Thursday, 19 March 2015 00:58

Secularism, Faith and Politics

Written by  Matthew Jordan
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One problem with contemporary American secularism--by which I mean the “freedom from religion” folks, who object to any reference to God in the public square--is that it tends to be pretty selective in its focus. When conservative Christians seek to restrict legal access to abortion, or support laws that would define marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution, some of their critics reflexively cry, “Separation of church and state!” The idea seems to be that there is something inherently unAmerican about applying theological convictions to public policy. But these same critics tend to be considerably less vocal when religious faith leads people to support environmental regulations, or amnesty for undocumented immigrants, or, for that matter, abortion rights and same-sex marriage--as some Christians do, in fact, do.

Such distinctively left-of-center secularism seems particularly odd when one asks the question, “Why?” That is: why, exactly, is it inappropriate for an American to support legislation on the basis of his faith? Or to ask the same question another way: what counts as a legitimate basis for supporting public policy, and why doesn’t faith pass the test? It’s not easy to see a compelling, principled answer that supports this kind of secularism. For the sake of illustration, imagine three people, all of whom oppose the death penalty, and all of whom are actively engaged in trying to make it illegal.


The first, Anthony, holds this view because he believes that only God has the right to take human life. The second, Betty, was raised by parents who passionately opposed the death penalty and taught her to do the same. Whenever she asked them about it, they replied, “It’s just wrong to kill. That’s the end of it.” The third, Charlie, opposes the death penalty because he had a vivid dream in which he was about to be put to death, and the dream was so terrifying that he woke up and immediately abandoned his prior support for capital punishment. According to the kind of secularism at issue here, Betty and Charlie are doing nothing inappropriate, but Anthony is doing something wrong, because only Anthony is bringing his religious beliefs to bear on public policy. That seems bizarre. Surely, if it’s acceptable to support or oppose legislation on the basis of arbitrary preference, then doing the same on the basis of religious conviction must be acceptable too.


With all of this said, however, I think that we Christians need to be extremely careful about the manner in which we bring our faith into the public square. We may, as Americans, push for legislation that has overtly theological roots. (If you still need to be persuaded, read some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings, and consider whether his view of civil rights was independent of his Christian beliefs.) But this does not always mean that we *should*. Let me suggest three guidelines for living as followers of Jesus in a pluralistic democracy like ours.


First: We must honestly assess our own motives. Are we pursuing the common good? Are we more concerned with justice, or with holding on to various kinds of cultural and political power?


Second: We must carefully consider our methods. If we speak up as Christians, are we doing so in a way that reflects the character of Jesus?


Third: We must remember the Golden Rule. In the first part of this column, I argued that it wouldn’t be unAmerican to push for legislation grounded exclusively in our theological convictions. But when we do so, are we doing unto others as we would have them do unto us? Suppose that an American city or state--or even the whole country--was largely populated by Hindus. Would we be comfortable with our Hindu neighbors trying to turn the Bhagavad Gita into American law? If not, then perhaps we need to reconsider attempts to do the same with the Bible. Loving and respecting our fellow citizens means, among other things, seeking justifications for public policy proposals that they too can accept. If we are unwilling to seek such justifications, or unable to find them, then we need to ask whether our approach to American law is one that Jesus himself would endorse.





Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 01:01
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