Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Get Religion out of Politics: Part II

            Those who argue that the “Founders” were religious, and that, therefore, religion should be a part of politics today, are wrong on two counts and correct on none. (See for example, Jeff Jacoby’s “Faith enriches politics, on both sides,” The Boston Globe, Page K9, Sept. 9, 2012). First, many of the founders were not particularly religious. Second, and more importantly, the Founders wrote into the U.S. Constitution clear instructions to keep religion out of politics.
As I stated in Part I, beliefs in God should be personal, not political.  Far from enriching politics, appeals to God are barriers to compromise, nationally and internationally. Such appeals are also disrespectful of those who are atheists or agnostics, as well as disrespectful of those whose beliefs in God do not fit traditional views. (Read Dialogues on God: Three Views, for further discussion of this point.)
            In deciding how we should approach this issue today, it does not matter what the individual Founders’ faiths were, any more than it matters today what the Founders thought about slavery. Are we going to say that, since some of the Founders had slaves, that it is OK to have slaves today? Thus, appeals to the Founders’ faiths is not relevant.
But we would also be wrong to accept the commonly stated view that the Founders were strongly religious people. Some of them, at least, kept their religious beliefs to themselves, so we do not know how religious they were, if at all. Historians are still not clear what religious beliefs George Washington and Thomas Jefferson actually held. There seems to be no record of George Washington ever mentioning the name of Jesus, and his references to God were not easy to find or interpret. Thomas Jefferson may have been a deist, one who believes that God set the world in motion and kept out of it thereafter. This is not the kind of God who would bless America. The point is that this uncertainty about their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, means that they did not make it a public matter. (See “The faith (and doubts) of our fathers,” The Economist, Dec. 17, 2011.)
            More important than the different faiths, or lack thereof, of particular Founders are the words in the U.S. Constitution that they agreed upon. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Article VI states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” These statements establish the separation of government and religion. They do not support the view that “faith enriches politics.” Instead, they support the view that religion and politics should not mix. “No religious test” means that belief in God, or in any particular view of God, is not a prerequisite for public office.
            In spite of the clear separation of government from religion that is supported by the U.S. Constitution, successful efforts to put religion back into politics have been going on for decades. The words “under God” were put in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. The words “In God We Trust” became the national motto and were added to the currency in 1956. Every presidential speech today ends with “God bless America.” President G. W. Bush went further. By frequently adding the words, “and continue to bless America,” he changed the meaning of “God bless America” from a desire that God bless America (which nonetheless assumes the existence of a particular kind of God) into an historical assertion that God in fact does bless America. With those words (along with others), he completed the identification of America with God. For decades, beginning even prior to the 1950’s, we have been increasingly headed in the wrong direction and continue on the same dangerous path.
Bringing faith into politics is contrary to the values underlying democracy. When we identify our political views with God, we are doing nothing more that asserting, “We are right!” This assertion generally implies that those who have other views are wrong. God is with us, not them. There is no need to think about it. Facts are irrelevant. Bringing God into politics is the means by which we disrespect those with differing views. (Read Chapter 4 of How We Are Our Enemy—And How to Stop for further examination of this point, with an historical and ethical perspective.)
            If we get God out of politics and stop identifying God with America, we will become more open-minded, more thoughtful, and give greater consideration to opposing points of view. It will help replace belligerence--the kind that led to the invasion of Iraq--with peaceful negotiation of agreements. Identifying God with America is a rejection of the very values that underlie democracy, the values that assert the equality of all people regardless of their religious beliefs.


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