Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Religion and public discourse

Heard on NPR today the tail-end of some call-in discussion about the role of religion in the current presidential debate. As far as I could gather, the host and callers were dismayed about the fact that some Catholic bishops are urging Catholics to vote consistent with certain fundamental religious beliefs (most notably, of course, the opposition to abortion). The gist of what I kept hearing was that religion must be removed from political discourse. My question was, how can you do that? If religion shapes my beliefs, how can I separate my worldviews from my faith? Does a person who opposes abortion because it disgusts her at a visceral level ("oooh, icky to pull fetal material out of someone with a vacuum") have more political credibility than someone who opposes abortion based upon a religious belief that life begins at conception and is sacred? (BTW, I'm pro-choice up to the fetus's 17th week. Then, I believe only risks to the mother's life can outweigh the mother's obligation to carry the baby to term. It's not a logical position, and certainly not a religious one, but I'll defend it fiercely on visceral grounds.) The fact is, people who do not believe in organized religion have just as strongly entrenched a belief system as those who do. The question then becomes, when does a belief system become something analogous to a religion. If I believe with fervor -- even violent fervor -- that my worldview is correct , and I insist on using all means to impose that view on you, that's a belief system. I don't believe in creationism, but I appreciate how someone who does might resent having evolution foisted on his children. Evolution is, I believe, firmly grounded in science, but it's also a worldview that is antithetical to someone else's worldview. I don't say this to validate creationism; I just say it to point out the fact that we cannot keep our belief system, whether grounded in religion, science, gut feeling, or political indoctrination, out of political discourse. Of course, it is true that the Constitution does not have an amendment stating that science and state must be kept separate, or that gut feeling and state must be kept separate. Only religion is singled out. But that singling out is as much to protect religion as it is to protect those who are not religious. We view it as protecting the nonbelievers from the believers, but the fact is that our Founding Fathers believed that they had to protect the believers from the State. After all, the Pilgrims came here to avoid the imposition of State mandated doctrine. When one understands this historical fact, one can also appreciate that the Founding Fathers would not have been averse to religious input in political discourse; they were averse to government input in religious matters.