Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Religion and Politics: A letter to The Atlanta Constitution

On May 2, Joel Bookman of The Atlanta Constitution published an editorial entitled "Faith should be personal, not political." I agreed with his overall conclusion but not with the route he took to get there. Here's a link to his article followed by my letter to Bookman about his editorial.

Dear Mr. Bookman:

Like you , I am outraged by the attempt to place far right jurists on the federal bench via an assault on the Senate’s filibuster rule, but I’m troubled by your reasoning. In your editorial of 5/2/05 (“Faith should be personal, not political”) I believe you reached the correct destination but took several wrong and potentially dangerous turns to get there.

You state that one of the “traditional values of the American people” is that “religion should never be “injected directly into politics” and that “…religion and politics, when mixed, inevitably corrupt each other.” Not so. Religion has been “injected directly into politics” a number of times in American history, mostly with beneficial results.

In spite of Jefferson’s celebrated “wall” between church and state (a good thing, in my opinion), religion has an important role to play in the public square. Jefferson himself wrote in the Declaration of Independence that one of the “self-evident” truths we hold is that “all men are created equal [and]… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” he was injecting religion into politics. Or when Lincoln opined in his second inaugural address that the Civil War had been God’s “scourge” upon America for “the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” he was making an explicitly religious statement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was injecting religion directly into the political bloodstream when he began every one of his marches and demonstrations with prayer or when he received the Nobel Peace Prize and proclaimed that “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed and nonviolent redemptive good will will be proclaimed the rule of the land.”

The practice of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam cannot be merely private devotional exercises. These faiths lead their followers to take certain positions that have public implications. The abortion debate is a good example. Some Christians are persuaded by the Bible and the church’s teaching that human life begins at conception and deserves the protection that all human life enjoys. Other Christians are equally persuaded that human life does not begin at conception and that a woman’s right to exercise control over her body outweighs the rights (if any) of the fetus.

Religious ideas, like all other ideas, have the right to be considered in the intellectual and political marketplace. The public square should neither privilege religion nor exclude it. However, the public square is a religiously-neutral location and once there religious ideas are on an equal footing with all other ideas. In the church (or synagogue or mosque) it may be enough to say, “Thus says the Lord…” but that does not work in the public square. In the free marketplace of ideas, reason and pragmatism hold sway. Abolitionism and equal rights for African Americans were conceived in prayer and Bible study, but they prevailed in public because their advocates argued and won their debate through passion, reason, and the willingness to put their livelihoods and sometimes their lives on the line.

The wall between church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) and state exists to prevent the imposition of a state-endorsed religion upon the American people. It should not prevent the faithful from fighting for their convictions using the time-honored tools of persuasion. We cannot and should not (and it would be dangerous if we could) exclude religion from the public square. Religion speaks with many voices and these voices have as much right (no more but no less) to speak out on issues that confront us as any other voice. To make religion purely personal and private (as you call for in your article) would impoverish our public conversation. Furthermore, it would require a drastic revision of American history beginning with “We hold these truths…” and ending with “I have a dream…”

Yours sincerely,

The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D.