Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Of Politics and Religion

One of the discussions I always find so very interesting is the "separation of church and state" or "America is a country founded upon Christian principles" debates.  Ultimately, I think these discussions stem from differing philosophies concerning the role of religion in government.  On one side is the position that America is a secular country that calls for church and state to be separated.  The other, the position that America is a Christian country, and the state can push for Christian philosophies in its actions and legislation.  Both claim the founders as their source for their position, albeit some more accurately than others.  

As with anything, I have my position in this debate, partly because I think the history is quite clear; the founders intended a secular country.  They came from a nation where the church and state were aligned in the King of England, who was also the head of the Church of England, and saw how such combination curtailed religious freedoms.  There political philosophies were based significantly on enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, as opposed to Christian theologians such as Aquinas, Augustine, and Luther.  As a piece of anecdotal context, Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence (and it's "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights" language) was a confirmed Deist.  Jefferson's Bible, which is currently or has recently been on display at the Smithsonian, has all references to supernatural events cut or removed from it.  Thus, Jefferson's personal Bible would not have had the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea with Moses, nor any of Jesus's miracles or his resurrection.  Certainly, this is not to suggest that religion has no role in public life; but there is obviously a distrust of combining religion with state power and what that means for other religious and non-religious liberties.

What got me thinking about this recently is a local election we had over a week ago.  We tend to focus, in political context, on "keeping religion out of government," as opposed to the opposite.  Some background for this election...2 years ago, two council members, one Democrat and One Republican, proposed an amendment to a local human rights ordinance; an ordinance that prohibits discrimination on certain grounds, and is limited to housing/rental and employment issues.  The amendment called for adding sexual orientation and transgender individuals to the ordinance.  As one can imagine, it was highly controversial, ending up having an over five (5) hour long meeting discussing it, and was voted down with one of the initial sponsors (the Republican) of the amendment voting against it.

Fast forward to this election.  The weekend before, a local Christian radio station started running "ads" during their news section proclaiming, among other things, that the Democratic candidates for council and mayor would support such an amendment to an ordinance again (no candidate for either side had really spoken to the issue during the campaign), and that such an ordinance results in grown men in girls bathrooms and forcing teachers to teach their students that such lifestyles are accepted and normal.  The radio station, when asked about these claims, stated that they were true, based on what listeners had told them about similar ordinances in other cities.

Regardless of one's opinion on such issues, I would hope that all can agree that fact should be presented as fact, opinion as opinion, and we should hope to avoid ignorance when speaking about public issues.  I find the statement humorous because apparently there was no concern over having grown women using a boys bathroom, which I think one could argue plays on our preconceived, or underlying sense of sexism that persists in our society.  I also think it speaks that the intent of the "news" article was to incite fear.  Grown man and little girls excites fear in us, for whatever reason, grown women and little boys doesn't bring the same level.  Further, the idea about a local ordinance putting a requirement on what teachers teach is patently false, as local governments have no authority in the classroom.  Education is governed wholly at the State and Federal level, and no local ordinance can have any impact.  Thus, the people saying it happened in their community, are either intentionally lying, or are grossly misinformed.  Similarly, the radio station's "news" article is either intentionally lying or is grossly misinformed.  The local ordinance could have no impact on what is taught in schools.  Further, the concerns about bathrooms was misplaced.  The radio station claimed this is what people told them, but reporting such as news is poor journalism.  The ordinance, as written in 2009, did not speak to any of these issues.  It spoke only to employment decisions (hiring, firing, etc.), and housing/rental decisions.  As an act of local government, it is limited to this scope.  The ordinance could not be used to "allow" any of the so-called "concerns" of the radio station.  (I know that I am bias in the sense that I am on the other side of the aisle, politically, from this radio station.  But, that does not change that what they reported about what the ordinance could do was patently false.  As part of my job, I drafted the ordinance, and thus know what it could and could not achieve).

Anyway, before I get further into that digression, the whole incident got me thinking about separation of church and state.  Specifically, how we always focus on keeping religion out of government/politics, but not the politics out of religion.  I find that one of the great benefits of a separation of church and state is not for governance, but for faith.  I find this incident to be an example of it.  When the Christian radio station directly entered its voice into the local political scene, it ended up being deceitful (claiming opinion as news/fact; misstating legal effect of local law; claiming candidates pledged something they hadn't, etc.) or ignorant (they thought this was true, but was clearly, and easily shown to be not true).  Religion does its self no service when it allows itself to be characterized as either deceitful or ignorant.

What I find troubling about the whole scenario is why they felt the need to interject something that wasn't an issue in this election.  It gives the clear impression that they were pining or campaigning for one political party over another.  Does one party really represent all of a faith's position?  One often hears the phrase the politics is a dirty business.  This is true for many reasons, but I think primarily because so much compromise is needed to obtain governance when there are competing parties and interests, and compromise can be an ugly promise.  When religion enters the fray like this radio station does, for me, they compromise their faith.  They put some issues clearly above others, possibly ignoring some tenets of their faith completely for adherence to other tenets.

And as with politics, that compromising is often ugly.  My political philosophy leads me to believe that separating church/religion from state power is necessary to help protect individual liberties.  Others can certainly disagree (but based on philosophical preference, not historical facts).  My religious philosophy leads me to believe separating the two is necessary to maintain any semblance of pureness within religious faith.