Religion and Public Policy
By David Brown, 2003
In the famous Dune trilogy, author Frank Herbert observed, “When religion and politics ride in the same cart, the whirlwind follows.”
But among the strangest phenomena of the early 21st Century are indicators that religion and politics are being put back in the same cart. This is a fundamental danger to freedom and the future.
When I am asked about what I see as the greatest threats to the future of humanity’s survival on earth, my answer always includes religion. Specifically I refer to the insatiable appetite of major religions for increased global market share and for the the power and money that comes with that market share. I also believe that the principle genius of the American experiment in Democracy has been, from the very beginning, the intention to take religion and politics out of the same cart. By enforcing a clean separation between religion and state policy, the U.S. Founders sought to ensure the long term survivability of the society, and of religion as well. U.S. Presidents have historically cloaked themselves in religious speech when it fits their purpose. But among the strangest phenomena of the early 21st Century are indicators that religion and politics are being put back in the same cart. This is a fundamental danger to freedom and the future.
Futurist.com writer David Brown, minister and national consultant on religion and public education, takes a look at this issue in the following article. Many writers in the national media are doing the same, but they miss, as Brown does not, the most basic issue. And that is the obligation of American Presidents to assure that religion and public policy are kept separate, so that a free religious life for those who wish it may indeed be possible in the long run.
Future Trends: Religion and Public Policy
What does the future hold for American religion?
In early 2001, FUTURIST.COM published my article on “Future Trends in American Religion.” This “pre 9/11” article identified several trends emerging in religion that will impact the future. I am pleased by some of the discussion this article has generated. What follows is the first of what may be a series of observations relating to religion and the future.
The role of faith and public life
The United States is a religious nation. We are one of the most diverse religious nations on the planet (See Diane Eck’s A New Religious America). How we live with and accommodate a wide variety of religious expressions is a key challenge for this nation as it moves toward the future. Recent world events have prompted strong and heart-felt religious speech from elected officials including President Bush. The president?s religious language is rooted in his beliefs. Mr. Bush’s Christian convictions were the subject of an article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times (2/09/03). In the article Ms. Goodstein quotes the president’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, “The American Experiment cannot exist without the moral vision that comes from faith.” That faith was evident in remarks Mr. Bush made at a recent White House prayer breakfast. He said “ ..Behind all of life and all of history there?s a dedication and purpose set by the hand of a just and faithful God.”
It is clear that the president is a strong conservative Christian. He believes that his religious experience changed his life. I respect this and have no reason to doubt its validity. Throughout his administration the president has not hesitated to talk about faith at key moments such as the most recent State of The Union Address, after September 11 and after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy. In these addresses and others Mr. Bush has spoken generically about faith and God without speaking specifically about his experience of Christian faith.
In this “Observation” I want to share a concern and query. As I wrote earlier, our nation lives in a reality and moves toward a future that is marked by great religious diversity. This religious diversity includes:
- Those who believe in God and understand themselves to be religious.
- Those who choose not to be religious.
- Those who have religious beliefs and practices that do not include belief in one God.
My concern is this:
Is the current use of religion and faith by elected leaders helping to nurture a future where we will live peacefully, in community, as a people who approach religion and spirituality from a multitude of viewpoints? Or does the continued reference to religion and God by elected officials while in official capacities create a national norm that will make life difficult or uncomfortable for those citizens who do not share their beliefs?
Religious conflicts have been some of the most intense conflicts in the planet?s history. This is true in the United States and around the world. In the mid 1800’s, for example, blood was shed in the streets of New York City as Protestants and Catholics fought over which Bible to use as a public school textbook!
In light of the emphasis put on faith by public officials and the great religious diversity in the United States I find myself fearful that one possible future may include religiously based conflict. I am not suggesting that the language of faith be removed from public discourse. I am suggesting that our elected leaders, when they chose to speak about their spiritual understandings and religious convictions in the public square, do so in a manner that does not polarize the nation or disregard religious minorities.
I believe it is essential that if elected leaders speak of faith in their official capacity they speak with 1) authentic sensitivity, 2) An awareness of diversity and 3) a respect for the constitutional separation between church and state.
Religious diversity, which includes the desire not to be religious, is a reality. Elected officials from the president down need to be careful and intentional in the way they address religious concerns. I fear the consequences if they are not.
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, observed in the New York Times article, “Religious language can be unifying. It can be deeply divisive and dangerous.” In light of Pagels observation my query is: What future will we choose?
Future Trends in American Religion – another one of my articles.
The Nation: A President Puts His Faith In Providence, by Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, February 8, 2003 (payment or subscription required to access archive on web).
Bush and God, by Howard Fineman, MSNBC.com, March 10, 2003.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, poet and consultant. He has been published in several poetry columns and magazines as well as written op-eds for the Seattle Times and Tacoma News Tribune. Dave is the creator and host of award winning Blues Vespers and makes presentations as one of the Pacific Northwest Interfaith Amigos. Former staff to the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and the Presbyterian Education Roundtable he focuses on the intersection of religion and public education with a deep commitment to separation of church and state. Grounded a a deep sense of inclusive spirituality Dave writes and thinks about the future of faith and spirituality in a post-religion world. He is the former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma WA.