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1/1/2008 - January 2008 Educational Update - Religion and Politics II - The Role of Religion in Public Debate





To:                  SLI Supporters                                 


Date:               January 2008


From:              A. Eric Johnston


Re:                  Religion and Politics II - "The Role of Religion in Public Debate"



            For those who are interested in religious freedom, we must be aware of the continuing development of contemporary thought.  Last month we analyzed a film and panel discussion sponsored by the Over the Mountain Democrats entitled "Golden Rule Politics:  Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics."  The basic premise of the presentation was that the religious right is unwilling to compromise on the low sacrifice issues (abortion, gay rights, etcetera) and is not interested in high sacrifice issues (the poor, environment, etcetera).  The program neither exercised the Golden Rule, nor explained what is the rightful role of religion in politics. 


            Religion in politics was discussed at the 2007 National Lawyers Convention of The Federalist Society in a panel discussion entitled "The Role of Religion in Public Debate."  I attended and here, it seemed, was another chance for enlightenment.  This panel offered debate by scholars, including, Law Professor Kent Greenawalt (Columbia University), Dr. James W. Skillen (Center for Public Justice), Professor Robert Audi (University of Notre Dame), and Judge Michael W. McConnell (Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals). 


            Some background is necessary to understand how The Federalist Society operates.  It is a national lawyers' organization that does not take positions on issues.  Its members consist of all religions and political persuasions, though most would be conservative or libertarian.  It is founded on principles that the "state exists to preserve freedom," there is a "separation of governmental powers," and the judiciary is "to say what the law is, not what it should be."  Consequently, The Federalist Society does not tell you what to think, but how to think. 


            This panel discussion on religion was not an exception, but a diverse debate on principle.  There was a subtle hint at the possibility of some limit on religious political speech.  Skillen's hint may have been due to concern that one religion may dominate.  Unless he is concerned with Islam, that should not be a problem.  Skillen and Audi spoke of the need for pluralism, as if that was in question, which it should not be.  Audi observed when using a religious rationale, one should use an appropriate civic voice, respect others and find shared positions.


            While others seemed a little ambivalent at times, Judge McConnell was not.  He clearly articulated that we each have a constitutional right to express anything we believe that is relevant to public policy - others have the right to hear and agree or disagree. 


            Though Professor Audi said it is acceptable to base a decision on a religious rationale, Professor Greenawalt seemed to be concerned with extreme positions, including enacting a law or rendering a decision for a religious reason alone.  We do have laws specific to religious rights or issues.  No one expects or would permit public policy (laws) to be made for personal religious reasons alone.  Religious reasoning may be one of the several reasons that go into a judge's decision, a legislature's enactment or an executive's veto pen.  Greenawalt observed each side has its values, but no one set can govern us.


            These discussions lead to the inevitable conclusion that it is hopeless to think public policy can be based on shared values.  We must rely on each other to express our positions without limitations.  Vigorous political debate is a constitutional right and a necessary activity.  This is what the "Golden Rule Politics" film and its actors should have presented in their program.  Even if they put their prejudices aside, they are attempting to use a fallible theory bound to fail.  They put religious persons on the defensive for their sincerely held constitutionally protected views, by saying they are intolerant. 


            There is a second lesson from these programs.  Despite their rhetoric, groups like the Baptist Center for Ethics ("BCE") and The Third Way desire the religious right to abandon their sincerely held religious beliefs and compromise their issues, while signing on to politically correct ones.  This envisions a conversion from conservative to liberal belief.  This conversion is unlikely. 


            For a final lesson, since liberals are not likely to convert the religious right, is there another way to accomplish their agenda?  The leadership of the religious right is evolving with the deaths of persons like Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy, and the aging of others.  Who will take their places, nationally and locally?  Will it be imposters, charlatans,S or sincere, but misguided, leaders?  Labels can be misleading.  For example, literature produced by the BCE, The Third Way and others uses the term "evangelical" as a label for the religious right.  Then, a person identified as an evangelical creates a straw man who is used as a witness or representative purporting to speak for the religious right.  However, that person is not conservative, a label that always applies.  Compromise will happen as a result of this charade.  Persons given this recognition will be called the religious right and they will compromise.  The high sacrifice issues will take priority and, whether Democrat or Republican, lawmakers will focus on these issues and will disregard low sacrifice issues, as those of a shrill and inconsequential minority.


            My religion and your religion have a role in politics.  My voice and your voice must be heard.  But, we must beware of those who would speak for us.  

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