Some thoughts on the deceptive role of religion in politics.
The movement towards ending the treatment of homosexuals as a separate class of citizens has made significant strides in recent days, and has expectedly brought with it an uptick in the debate about the role that religion is playing in dictating social laws in our country. As with the debate on abortion, you see both sides throwing around God a lot. One says that the Bible defends their position. The other, that one’s religious beliefs should not dictate the laws of a secular country impacting the lives of those who may not share your convictions. As a Rabbi friend of mine put it, “Or you could just tell the government to stay out of personal lives.”
Since their concerns stem from the Bible, a document constitutionally prohibited from having a say in our laws, those on the right are immediately discounted as seeking to impose a religious agenda on the country. However, though their views may stem from a religious root, that is not a reason to ignore the concern. My religious opposition to the death penalty shouldn’t make my voice unwelcome in the debate, just as ones personal opinion that we shouldn’t eat horse meat doesn’t invalidate that legislation. When it comes to morality legislation, its not a hard and fast science, and whether your morals come from a philosophical text or a religious one shouldn’t necessarily matter.
Take the concern for life. This is widely assumed to be at least one of the top priorities of any government. There is little question that murder is a big No, but what about protecting life in other circumstances? With no clear definition by scientists, philosophers, or theologians (not to mention being “above the pay grade” of our president) for when life actually begins, one should not be painted as anti-woman or a religious nut for seeking to prevent what they feel is also murder. And if somebody feels that a fetus is a life, for religious reasons or other, that then very much becomes the purview of the government. But discounting them simply because their concept of what is “life” stems from the Bible is unfair.
I’m much less sympathetic to the gay marriage debate, because this is less about defining a family to me and more about equal rights, but many of the same factors exist. Protecting family and marriage has long been an accepted role of the government. We prohibit polygamy and incest and set minimum age requirements for getting married and consenting to sex. Many of these laws have practical concerns, but some are purely because we see certain mores as worth protecting.
Morality legislation is common. The fact that it exists doesn’t mean we should be complacent in accepting it. But setting social norms is in fact an appropriate role for government. Many religious people happen to be modest and would oppose public nudity on those grounds, but I assume many secularists would agree as well. My point is that in a democracy, citizens are going to advocate for what it is that they’re passionate about, and that’s a good thing. Whether its protecting the wetlands near their house, preventing horse slaughter, opposing public nudity, or banning drinking on the streets, there are activists for any number of causes. Stopping global warming because Al Gore told you to or because the Pope told you to doesn’t make one better than the other. There are times when religion makes for bad politics. Opposition to condoms and sex education, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that those who hold those opinions should be banned from the democratic process.
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