Religion and Politics – One More Time

[1] On a recent flight to Pittsburgh, several professors from a near-by university sat behind me discussing the danger of mixing religion and politics, particularly if the mixing is done by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whom my fellow academicians compared to Islamicists like Osama Ben Laden. That outrageous and false comparison aside, the professors voiced a complaint that many others have also registered. For example, Salman Rushdie, in an otherwise moving meditation on Islam’s propensity for religionized politics, concludes that “religion must be restored to the sphere of the personal and private, replaced by the secularist-humanist principles of modernity.” Even Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic political analyst who should know better, argues that there must be a “separation of politics and religion.” No doubt many of our citizens think similarly.

[2] However, they are wrong if they indeed mean the separation of religion and politics rather than the separation of church and state, which is quite a different matter. The latter stipulates institutional separation; the non-establishment of any particular church. This separation has been enormously beneficial to the life of both state and church in this country. It has prevented the political use and control of religion by the state while at the same time it has required the churches to stand on their own. The separation of church and state has fostered a vitality in American religion unmatched by the tamed state churches in other parts of the world. Except for a tiny group of Christian “reconstructionists,” no Christian churches in America – including the vilified fundamentalists – argue for the collapse of the state into the church or vice versa.

[3] If it is possible and desirable to separate church and state, it is neither possible nor desirable to separate religion and politics, as the above commentators advocate. It is not possible because of the nature of serious religion. The great religions of the Book – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – are comprehensive in nature. Since their God is the God of all reality and history, serious Jews, Muslims, and Christians simply cannot sequester the claims of God to the private, personal sphere. The religious and moral visions of these religions are relevant to all of life-economics, politics, and culture. This means that religious citizens and political leaders will necessarily express their religious and religiously-grounded moral beliefs in their politics.

[4] The separation of religion and politics is impossible for another reason. The First Amendment provides for the free public expression of religion. Freedom of religious expression means nothing if it is limited to the private sphere, as it is has always been in totalitarian states. In America the public expression of religious claims is constitutionally guaranteed. It is constitutionally impossible to keep religion out of politics.

[5] It is also very desirable that Judeo-Christian religion – along with other factors – informs politics. Without religiously based moral principles it will be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a decent political order. The most important religiously grounded moral principle is the sanctity of the person, or what the noted political philosopher Glen Tinder calls the “exalted individual.” The preciousness of each person is grounded in the Judeo-Christian teaching that we are created in the image of God. From a Christian point of view, each person is also redeemed by Christ. The “exalted individual” is the central value of Western politics, Tinder rightly claims. Even Enlightenment notions of unconditional respect for rational agents are a reflection of that fundamental religious conviction. On this notion of the exalted individual rests the doctrine of human rights, the practice of democracy, and the universal obligation to pursue justice. If each person counts before God, then regimes based on these religious values have to strive for respect and justice for all. Though these values are never fully realized, they are expressed in many profound ways, even to the point of treating those condemned to die with exquisite respect.

[6] Where these fundamental values are denied, as in Nazism and Marxist-Leninism, humans are turned into corpses at astounding rates. One only has to visit the Holocaust Museum to view the ghastly results of this denial. Someday there will perhaps be a museum to commemorate the victims of Soviet and Chinese Marxism, which will be even more legion than those of Hitler.

[7] Therefore, it is not desirable to separate vital religion from democratic politics. Such a separation would in time be a disaster for Western politics. However, it is important that religious institutions and persons maintain a proper humility about their political offerings. It is rare that a specific policy follows necessarily from the core of religious and moral values. Almost always there are three or four steps in arguing for a particular policy from that core. Persons of intelligence and good will often part company with each step. Religion in politics must be accompanied by humility in participation.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.