriptions and proscriptions, and that is not necessarily bad.
Or, perhaps it is a bad thing. As explained above, the purpose of this article is to get a discussion going on whether religion can or should be excluded from politics and Government; perhaps a discussion going beyond the common but rather dogmatic assertions yes, it must, and no, it must not.
*It is said that in some Muslim countries women get stoned when they commit adultery, while in some Western countries women commit adultery when they get stoned.