The question of religion in politics is a touchy one, as contributors to the NY Times Sunday Dialogue: What Its the Role of Faith in Public Policy?1 demonstrate. The author of the original letter notes that while it is entirely proper for people of faith to contribute to the public forum, “faith must never be the final word when it comes to writing the law.” A contributor to the conversation adds that while people of faith surely do have an obligation to contribute to the public forum, “What they do not have the right to do is to insist that their views–because they are based on their faith’s teachings–are privileged.” With the exception of one contributor, all others wrote with some variation on the theme of separating one’s religious views from the making of laws.
It is true that we live in a republic, with a Constitution which provides limits on what the government can do, and a Supreme Court which officiates. But within those bounds, in great appreciation of the Constitution and what it means for the nation, I believe in what I like to call “radical democracy.” We do not live in a theocracy, even a secular theocracy, which puts bounds on the political views we are allowed to hold. While it is true that there is such a thing as the wisdom of a crowd, there is no guarantee that democracy will do the right thing. There is no guarantee that democracy will lead to the right outcomes. There is no guarantee that democracy will even prevail. Democracy is very much like a wing and a prayer…we don’t know what’s coming, so we can only hope for the best.
It is entirely proper for someone to believe that their faith’s teachings are privileged; in fact, that is generally why we hold a faith, because we think it is privileged. It is entirely proper for an individual to stand for office on a platform of faith, to say, my Pope, my Baptist convention, my rabbi, my holy book, my spiritual advisor tells me this is the way things should be, so I want to go to Washington to pass laws to implement that and bring America closer to righteousness. If my district is homogeneous enough to support my convictions, I can win the election and set out for Washington to change the laws. And if America is homogeneous enough to support my convictions, the other districts will send legislators just like me, and we can rewrite the nation’s laws.
Except it doesn’t happen that way, because we are a diverse nation. I have some very liberal friends who are distressed with several of the policies and decisions of the Obama administration which restrict our freedoms and our rights under the law, policies of extradition, rendition, detention. And they ask, “Why did I ever support this guy?” And the answer is, because we live in a democracy, and none of us ever gets to form a nation completely, or even mostly, to our liking.
T.S. Eliot wrote2,
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
And so it is with democracy, the great experiment. We form political beliefs, we vote, we run for office, we do what we can, in the hopes of nudging the nation just a little bit further in the direction we’d like to see it go, while most everyone else is nudging back.
1 Sunday Dialogue: What Is the Role of Faith in Public Policy?
2 The Four Quartets