Recently, the Indianapolis Star invited readers to comment on the propriety of religious voices engaging in the public debate. To ask the question is to answer it: on what conceivable basis would we bar people of faith from the public square? Even if the Constitution allowed such a thing — and it does not — our public discourse…
Recently, the Indianapolis Star invited readers to comment on the propriety of religious voices engaging in the public debate. To ask the question is to answer it: on what conceivable basis would we bar people of faith from the public square? Even if the Constitution allowed such a thing — and it does not — our public discourse would be impoverished if religious perspectives were silenced.
Those of us who believe in limiting the power of the state are often accused of an antireligious bias, of a desire to marginalize people of faith. While some who level that charge may actually believe it, others are engaged in the age-old battle for political power. Like certain of the creatures in Orwell’s Animal farm, they want to be "more equal than others." They are not seeking to participate, they are seeking to dominate. Impatient with persuasion, they wish to coerce, using government as their tool.
Our system was never intended to work that way. Our government may neither burden nor favor religion. The First Amendment rests on the premise that people of all faiths and no faith will be vigorous and vocal participants in the political process, and that government will respect the rights and beliefs of all of them.
Respect means that government-run schools may neither require children to engage in religious observances, nor interfere with a child’s truly voluntary devotions. Respect means that government cannot pass a law the sole purpose of which is to impose the religious beliefs of one group on everyone else; neither may it pass laws that interfere with the rights of individuals to practice whatever religion they choose. Government cannot use tax money collected from citizens of differing beliefs to support religious institutions. Government, in short, must maintain a scrupulous neutrality — not because religion is unimportant, but because it is so important that the state must keep its hands off.
In a country that is by most accounts the most religious — and religiously diverse — of all western nations, there are inevitable disputes about the intersection of government and religion. None of those disputes, to my knowledge, casts any doubt whatever on the right of religious voices to be heard on issues of public importance. Americans care deeply about morality, about right and wrong, about our duty to those less fortunate and our obligations to our communities. Our opinions about such things have been largely informed and shaped by our respective religious traditions. We can no more discard those beliefs than we can shed our skins — and absolutely nothing in our history or law requires us to try.