Religion has a place
in politics, but with
no special status
Does religion belong in the public square? Should it inform public policy? Help shape our laws? Influence our priorities? Does religion belong in politics?
Or should religion be kept carefully sequestered in the private sphere, a matter between oneself and the deity of one's choice? Free exercise, of course, but in the privacy of one's own home and place of worship.
What is the place of religion in the life of the body politic, especially in this most religious of all countries on earth? Is our country a secular republic, or a Christian nation?
I have done the invocation prayer for both houses of our Legislature and for our City Council. On all of these occasions, I have been careful to demonstrate nonsectarian, interfaith prayer. The response? I could have been praying to Marduk or invoking the presence of Satan for all anyone noticed. I have been tempted to try nonsense syllables, just for the heck of it.
I have been in both houses and the Council chambers when some of our most impassioned pastors have delivered heartwarming -- sometimes heart-wrenching -- prayers about issues before these august bodies. No difference.
Talk about being trivialized!
And yet, I think religion belongs in the halls of our legislative bodies. Belongs in our debates and discussions of public policy. Belongs in the public square.
The decisions made there are, after all, about our deepest commitments. They are about what is most important in our communities. They are about how we shall set the priorities of the life we all share together. If that is not religious, nothing is. If that does not call for the best that our religious heritages have championed, nothing does. If the decisions about how we shape the communities that shape us are not religious, then we have truly trivialized religion.
But there is a catch. When religion enters the public square, it enters with no privileged status. And there's the rub.
Allegations of fact must submit to the same criteria of judgment as we would demand of any other speaker in the public square. Claims of truth must withstand the same examination we would demand of any other witness.
"God says" carries no more weight than "Fred says," absent evidence.
And this is not a word against religion, but a word on its behalf.
The privileged status that some would claim for religion in public policy debate does not contribute to the state, to wisdom or to effective public policy. Rather, it contributes to divisiveness, to sloppy critical thought and public policy that sounds good but does not do what it claims to do. At best, it further trivializes authentic religion. At worst, it threatens idolatry.
Idolatry? Yes! Idols don't have to be carved statues. When the religious form becomes more important than the content and the consequent behavior, that is idolatry. When the consequences of your actual behavior are less important than what you appear to approve of, the appearance has become an idol.
When the truth cannot be said except in the correct religious language, the words have become idolatrous.
In theological school, my theology professor gave us two final papers to write. The first was to state our own theology. After we turned that one in, he gave us the second assignment. He said, "Rewrite your first paper using no religious language. If you cannot say it without religious words, you may not actually be saying anything." The second one was the harder, but a far more useful, paper to write.
The Rev. Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.