The intersection of religion and politics is never clear of emotional disputes over lanes and right of way. Even at that, there is growing intensity to debates these days about the appropriateness of religious groups and individuals motivated by faith setting up shop in the public square.
This question requires sorting through prominent misconceptions. To begin, it is important to remember that the constitutional guidepost is free exercise of religion. This is not freedom from exposure to any sign of religion. The decision to worship, to select a faith or denomination, or to eschew religious affiliation must be private, rather than state-sponsored or ordained. Conversely, religious faith is not a disqualification from participation in every aspect of citizenship. Fundamental constitutional guarantees such as voting, assembling, speaking, and protesting do not evaporate when they are exercised by people of faith. At the same time, plowing onto the playing fields of public policy with a batch of thou shall and thou shall not proscriptions grounded in one theology does not work in our pluralistic society.
Our nation was peopled by groups seeking refuge from religious persecution. That did not render it a haven from newly established intolerance. Still, there were many different faiths represented among the early settlers, especially in Pennsylvania. Despite this history, more than a few people believe that the culture and methods of modern politics render it beneath the tenets of faith.
It is not the imposition of religion when multi-faith groups seek to have governmental action align with Biblical precepts such as stewardship and tolerance.
Religious groups are frequently perceived as being in the camp of one philosophy and party or the other. That happens because policy goals are too often attached to candidates or officeholders. Candidates err when they try to lock up the Evangelical, or Jewish, or Baptist vote, as though any faith is monolithic in its policy beliefs and political judgments. Check out the political and policy differences within most congregations, and readily understand the only monolithic sentiment is belief in God. Yes, politics has invaded the worship house as surely as the schoolhouse. While many people consider deep faith to be a personal attribute, it does not confer policy superiority, any more than lack of faith equates to policy inferiority.
Gaps are widening between what people profess to believe and what they practice in word and deed. There is no way to reconcile deep faith in the Old Testament with the resurgent anti-Semitism darkening too many corners of our society. There is no way to read the whole record of American history and reach the conclusion we were established as a fundamental Christian nation. The diversification of religious practice resulting from immigration is no violation of national charter or spirit.
Giving the green light to people of faith does not mean participation will always be done wisely and well. There are too many examples of lobbying being done for what strike as selfish reasons. People find it easy to suspect the motives of organized religion, having watched the appalling manner in which the Catholic hierarchy circled the wagons as the staggering number of abuse cases came to light.
And there are religious advocates who routinely trade in rhetorical excess, resembling angry prophets on bad days when they denounce property taxes as immoral. Search high and low and you cannot find a commandment that says: thou shalt not impose property taxes. Going too far in the other direction, mouthing broad platitudes that offend no one, is unlikely to move anyone to action either. It is easy to denounce injustice, but it is much harder to define what constitutes justice in highly conflicted or emotionally-charged situations. The incendiary criminal justice debates over arrests, sentencing, probation, and protests illustrate that.
Sidelining people of faith from public policy has another cost. Churches are seeing declines in attendance and giving, trends exacerbated by the pandemic. The departure of young people threatens more than the services various faiths provide, health care, education, nutrition. Houses of worship are dying off, closing or consolidating. With the emerging generation believing that cornerstone community institutions have not listened to them and have mortgaged their future, how are churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples to bring people back, if the reach of their spiritual message extends no farther than the sanctuary walls? If we are truly concerned that government has in too many ways lost its moral and ethical bearings, why should religions be relegated to the cheap seats in the public forum?
For decades, prominent religions have actively advocated issues and taken policy stands. Go back sixty years, and you will find the Catholic Conference listed as a top influencer, just as today. The Council of Churches and the Jewish Coalition may not have the same political heft, but their voice is a constant feature of the advocacy landscape. As political players and commentators recognize, groups having members to back their leadership are most effective. So when parishioners hold back out of the mistaken belief that people of faith are excluded from the policy marketplace, they deprive themselves of impact and dilute the diversity of opinion that is essential to higher quality decision making.
The most compelling argument for involvement on the part of people of faith does not relate to a specific issue or a priority goal. Rather, it is that people of faith have a strong belief system. That is the antidote to the current plague of candidates and operatives advancing their interests by undermining trust in our democracy. Too many seek to win by encouraging disbelief, derogation, and denial. The counter is people who adhere to the principles of their faith. They are likely to also believe in the bedrock principles and institutions, governmental and community-based, on which our democracy rests. Vital concepts, such as constitutional principles, democratic structures, operating mechanisms such as checks and balances, judicial independence, the guiderails of the various regulatory and quasi-judicial watchdogs. That defines the necessity for debate in our state and nation to feature individuals and groups who define themselves by what they believe in and stand for, in the spirit of community cause toward progress, opportunity, and inclusion.
David A. Atkinson, Associate of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy