Public Expressions of Religion Related to Public Policy and Elections
Address by C. Welton Gaddy
President, The Interfaith Alliance and
The Interfaith Alliance Foundation
To the Anti-Defamation League's
National Executive Committee Meeting
February 8, 2008, Palm Beach, FL
Posted: February 21, 2008
Thank you for the invitation to join you here. I am honored to be with you and grateful for an opportunity to converse with people who are interested in authentic religion, the preservation of freedom, religion’s best friend, the religious liberty guarantees of the United States Constitution, and a civil society characterized by mutual understanding and respect. My remarks to you are not aimed at achieving unanimity in our opinions on this matter of public expressions of religion but in contributing to a robust conversation centered on our respective concerns related to this issue. Make no mistake about it, though, how we and how our nation resolve the controversy swirling around public expressions of religion will impact significantly the health of religion, democracy, and freedom in this nation.
Personally, I favor a free exercise of religion in which one individual’s freedom of religion stops at the point at which it begins to infringe on, compromise, or eradicate another individual’s freedom of religion or from religion. I cherish the freedom that allows people to share their personal religious convictions with other people but insist that this freedom respect the boundaries established by other people’s desire to be free from religious persuasion or proselytization. I have no problem with a street preacher announcing the end of time at a busy intersection or a member of the Hare Krishna sect dancing to a beating drum on an avenue. For either of these advocates of a particular religion to attempt to stop me and make me pay attention to them, however, is another matter.
I do not like shot-gun weddings that force a union that at best only can fake sincerity and intimacy. Similarly, I resist advocates of a shot-gun wedding between religion and politics attempting to make me a member of the wedding party or a sympathizer who officiates at the ceremonies.
The authority of another person’s religion never can demand any more than respect from people holding different convictions—certainly not compliance, deference, or submission. The same is true even if a majority of people in a certain region or throughout the nation affirm that same religious authority. The purpose of this government is not to enforce the authority of any religion but to maintain a freedom in which people can respond to the authority of any religion according to the dictates of their respective consciences. The conviction of a judge in Alabama that God has commissioned him to post the Ten Commandments in public institutions across the nation should hold no more sway with the government than a person wanting to make the use of religious rhetoric in public illegal. To condone inappropriate or anti-constitutional public actions justified by people claiming divine mandates or rights for their behavior ultimately will erode the religious freedom and civil rights of other people.
So many contemporary discussions about the legality or even the sensitivity of public expressions of religion appeal to a majoritarian mindset—“Most people appreciate displays of nativity scenes on the court house grounds at Christmas,” someone declares. At the inception of this nation, wise leaders made provisions for the protection of minorities. Both the preservation of authentic freedom and the rights of minorities so integral to democracy dictate a rejection of public expressions of religion justified only by an appeal to honor a point of view held by a majority of Americans.
Much of the present debate over public expressions of religion arose out of an increase in appeals to religion for the advancement of public policy positions. For example, President Bush has used denominationally-specific religious language to advance the so-called “faith based initiative” and to build support for the military invasion of Iraq and continued support for the war in Iraq, speaking to a convention of Christian broadcasters about the war as a component of one of the high moral hours in American history and of the faith based initiative as a means of advancing biblically-based transformation. The use of religious rhetoric for such purposes is fraught with complications and problems.
The use of religious language in public policy debates tends initially to heighten the level of incivility in those debates and ultimately to shut down the debates completely. Tying religious morality to a political initiative absolutizes the political process to an extent that civil public conversations deteriorate into shouting matches about who is good and who is evil. Why, many pubic officials refuse to engage in a discussion of a difference of opinion that they deem immoral. Such public expressions of religion that escalate one particular perspective in a policy discussion to the level of moral absolutism threatens the vitality of the democratic process and makes virtually impossible the kind of compromise that in the past has been considered the art of government.
Certainly religion and morality have a role to play in shaping public opinion on public policies. However, since government should never be a vehicle for establishing the sectarian views of any religion, government is best strengthened when religions focus their support on the core values of democracy—those values that advance the public good not the legislative agenda of a particular religion, those values that represent secular expressions of common religious convictions. Religious appeals for the support of civil rights differ dramatically from sectarian persuasion aimed at building support for government vouchers to finance religious education.
Religious people, whether as advocates for a specific public policy or campaign leaders for a particular politician running for elected office, should advance their opinions regarding public policy in a manner reflective of respect for a religiously pluralistic nation and for a government that has pledged its support for the guarantee of no establishment of religion.
Religion as a motivator for the support of a particular public policy agenda is perfectly understandable and appropriate. However, religion is inappropriate when used as the tool to gain support for that agenda. Once religion-based initiatives are introduced into the political process, those initiatives should be subject to the same critical evaluation, slings, and arrows that greet any other political initiative. Pointing to a religious motivation or claiming religious authority for a certain political position does not exempt that position from the scrutiny and criticism that are a vital part of the political process.
I find that winning legal support and public affirmation for the sacred often compromises the sanctity of religion, desacralizes the distinctive substance of religion, to an extent that I find unacceptable. To argue that the name of God is permissible on the official seal of a city or in a government program because the name of “God” is now so much a part of our culture that it should be considered a patriotic word offends my religious sensibilities. The same is true of turning sacred texts into public documents or reducing the seasonal significance of a crèche or a menorah to the status of Santa Clause or Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. No. Such a judicial justification for public expressions of religion robs religion of its core meaning and negates its need for public expression at all given that interpretation of its importance.
I find it in the best interest of my personal faith to support a government that is secular. I come to that conviction not because of a low view of religion but because of my passionate conviction about the importance of religion. I do not want the government advancing my faith or any faith, religion over non-religion or non-religion over religion.
That being said, I would not attempt to silence a politician who chooses to speak of her or his religious convictions. Actually, I think it is healthy for all of us to speak of our religion when it is natural to do so. In a political campaign, a candidate’s reference to his or her religion can be a valid and helpful form of self-identification. However, when a politician suggests that her or his religion should be a primary reason for people to elect him or her to public office, I insist on probing questions: What role will religion play in your decision-making on legislative issues and foreign policy? Will you use your elected office as a base from which to advance your particular religion? Abe Foxman has made this distinction between religious identification and religion as persuasion. The constitution prohibits a religious test for public office for good reason.
I also have grave difficulties with politicians who fill their
campaigning for public office with speeches devoted to sectarian-
specific theologizing and activities aimed at using religious education
as a cover for partisan persuasion. I find Mr. Obama’s electoral “faith
clubs” as disturbing as his Sunday sermons in which he asks Christian
congregations to pray for his ability to bring in “the kingdom.” I am
appalled at a senior Senator who declares that the United States
Constitution established the United States as a “Christian nation” as
Senator McCain opined. I find problematic Mr. Romney’s suggestion
That freedom depends on religion. Mr. Huckabee’s suggestion that the
words of the Bible should replace words of the Constitution frightens
me as does his easy identification with divine power as the driving force
of his campaign. I continue attempts to change Senator Clinton’s mind
about her support for the faith-based initiative.
In the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world, candidates for the White House seem to aspire more to the position of pastor-in-chief than commander-in-chief. Those who want to lead our nation seem to be among the worst offenders in efforts related to remove the religious freedom clauses from the First Amendment and to lift Article VI completely out of the Constitution.
Support for an unqualified freedom for public expressions of religion is open to serious question in my mind. What is the purpose? Is the expression a matter of public witness, of political strategy, or of proselytism? It makes a difference! Let us not forget that not all people who use religious language are really religious and not all people who are really religious use religious language. Religion has a vital, public role to play in the life of this nation. But it ought not be one that spawns deep divisions, seeks the establishment of a theocracy in which one person or party claims the role of “Theo,” threatens the constitutional provisions of religious liberty, seeks to negate the beauty and the blessing of religious pluralism, or elevates one religion to a status that disparages all who do not embrace it.
Finally, a person’s perspective on the public expression of religion should not be a criterion by which we judge the authenticity of that person’s religion. Good people disagree on this matter. And all of us have something to learn from that disagreement.
Recently, through a strange sequence of events, I ended up in a meeting with the leader of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, that lasted nearly an hour and a half. At one point in our discussion, after elaborating his support for public expressions of religion in a manner with which I am uncomfortable, Dr. Dobson asked me why so many people who are my colleagues dislike him or oppose his message. For the sake of brevity, I will skip my long answer to that question and go to the summary. “Dr. Dobson,” I said, “I believe we have two different visions of this nation. In my vision, you and I can disagree, but there is still a place for you in this nation. I fear, though, that in your vision of this nation, there is no place for me and for people who think as I think.”
Our public expressions of religion ought never to leave any of our fellow citizens believing that we have no place for them in the nation that we envision.