Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Role of Religion in Democracy

There are more atheists and non-practicing religious-types in the Democratic Party than in the Republican party. I attribute this mainly to the issues of homosexuality and abortion. That is my guess because I don't see anything of particular religious or spiritual appeal to typically conservative ideas such as less government regulation over the free market, states' rights (which is really only nominally an issue anymore, anyway), less welfare, more proactive military, less environmental protection, and a preference for management over labor.

I've said many times, and I will continue to beat that drum, there is a place for good religious people in both parties, or in neither party. But this whole idea of religion getting mixed up in politics concerns me. It reminds me of a scripture from the New Testament, Mark 12:14-17:
And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?

Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.

And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s.

And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.
Does this scripture imply that there should be a clear delineation between religion and politics? I think a reasonable interpretation of this passage is that there should. That the things of God are too important and sacred to mingle with politics and, therefore, should be held apart. The requirements for ruling a nation, state, or city are not aligned with the requirements for running a religion. The requirements for being a good citizen are not aligned with requirements for being a good member of one's faith. Civic duty and religious duty are not the same. That does not mean that good citizens and the religious do not share common attributes, they do, it means that at the most fundamental level there are serious differences that cannot be transplanted into the other.

While democracy does not have one universal definition nor a universal application, there are usually two shared characteristics. First, all citizens have equal access to power, typically by vote. The idea is, according to Aristotle, "equality according to number, not worth." Second, all citizens enjoy recognized rights and liberties. Religion is an organized worship of deity through a set of beliefs and practices.

Democracy and religion have different roots and different goals. Religion is typically hierarchical where members seek guidance and knowledge from a person in authority, such as a prophet, pope, or imam. Democracy is of the people and has typically been born in revolution from oppressive authority. Those with democratic authority are chosen by the people, while those with religious authority are chosen by God. In democracy the rules and laws are enacted by the people, in religion they come from God. Religions typically require its adherents to follow the civic law and then follow an additional, higher law.

So what is the role of religion in democracy? Is it to impose our belief system and our holding to a higher law on others as a matter of civic law? Is it to disqualify those seeking public office based on religion, or lack thereof? Polls show that Americans want a deeply religious person for president. They show that Americans are not ready for a Mormon president. They show that Americans would rather have a homosexual president than an atheist. There is only one member of Congress, that is 545 members, who is openly atheistic. If a person is willing to uphold and defend the Constitution, and represent our civic interests as our representative, why is it that we require the person to also adhere to the higher standards of our religions?

Last month I posted a long quote from Brigham Young about science. One of the key ideas was that science should play a central role in our government. One of the reasons for this is that government should never make arbitrary decisions. Arbitrary decisions are more likely to oppress in order to satisfy a prejudice. An example is the Black Codes which oppressed blacks for nearly one hundred years. Those laws were enacted arbitrarily, without any science, sociology, or studies to back them up.

One of the basic tenets of religion is faith. We cannot prove that God exists, and we cannot prove that God expects us to live according to certain higher standards than our civil laws. There is no science or study that can show we are right. The only proof is the quality of our lives. So when religion attempts to dictate to society, I think it makes bad government. The standards with which we live a religion cannot be the same standards with which we run a democracy. The decisions made by a religion, based on faith, would seem too arbitrary to a person who does not belong to that religion or to no religion at all. That would open the door for laws against religion that were similarly based on arbitrary standards. If we instead only made laws based on objective facts we would assure equality and justice.

The influence of the religious qua religious should be through example and missionary work, not legislation and lobbying. If we have to resort to legislating our ideals and beliefs it probably means we are not being as effective as we should through the means that the Savior taught us to spread the Gospel.

No one is compelled to live by our higher standards. It is always a choice to make, which we as the religious can make more appealing by our quality of life. If we want true influence politically and culturally we will start really living up to our high standards. Treat other kindly (especially those with whom we disagree), forgive trespasses quickly, be fair in honest in our employment, accept each person has a child of God.

One final thing I think is imperative for the religious to do in order to be good citizens in a democracy is to be completely open with our beliefs and our history. No one expects us to be perfect, or to have an unblemished past, but they do expect us to be honest about it, and I think that is the least we can do. We should be completely comfortable discussing sensitive issues such as the role of women and minorities in our church's present and past, polygamy, and any other fact about our church. If we can be open and honest about ourselves, while not violating that which is sacred, it will be easier for us to have positive influences without feeling it necessary to legislate our beliefs.

Of course we cannot compartmentalize our religious beliefs. We cannot and should not leave them at home when we go to vote or run for public office. What we can do is make sure that we are not using the weight of our institution, as opposed to the weight of our individual commitment to our faith, to influence public policy. Only in very rare circumstances, such as laws that bear directly on our Constitutionally guaranteed right to practice our religion, should we do otherwise.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Two quotes from the Joseph Smith manual lesson we had in Elder's quorum last Sunday:

'We ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangely present themselves, and are so congenial to human nature, against our friends, neighbors, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ from us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God. Their religion is between them and their God.'

'We will... cultivate peace and friendship with all, mind our own business, and come off with flying colors, respected, because, in respecting others, we respect ourselves.'

If anyone was painfully aware of the thorny issues regarding politics and religion, it was Joseph Smith. He faced all sorts and types of persecution, from illegal mob justice all the way up to state-sanctioned extermination. And, I would think, we learn from those experiences that religion and politics are dangerous when mixed improperly. I don't think it's a mistake that the Priesthood is named after a man who, among his many accomplishments, was most noted for his ability to bring peace to the land of Salem.