"Religion, politics and Santorum's red herring"

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Dan Rodricks column in the Baltimore Sun deals with the issue of religion in politics, which is an issue that keeps appearing in Maryland's politics this year (legalization of same sex marriage, opposition to the death penalty), as well as in the presidential campaign.


Jul. 7, 2011 11:13 am


The answer requires a degree of sophistication about what the separation of church and state is about. It is not a wall between "faith" and "politics," but it is about the sovereignty of the church and the state. The church has its job and so does the state. They are not to do the other's job.

On the question of marriage equalitiy, the religious opinions of the church only apply within their walls and have no place in public policy because they have no secular, civil evidence to corroborate their theologicial positions. Laws cannot enact dogma without the state becoming the church.

Peace and justice issues are about the way the state does its job. The church has every right and responsibility to hold the state to doing its job of caring for the general welfare and common good in the area of civil justice and respect for the humanity of human beings. The death penalty is a matter of justice apart from any religious opinion, and the fact that it cannot be applied fairly and equally or that it fails to deter or have any function other than vengeance makes the morality of it a subject of comment for the leaders of the church. Feeding the hungry falls into a similar category. It is about whether Caesar is being Caesar. And, when Caesar wants to play God, the Church speaks to him about that as well.

Were the church to try to take over the function of the state, it would be going too far. When it wants the state to be the state, no problem.

There is a fundamental theological divide in the churches about whether the secular, civil community is a good thing. For some sectarians, being able to hide away from the state and do whatever it wants to do in private is the goal. This has limits too. Polygamy, for example, has been ruled out of bounds for religious practice even if nobody is trying to make it the law. There are also limits to how far "faith healing" can endanger the health of children, for good reasons. It is the job of the state to take care of the health and welfare of citizens and all residents, not to leave them to the tender mercies of religion. No human sacrifice either, or even animal sacrifice, although that runs into a lot of biblical texts and anthropology.

My own denomination is yielding slowly to theological insight on gay issues, but has recognized that gay citizens civil rights were not to be abridged no matter what "we" ruled about them as candidates for ordination or church membership. Much as I hate the homophobic theology and the tacit support it has given to civil inequity, we have been on record in favor of equal civil rights for gays since the 70's.

I find the Hyde Ammendment abominable as an incursion of religion and dogma into the functions of the state. Why our tax money cannot be used to fund abortions for citizens still rankles. I don't get to opt out of the Pentagon budget or refuse to support the petro-food industry's subsidies. If we could learn what the separation of church and state really meant, we would understand when and why churches have the right to comment about and be active in politics and public policy and when theocracy is afoot.

Hope this helps.

DRC's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

Religion in politics is a staple of every presidential election cycle now since the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, which culminated in the election of a president who lied us into a holy war.

There is no contradiction between listening to what the clergy has to say on seperate issues since the listener is always free to agree or disagree with the message. There is a distinction to be made between the issue of gay marriage and the death penalty. As regards gay marriage it is an issue addressed by the 14th amendment while on the other hand the use of the death penalty has been upheld by the Supreme Court and so there is room for activism to dissuade people who use it from wanting to use it. So if a clergyman says that he opposes the death penalty because his faith informs him it is wrong then citizens are free to agree but if a clergyman says that he opposes gay marriage and thinks it should be denied not only in his own church but to everyone then the citizen has a duty to point out that the clergyman is failing in his ministerial duties by asking him or her to act in contravention of Constitutional doctrine and so is actually asking him or her to be irresponsible in their civic duty.

Very often clergy persons act in an irresponsible manner when it comes to civic matters. They conveniently forget that part of their belief system relies on the principle of free will. And they forget that there is already a religious doctrine for them to follow which applies to those who practice their particular faith that is apart from civil law which applies to both those of their faith and those not of their faith. It is one thing for a minister or pastor to dictate mores to his parishioners. Those parishioners have chosen to belong to his or her congregation. To step outside that vehicle, the congregation, is really to commit an ethical violation.

In the U.S. the religious community seems to have adopted a kind of wild west mentality with no sanctions put on rogue actors like Rick Warren, Ralph Reed, James Dobson and Pat Robertson who peddle their wares not to parishioners in actual congregations but to transient crowds. These are not legitimate clergymen but hucksters who engage in self aggrandizement while completely failing at ministering to the needs of individuals whom they don't even know and so couldn't possibly be able to properly minister to. Here in America there is a sort of winner-take-all mentality at work with these scoundrels (and many like them) who are trying to enshrine their particular dogma into law so that it can be imposed on everyone rather than to actually do it the appropriate way which is to convert people to their faith on the merits.

mdhess's picture
Apr. 9, 2010 10:43 pm

There is a limit on how far a political candidate can push the "separation" issue. The first amendment is a double edged sword which not only keeps religion out of government, but it also allows religion to flourish. Therefore a significant amount of the electorate can be swayed by religious rhetoric, but ultimately it gets trumped by the secular requirements of government.

The GOP is very adept at dancing very close to that limit and boldly crosses it during primary season only to hunker down behind the line in the general election. Santorum appears to be very comfortable on the wrong side of that line and it will keep him from ever succeeding in a general election. There's only so many votes to be had on that side of the line.

Laborisgood's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

So many issues in politics get mislabeled as "religious issues". I fail to see how the death penalty is a religious issue. It would seem that all of the various Abrahamic sects would support the death penalty as the several holy books they claim to be the inerrant word of god are full of state sanctioned murder. In my reading of the new testament, I don't remember where Jesus said anything about crucifixion or capital punishment being wrong. He predicted his own ill treatment but didn't condemn it for others.

As for same sex marriage, I don't get that either, except that homosexuals have always been vilified and persecuted. Religion is just a convenient excuse. By the standards outlined in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, a Red Lobster restaurant is as abominable as a highway rest stop where homosexuals go for hook ups. Marriage is a contract. You don't have those without a state to sanction it. Religion is optional.

Anyway, blaming religion for the evil of men is like blaming umbrellas for the rain. People are looking for reasons to be good and excuses for their anti social behavior. Religion fills that roll by giving people an arbitrary yet unquestionable guide to follow. You can do the most horrible things in the name of god and as long as you can cite a verse or passage that appears to authorize or condone it, you will not be considered horrible for doing it. In fact, some will envy your piety. Religion legitimizes the worst and best in people who really don't need an excuse in the first place. Being a human was enough of an excuse for thousands of years before god started demanding we do evil His way.

D_NATURED's picture
Oct. 20, 2010 7:47 pm

D Natured, bad religion in politics produces really dangerous nonsense, but religion is part of the weave of American culture and has positive as well as negative contributions. The whole Manifest Destiny Myth comes from a religious mythology, and the conflation of the American and Christian Centuries is historical and cultural fact. Those who take the imperative of History instead of Divine Providence still justify American Imperial Power as Good.

Being human is where the rubber hits the road for faith as well. Those who insist on a religious brand and who use religious badges to put forth their nationalist ideology need to be confronted by theology as well as by secular politics and culture. I think it is hard to understand the mess we are in without appreciating how religion fits into the picture.

Other than that, we almost always agree and do on everything that really matters.

DRC's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

Where is Donald Trump's Worldview Leading Us?

I want to step back a little from the constant strum of the latest Trump scandal to the most recent outrage, the Trump constantly popping into the news literally every day. I don't remember this during the Obama administration or any other presidency frankly of my lifetime.

Every day they look for some way to get in the news even if it's negative.

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