Friday, September 06, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. Below you will find "The Fundamental Errors of Leftism" and "How to Determine the Right Thing to Do". "Limits of Libertarianism" will appear soon. Now this:

Religion and American Political Life

That religious faith is part of American political life is undeniable. Our government states, “In God We Trust.” America is also based on the principle of the separation of church and state and freedom of religion. The tension between these two inclinations has troubled the county since it began. Even in 2002, the country was vexed by a judge’s ruling that for a public school to hold recitations of The Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, because the Pledge includes the phrase, “under God.”

The conflict lies between two undeniable facts about American moral values. We desire our public policy to be based on reason, evidence, and open and democratic deliberation. It is obvious that policies with that sort of basis are most likely to be the better ones than policies based on guess, chance, or on specific prescriptions of a particular religious faith. For likelihood is one and the same as basis in reason, evidence, and deliberation, while the pronouncements of guess, chance or faith come without those grounds. Even those who trust the guidance of their faith must admit that occasions on which the believer thinks he is guided by God but is not are too numerous for reliability. Reliance upon faith also has an uncomfortable vulnerability to charlatans and corruption within the trusted church. Deliberative, reasoned, evidence-based policy making is also vulnerable to corruption, but not nearly as much. This commonsense requirement of reasons for policy is a check on corruption unavailable to a theocracy. The policies of a theocracy are likely to be poor, given their lack of reliance upon reasons. Whether the theocrat is listening to God’s advice or just guessing is anybody’s guess.

Yet, American moral values are inextricably intertwined with American religious faith. The radically separationist position that religion has no place in American political life cannot be reconciled with the religiosity of the vast majority of the American people. It is impossible that the moral inspiration and guidance they receive from their faith has no effect on their determinations of governance. The link naturally expresses itself in the pledge and oath I already mentioned, the song “God Bless America,” the oath “God and Country,” etc.

How strong can the link be without violating the aforementioned requirement of reasons? How can a people that recieves moral guidance from religion govern itself without propounding policy based on faith? And when do expressions of the link by the government violate the separation of church and state? There are two issues, then: the causal role of religion in government, and the expression of religion by government agents, such as schoolteachers, speakers of the House, and drill sergeants. How great may the role be? How strong may the expression be? In a sense, the two issues aren’t entirely separate, in that the greater the causal role of faith in government, the less it makes sense to limit the expression of that role by government agents, since there is little point in hypocrisy. But let us examine the difficulties in turn. Fortunately, there are solutions to both of them.

The causal role of faith in government can come in two forms, and these forms delimit important degrees of magnitude of that role. The first form is inspirational, and the second is justificatory. Faith inspires moral works, courage, resoluteness in moral life, and even insight into moral truths. Trying to remove this influence from, for example, the Senate, is hopelessly misguided, since most senators are religious and faith has these inspirational effects. No wedge can be driven between the heart of a leader of faith and his performance of the duties of his office. Nor should we attempt to drive one, unless we wish to embrace the manifest absurdity that the pervasive inspirational role that faith has played in the governance of the nation has been pernicious. The experience of the moral guidance and love found in faith clearly has played a salutory role in American political history by encouraging the faithful, deepening their reflection, and resolving them to duty.

We need not worry that America is a theocracy. As soon as someone shows that a leader of faith, such as Condoleeza Rice, makes decisions without good reason, there will be basis for worry. But this never happens. When has Rice ever said, “We should do X because God told me so”? Anyone religious looks to inspiration from religion. The government is full of religious people. Therefore, if looking to religion for inspiration makes a government official a loose cannon, our government is full of loose cannons. Our government is clearly not full of loose cannons. Therefore, looking to religion for inspiration does not make a government official a loose cannon.

In order to secure our government from theocracy, we need only demand that its policies be based on reasons. Any policy based on merely religious grounds will thus be checked. Policies on abortion and cloning are good examples. If an appeal to make either of these practices illegal is based only religious inspiration with no reasons cited, we should reject the appeal. Even if the majority in America share the religious stance of the appeal, we should demur. Unless it can be demonstrated that a person’s actions are immoral, he has a right to do them. For the majority to stop him from doing what he thinks best for himself is wrong even if based on sincerely religious motivation. The belief that all human life is sacred is not a good reason to ban abortion or cloning, any more than the belief that God gave whites dominion over blacks was a reason to permit slavery. The religious aspirations of no one should be imposed on others. Reasons - evidence free of religious inspiration - must be presented before a policy is accepted. This is the key to the separation of church and state, a key which allows faith to play a vibrant and inspirational role in American political life.

The question of the extent to which government agents may express their faith is a different matter. Even if faith plays no causal role in policy making, it may still play a large role in governmental institutions if government agents (including judges, schoolteachers, and so forth) express their faith while standing in their capacities as government agents. Government agents can give voice to religion and in so doing express the view that the religion voiced is the norm for citizens of America. This is pernicious if it is reasonably interpreted as a genuine norm, a standard that it is impermissible for citizens of America to fail to meet. The government should not establish any religion, either formally or by implication of the actions of its agents. The reason is simple. There is no way to prove that it is immoral to fail to meet this norm, since the norm is based on faith, not reason. It is wrong to hold people to a standard for which there is no proof. Quite simply, we have freedom of religion in America, and this requires government agents to refrain from establishing any religion as the norm.

The devil is in the details, however. There are clear cases in which government agents cross the line, and there are clear cases in which they do not. As long as there is no compulsion involved, the offering of a Bible to swear upon in court is not an establishment of religion. Nor is the singing of “God Bless America” at a high school football game, or a prayer uttered by a senator in the Senate. Religious Americans are naturally, strongly, and healthfully inclined to express their faith in these ways. That this explains these behaviors shows that they are not in themselves an effort to proselytize. To demand full participation by all present would be to step over the line. But it is what constitutes demand that makes for difficulties.

The saying of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the refrain “under God,” has been required of all students in some public schools. This is a tough case. Even if nonreligious or Buddhist students are allowed to remain silent during the Pledge, this puts them on the spot. It is obvious that peer pressure is being applied. Children are made to stand for questioning of their patriotism and scrutiny of their religious lives or lack thereof. The classroom is too small for this, children too vulnerable, and the spotlight too intense. Many religious students scorn the irreligious. For the state knowingly to cause this is wrong. Of course, children who are not athletic are scorned, too, yet this doesn’t imply that we should disallow athletics in schools. However, the difference is that athletics is vital to our society, and most children are naturally, strongly, and healthfully inclined to partake of athletics. The saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms is not of vital importance, and most children are not so inclined to have the Pledge led in class. It may be permissible for the Pledge to be led by government agents in large gatherings of children, such as at stadium events where one blends into the crowd. But the Pledge should not be led in classrooms. At my high school the pressure on non-religious students from evangelical Christians was intense enough. For the state to turn up the heat by leading the Pledge would have been to violate the right to freedom of religion of the non-religious students. The state’s interest simply isn’t important enough; it will matter little to anyone if the Pledge is not said in homeroom.

There may be other examples. My high school teacher required all students to take a quiz on Jesus on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. It was English class, and we hadn’t studied Jesus. (Any student who took it received an A, so she wasn’t requiring knowledge of Jesus. Any student who refused to take it received an F.) This was clearly in violation of the separation of church and state. On the other hand, the non-religious, and Buddhists (and other non-theistic religious people) should recognize when their rights are not being violated by expression of religious sentiment on the part of government agents, even those on the job and not on free time. “America is praying to God for you,” a government agent might say, on national television, while on the job. I’ve given other examples above. There are many instances in which the non-religious (and others) are too rigid about this sort of thing. They should understand that the vast majority are theists and are naturally, strongly, and healthfully inclined to express their faith and to have government agents express it while on the job. There is a plethora of cases in which this is permissible. By the same token, the religious should be mindful of the line, where the non-religious minority begin to be put under pressure to comply with a norm.

Most Americans on both sides have demonstrated an ability to show perfectly harmonious concern for each other’s interests. They need to counsel those others who are less than sensitive about these things. The religious may have their religious expression in the state and their religious guidance of the state, as long as they show a perfect regard for the constraints of reason in policy making, a concern for right of the non-religious to be free of religious standards in the state, and a forebearance where they might like to make their religion the norm for all. The non-religious can have perfect freedom of religion, as long as they respect right of the faithful to live faithful lives and tolerate the active role that faith plays in their lives, including their political endeavors. People on both sides have considerable sacrifices to make but magnificent liberties to reap. One would hope that the regard we have for each other’s interests and the gain we stand to make by maintaining the balance would settle the matter. Yet, there are plenty of vociferous atheists and strident evangelists who scorn those who take what they consider to be the wrong attitude toward religion in American political life. Both sides are mistaken.