As questions abound concerning the role of religious faith in the political process, it seems an apt time to reflect on the proper place of religion in our American culture. Few issues in recent years have been as controversial or have evoked as much heartfelt emotion on all sides of the question.
I believe a full examination of the issue is helpful, both to calm fears and reflect positively on the possibility of a harmonious relationship between church and state.
There are some assumptions in politics that seem to persist despite all the evidence against them. The notions that religious conservatives are trying to impose their faith on the country or that Christianity poses a threat to liberty are often accepted as facts without a great deal of questioning. This seems to me far from the truth of the matter, however.
In my experience, it simply isn’t the case that people of faith are trying to impose their faith upon anyone. Rather, they — like everyone involved with public life — simply put forth a particular vision of how we ought to order our lives together. Far from threatening liberty, this can be an essential part of it.
At the outset, it is necessary to be clear about what sort of relationship of church and state we are not after. Let me be as clear as possible: I am not in favor of a theocracy. That would be bad for religion and bad for government. The separation of church and state should not mean, however, the exclusion of faith from public life.
Religious believers should not be excluded from the public debate. Rather, all people should be allowed to bring their vision to the table. Indeed, it is essential to include those who can ground their arguments not simply in terms of interest-group politics but in a vision of human dignity and its transcendent character.
For this reason, Christians should not be forced to leave their faith at the doorstep of public life. In fact, the contribution they can and should make to the political process demands that people of faith bring into the public realm their beliefs about the dignity of the human person, the importance of marriage for a virtuous society, and the need to work on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. An authentic faith will never persecute anyone, since at its core it respects the essential dignity and religious freedom of all human beings.
I believe, in fact, that we should celebrate faith, not denigrate it. Faith is a good thing. It commits people to justice in the public square. In a word, it helps people to love.
Where would we be if people of faith like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mother Teresa remained at the doorstep of public life? Instead, we are better off when people of faith take seriously the commandment to love thy neighbor and offer proposals for how we ought to order our lives together.
I want to go even further, however. I think the public square has to be a place that not only allows faith but encourages it. A society based solely on reason, without any reference to transcendent faith, has been tried — and has utterly failed. The great threat of the second half of the 20th century — atheistic communism — has shown you cannot ground a society on human reason alone. It will close man in on himself instead of directing him outward in love.
In a sermon some years ago, the Senate chaplain asked the members of Congress how many constituents we had. He suggested that we really only have one constituent — God. It made me wonder what sorts of things God would be interested in. What concerns would He have?
I imagine God would be concerned with the poor and the downtrodden, with the situation in Darfur or the human-rights violations in North Korea. It is faith that invites us to broaden our area of concern, purifies our reason, and compels us to action.
Finally, there is something profound that people of faith can teach all of us. In the midst of a world of so much suffering, faith reveals that death might not get the last word. The temptation in politics can be toward hopelessness and cynicism that any real progress can be made.
Authentic faith is an affirmation that God Himself is not indifferent to human suffering, and, in the end, every tear will be wiped away. The gift of hope should be the first of many gifts people of faith offer to a world where it is so needed. That’s a proposal that will be hard to pass up.