President Obama asked the graduating class of Notre Dame, “Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?”
Moreover, a recent survey by the Pew Forum speaks of diversity in religious belief and affiliation as well. For instance, 26.3% of those polled are affiliated with Evangelical Protestant Churches; 18.1% with Mainline Protestant Churches; 23.9% with the Roman Catholic Church; and 6.9% with Historically Black Churches. Close to 2% identify themselves as Jewish while almost 3% belong to Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other world religions. A stunning 16.1% of Americans are not affiliated with any faith tradition, a cohort that has grown the most. Another survey reveals that individuals change religious affiliation early and often.
So, in a highly diverse society, what role should religion play in politics? More to the point, what role should the personal faith of an elected official have in determining public policy? How do we engage in “vigorous debate” without imposing specific religious beliefs through the state?
In a panel discussion hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life and continued through the book One Electorate Under God: A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics, this question is debated. It began with an exchange between politicians Mario Cuomo and Mark Souder.
Cuomo, a three time democratic governor of New York and liberal Roman Catholic said:
Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as of the heart. To be a Catholic is to commit to certain dogmas. It also means a commitment to practice the faith day to day. The practice can be difficult … Catholics who also hold political office have an additional responsibility. They have to create conditions under which all citizens are reasonably free to act according to their own religious beliefs, even when this acts conflict with Roman Catholic dogma regarding divorce, birth control, abortion, stem cell research, and even the existence of God … Catholic public officials, like all public officials, take an oath to preserve the United States Constitution which guarantees this freedom.
Souder, an Republican incumbent from Indiana and conservative Protestant countered:
Conservative faiths, even sects within these faiths, differ on how involved the City of God should be with the City of Man. But this much is true: Conservative Christians as individuals do not separate their lives into a private sphere and a public sphere … If you believe you are specifically designed – if you believe in fact that you are not part of some random, inevitable progression of life – then you believe not only that you can change things, you believe also that you have an obligation to change things … To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do. Either I am a Christian or I am not. Either I reflect His glory of I do not.
The first amendment does guarantee the right of public officials to express their faith. The fact is, whether we agree with it or not, think it is right or not, people do bring in their faith, moral beliefs and values to the commons. Through the voices of legislators, elected officials, judges, religious and secular leaders, the media and any one loud enough, religion in its own permutations takes part in public discourse. Nonetheless, the first amendment prohibits religion from governance.
In the book One Electorate Under God, noted American sociologist and educator Robert Bellah, expresses his belief that
it is perfectly appropriate to base one’s political stand on the particular faith tradition to which one is committed and to explain that tradition in arguing one’s case. The only caveat is that one’s argument must appeal to general moral principles in persuading others. One does not have the right to demand that others accept the tenets of one’s own faith in making a political decision.
During his dialogue with Souder, Cuomo realistically pointed out that
Religious values will not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the community at large. The plausibility of achieving that consensus is a relevant consideration in deciding whether or not to make the effort to impose those values officially.
The Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, in introducing President Obama, echoes this sentiment when he said
As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith … We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept …
In this vibrant, varied and vigorous democracy of ours, what role then should religion play in politics?
Cuomo proposes an answer based on what he holds all religions teach.
We need to love one another, to come together to create a good society, and to use that mutuality discreetly in order to gain the benefits of community without sacrificing individual freedom and responsibility. In these concededly broad terms that would be good government.
I would leave religion in the private sphere and turn to universal values all Americans share. Common principles upon which institutions can be built and policies crafted. Equality. Justice. Compassion. Altruism. Honesty. Integrity. Responsibility. Duty. Love of country. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Legislators and other public officials could learn from a wise woman. When asked how she went about integrating her faith with her public service, the late Barbara Jordan, political pioneer, congresswoman, professor and faithful Baptist said, “You would do well to pursue your career with vigor while realizing that God may well choose to bless an opposing point of view for reasons that have not yet been revealed to you.”
Image by Inez Templeton.