Religion and Politics in the Public Sphere

Dr. David Mazel
Adams State College
In a liberal democracy like the United States, when religious people step into the public sphere and argue for turning the government into an instrument of their theology, they open their faith up to public criticism.
It cannot fairly be otherwise. If the marketplace of ideas is to function as it should – as a place where arguments compete against one another until the good ones drive out the bad – then all the arguments made there must be fully and equally open to rebuttal. Furthermore, we must be free to challenge, not just an argument’s conclusions, but its entire chain of reasoning — its facts, its logic, and, most importantly, its basic premises.
What does this mean for faith-based arguments? Consider this rather typical example:
“If this great nation is to survive, marriage must be between a man and a woman.”
If we ask the person making this claim to back it up, we’re likely to be told something like this:
“The Bible tells us in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that the sin of homosexuality leads to social destruction.”
But of course this line of reasoning doesn’t really stop here. If we ask this person why we should believe the Bible, we are told that said book is a divinely inspired history of actual events. If we press further and ask why we should believe such a strange and wondrous thing, we are told that if we sincerely pray about it we will feel the Holy Spirit telling us it is so.
So goes the argument. If we are to effectively challenge it – and in a functioning democracy we must be free to do so – we must be free to take on not just its conclusion but every step leading up to that conclusion. We must be free to publicly contest claims about the historicity of the Bible, about the proper way to interpret the stories it tells, about the efficacy of prayer as a guide to truth, and so on. That is, we must be free to publicly challenge some time-honored and deeply cherished religious beliefs.
And we must be free to do all this just as vigorously, with just as much passion and polemical excess, as we challenge secular political claims.
I point all this out because there’s a widely shared belief that to do this is somehow wrong or impolite. Well, um, no. It’s actually an act of citizenship.
I do understand that sometimes, in the rough and tumble of debate, people’s feelings will get hurt. But that comes with the territory. It’s part of the game. If you want to play, you have to take your knocks.
For me to lay into the religious foundations of the political arguments made by the believer in the public sphere is no more impolite than it is for a defensive lineman to tackle the quarterback in a football game.
Anyone who doesn’t want to see their religious beliefs manhandled in this way should consider asking their religious leaders to stay out of politics.
I mention all this also a sort of prologue to future columns, in which I plan to take on some of the worst of the religious arguments that currently defile our political discourse. In my crosshairs* are Republican Party presidential frontrunner and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, Jewish Senator Joseph Lieberman, and Mormon apostle Dallin Oaks.
Stay tuned.

* My sincere thanks to Sarah Palin for this metaphor. is powered by WordPress µ | Spam prevention powered by Akismet