Q: U.S. Catholic bishops are defending their direct involvement in congressional deliberations over health-care reform, saying that church leaders have a duty to raise moral concerns on any issue, including abortion rights and health care for the poor. Do you agree? What role should religious leaders have — or not have — in government policymaking?
A: I hope you will forgive me if I answer this question via a detour to the United Kingdom, where we have no constitutional separation of church and state.
Just a week ago the UK Communities Secretary, John Denham, announced the creation of a new panel of ‘religious experts’ to advise the government on its public policy decisions (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/6569144/Faith-groups-to-be-key-policy-advisers.html). According to Mr Denham (a secular humanist), faith is a ‘strong and powerful source of honesty, solidarity, generosity’, and Christians and Muslims can contribute significant insights on key issues such as the economy, parenting and tackling climate change. And this is not a one-off initiative so far as Mr Denham is concerned. Far from it: ‘We should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time’, not least because the values of Christians, Muslims and other religions are essential, he claims, in building a progressive society.
Those of us who do not share Mr. Denham’s starry-eyed view of religion may feel the need to pour ourselves a stiff Gin and Tonic at this point. Yet his is not an uncommon view: in the UK it has been estimated that, despite census results showing that the majority of the population use a religious term to label themselves when invited to do so on an official form, the number of people who regularly participate in religious activities is extremely low (just 8% attend Church of England services in an average week, for example). And yet there seems to be a high approval rating for religion in general: the majority of Brits know they live perfectly decent, honest, moral, purposeful lives without needing religion themselves, but there is still that lingering, rather patronizing suspicion that other people would benefit from a dose of religious instruction to keep them on the straight and narrow. As a result, we are not as outraged as we should be at the notion of the religious gaining privileged access to the heart of government.
But let us examine the high hopes Mr. Denham has of religion. Let’s start with honesty. These are people whose whole careers are spent proclaiming, with the most overweening confidence, ‘truths’ for which there is not the slightest evidence. Honest? I think not. How about solidarity? Christianity and Islam make no secret that those who do not share their beliefs are damned, to be tormented by God-appointed demons for all eternity; the ‘infidel’, the ‘heretic’, the ‘unbeliever’ – they have all been written off by God. Not much solidarity there. What about generosity then? The Christian doctrine of Original Sin teaches that every human, even at the very moment of birth, is intrinsically corrupt, evil, wicked and deserving of hell. Is this a generous spirit in which to view our fellow humans? Hardly. In fact, I find it hard to imagine any notion more foul or mean-spirited, or less likely to lead to the kind of decent society Mr. Denham presumably wants to bring about.
What about his claim that Christian and Muslim values are essential in building a progressive society? One has to wonder whether Mr. Denham understands the word ‘progressive’. Or whether he understands what Christian and Muslim values really are. Perhaps it is an active disadvantage that he is a secular humanist: perhaps he is simply so far removed from religious teaching that he has completely forgotten what it stands for. Does he think it progressive for women to be obliged to cover themselves from head to toe when in public? Does he think it progressive for women to be precluded from certain jobs simply because they are women? Or for gays to be denied equal rights to decent treatment, lack of discrimination and marriage? Is it progressive to force a woman to have a child she does not want, even if it might put her life at risk to do so, even if it was conceived as a result of rape? Is it progressive to ban contraception, even in AIDS-ravaged countries where condoms save lives? Is it progressive to insist that no intervention may be made to shorten the agonies of a terminally ill person, even though that person has made it clear that this would be their fervent and properly considered wish? Is it progressive to mutilate the genitals of an infant (or adult) as part of a barbaric religious ritual? Is it progressive to pretend that creationism is science, and to teach it in schools as an alternative to evolution?
In reality, every genuinely progressive law that has been passed in the UK has been opposed by the religious every inch of the way.
So much for the general virtues of religion, as seen through the rather unreliable eyes of John Denham. What about the specific claims he makes for religion, that it provides significant insights on key issues such as the economy, parenting and tackling climate change?
Why on earth should it be able to do this? What is it about religion that Mr. Denham believes confers on its followers specialist knowledge of this kind? Economics is a serious academic subject, requiring years of university study before it can be properly understood. Why should someone gain automatic magical insight into it, to the point where their opinion is of more value than that of any other lay person, let alone a trained economist, purely by virtue of believing in unproven and highly unlikely supernatural entities? And has Mr. Denham read what the Bible and the Koran have to say about parenting? Where does he think the (now thankfully rejected) maxim of ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ originated? Is he aware that the Bible advocates the stoning to death of stubborn and rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21)? Is this the kind of parenting Mr. Denham wants to see? Is this what happens in a progressive society? As for climate change, well, one group of the religious denies it is happening, another accepts it is happening but welcomes it as a sign of the imminent return of Jesus, another accepts it is happening but trusts God not to let it get too bad, and another – like anyone with a modicum of intelligence – accepts that it is happening and that we need to do everything we can to slow it down and ultimately reverse it. Those in this latter group are getting their information from the same place as the rest of us: the scientific community who are working to provide the evidence. The same applies to every other sphere of government policy: religion is either irrelevant or an active hindrance. Yet these are the people Denham thinks can provide special insights and should be consulted at every turn.
OK, detour over. The point is this, and it is relevant to both the UK and the U.S. Governments should consult. They should listen. And it is good for a wide range of people to be heard. This is simply democracy in action. There are clearly constitutional issues in the U.S. but personally I have no problem with Catholic bishops attempting to sway U.S. government policy, just as I have no problem with religious leaders in the UK attempting to make their voices heard at government level too. But they should not find it easier to be heard by governments just because they are religious. They shouldn’t have an inside track: there is no justification at all, for instance, for Church of England bishops to sit in the Upper House of Parliament, as they do in Britain, as of right. The religious may be expert in convoluted arguments to explain why a god who demands you kill your son for answering back is actually loving and compassionate, but this does not confer on them any special insight when it comes to matters of government. Governments should consult with genuine experts – economists, doctors, sociologists, criminologists, scientists, ethicists – but there is not the slightest reason to add religious leaders to the list by default. No one with expertise should be excluded simply because he or she is religious, but being religious on its own should never be enough to guarantee someone privileged access to influence. As for the rest of the population, who are mostly non-experts in most areas on which governments must set policy, well, in a democracy our views should count too, and we should be free to do whatever we can to make ourselves heard. This means the religious too: theirs is just one set of ideas among many and their ideas should have to compete for influence, just like everyone else’s. It is time to reject, once and for all, the notion that religion should be given special privileges.
I am now off to email John Denham to tell him I am a fervent believer in unicorns, crystal healing, leprechauns and tarot, and ask whether this qualifies me as a government adviser on foreign policy.