Jewish World Review Oct 24, 2005/ 21 Tishrei,
Religion and the public squared
This religious debate once more confirms what Alexis de
Tocqueville observed when he visited America in 1831. The force of faith
arises not in spite of the separation of church and state but because of it:
"By diminishing the apparent power of religion one increases its real
Since de Tocqueville's visit, faith as a public issue has worked through several stages for better and for worse but it has never been absent from politics. In a book tellingly titled "What's G-d Got to Do With the American Experiment?" the contemporary philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain puts the subject into perspective. "Separation of church and state is one thing," she writes. "Separation of religion and politics is another thing altogether. Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time always have, always will. How could it be otherwise?"
When John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith became a crucial
issue in his campaign for the presidency in 1960, he welcomed questions
about it so that he could set the record straight. "[I]f the time should
ever come and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely
possible when my office would require me to either violate my conscience
or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office," he told
the Southern Baptist pastors of Houston, "and I hope any conscientious
public servant would do the same."
Catholicism was the controversial religion for John Kennedy
because many Americans feared, as they had when Al Smith was the Democratic
candidate in 1928, that a Catholic would take orders from the pope. Today
religious faith becomes the focus of controversy for Harriet Miers because
her faith plays a part in her attitude toward abortion. The thinness of her
record pushes her faith center stage in a way that Chief Justice John
Roberts' Catholic faith did not. Her faith became a sideshow, and that's too
Critics of the way religious faith plays out in the public
square are mostly on the liberal side of politics, attacking the moral
fervor of the "religious right." That was not always the way it was.
Religion enjoys a long lineage in our liberal tradition, especially as it
was espoused by the contenders for the 19th-century anti-slavery movement,
women's suffrage in the early 20th century, and in the civil rights
struggles in the 1960s led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his
clerical colleagues. Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, has
called on his party to restore the connection of liberal politics to the
religious spirit: "Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it.
Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don't have to start from scratch." Maybe not,
but it's a long way down the sawdust trail.
How faith is exploited usually depends on the politics of who's exploiting it. It can convey authenticity of motive or the hypocrisy of exploitation. In their book, "Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America," Hugh Heclo and Wilfred McClay trace the ways faith can enrich or impoverish the public conversation. Mr. Heclo offers a warning: "Thinking about religion and public policy requires thinking in complex rather than simplistic ways. Doing so means harkening to what might be taken as a prime commandment of all religions to 'pay attention' that is, to look past the surface of things and not assume that what meets the eye is all that is going on."
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