Embrace secularism; keep religion out of politics

Last week, most leaders of the Republican Party condemned the statement of the Rev. Robert Jeffress that Mormonism is a … Continued

Last week, most leaders of the Republican Party condemned the statement of the Rev. Robert Jeffress that Mormonism is a “cult.” We were told that religion has no place in politics and reminded that the Constitution expressly states there shall be “no religious test” for public office.

As a nonbeliever committed to keeping church and state completely separate, I wholeheartedly agree that Mormonism is no disqualification for the presidency, nor, in principle, should there be any discussion of the doctrines of the Mormonism during the campaign. Is the story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets credible? No — but as an atheist I can say the same thing with confidence about the doctrines of any religion. So let’s allow people to believe whatever they want and concentrate on discussions of public policy.

The problem is that many of our politicians — including Mitt Romney — and many members of the public want it both ways. They don’t want to entertain questions about their religious beliefs, yet at the same time they invoke these beliefs, sometimes expressly sometimes implicitly, as bearing on a person’s qualifications for office. Moreover, on some issues, religious beliefs are frequently invoked as justifications for policy stances.

Romney’s definitive December 2007 speech on religion and politics was awash with references to the importance of religion. He argued that American values are based on religion. Yes, he said we should exhibit a tolerance for others, but a tolerance for people of faith. Notably he stated that “any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty has a friend and ally in me.” Message: if you don’t pray, you’re not my friend.

Romney, along with many others, apparently thinks religion and politics do mix, as long as we don’t examine too closely the basis for anybody’s beliefs. Sorry, but that doesn’t work. To the extent that religious beliefs are interjected into the political arena, they should be subject to examination and criticism the same as any other beliefs. We should ask those politicians who assert that belief in God is the basis for our values: 1. the evidence they rely upon for their belief; 2. the reasons they maintain there is a necessary connection between religion and morality. Any lesser scrutiny would not do justice to principles they have characterized as important.

Of course, that’s not likely to happen. Nor would it be desirable to turn policy discussions into theological debates. But it is also not desirable to allow religious beliefs to be immune from critical examination if they are influencing our politics and policies. We need to adhere to a thoroughgoing secularism in politics.

We are a secular republic in theory. To make ourselves a secular republic in practice it’s not sufficient to ensure no religious faith has preferential status. We also have to ensure that the nonreligious are not considered un-American. Moreover, our policy discussions should be framed in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based on secular considerations. Whether it’s abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, or stem cell research, we should keep matters of faith out of the discussion.

Our politicians deflect questions about their faith by stating they are not running for “Theologian-in Chief.” Then they should stop their preaching.

Ronald A. Lindsay is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry and will serve as a panelist at this weekend’s Religious Politics and Secular Values event.

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  • ggreene1

    Faith is something you live and share; religion is a business you can make a living on. Bragging about one’s faith while practising religion therefore tends to be both hypocritical and incomprehensible. Read my free e-book Walkabout: The History of a Brief Century for the whole story.

  • pasc1

    I disagree.

    Mr. Lindsay, if a “religion” called for locking up young women in dark rooms during the day because they believed lilly white skin was a symbol of holiness, and subsequently they also avoided dark-skinned people at all costs…would you believe those facts about someone’s religion should NOT be discussed, much less criticized?

    That’s just a hypothetical, but it is clear that you have done no research whatsoever on what Mormons believe and practice beyond whatever shallow examination you did to find out about those plates.

    Besides, doesn’t freedom of speech carry the same weight as freedom of religion? If exmormons, who have quite the website set up (exmormon.org) choose to bring up the ex-religion in discussions, and should those of us who have also had run-ins with it participate and try to educate people about our views, how is that somehow “wrong”?

    The fact is that if Romney does, some day, enter the White House, the issues exmormons bring up WILL be asked. Will you feel ashamed that you were too timid to research them and ask about them beforehand?

  • sam38

    Good points. The problem is that one must be so far-right and “Christiany” in order to get nominated as the GOP candidate that they are no longer a viable enough candidate to get elected. The US is a country full of moderates who, at this point, will have to hold their nose while voting, no matter who they end up choosing.

  • schnauzer21

    I think yo are misiing the point of this article. The politicains are trying to have it both way. They say religion shouldn’t matter (when we question their beliefs) and at the same time try to use the religious views of their opponents against them. If these politicians are going to be basisng their legislative actions on their religious beliefs than we most definitely must ask indepth quetsions about it (such as the examples you gave).

  • TimYork

    Of course you should consider religious practices when supporting political candidates. A few of the Republican contenders are obviously suffering from religious delusions. If they are actually not delusional then they are outright frauds. Expressing hope in some eternal conscious being isn’t a sign of delusion but acting as if you have a personal communication with this hoped for being definitely is.

  • Starpley

    And conversely, politics has noi place in religion. Therefore, Catholic health services should not be forced by the government to provide for abortions.

  • radsenior

    Evangelicals have one or two leaders who have so polarized the electorate who listens to them it called “pulpit politics”! The politics dominating Washington is intertwined with radical religious rightist forcing their narrow-minded religious beliefs onto the general public! America was founded on the the belief that there should be separation of “Church and State” and all peoples were equal! In today’s politics that is not the case when the religious right preaches that one person is in a cult and endorses another just because he says he is a born again evangelical! Perry is not better than Romney or Cain or Bachmann and religion should have no say in politics. Religion should have no say in politics, but Perry has proven that he wants to dictate his religious beliefs onto Texans when he attempt to force women to have and ultrasound/Sonogram if pregnant and wanting an abortion. That issue is between the doctor and the patient only! No one has the right to tell me or anyone else what to do in medical cases except myself and my doctor! Perry courts the Toxic Egotistica­l Activist(T­EA) and they have a plank saying the government should stay out of everyday life!

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