Religion in the Public Square

How should we think about religion in the public square?  Many Americans believe religion is a private matter.  We are free to worship as our conscience commands us.  But we are not free to bring religious commitments to public debate over policy, because we are not free to impose our religious beliefs on others.

 

This view seems appropriate for a pluralistic society such as ours.  But it contains a serious error.

 

The above view implicitly holds that secularism is a “neutral” worldview, one that apprehends reality without imposing any value judgments on third parties.  A public commitment to secularism is grounded in the belief that religion obscures an objective understanding of the world.  But secularism has its own (often implicit) answers to questions such as the meaning of life, the rights of man, and the proper ordering of politics.  These answers are also value judgments, and they are every bit as contentious as those that are informed by religion.

 

When looking for a legal sanction for secularism, many turn to the First Amendment, especially the Establishment Clause.  This clause does forbid Congress from establishing an official church.  But it does not justify requiring citizens to check their faith at the door when they participate in public debate.  We must remember that when the US ratified its Constitution, many states chose to retain their official churches that were established during the colonial period.  Religion was woven into the very fabric of American political life from its earliest days.  The Framers of the Constitution wanted to rule out a single national church to keep the peace between contentious denominations of Christianity.  But there was no doubt in their minds that Christianity could and must influence how citizens behaved, both in private and in public.

 

It is neither reasonable nor just to require Americans to ignore their faith when participating in the public sphere.  Politics is one of the ways we relate to each other, and any religion worthy of the name has something to say about how we ought to behave in such circumstances.  As long as politics deals with what we should or should not do, no worldview that provides answers to these questions, including religion, can be excluded.

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