Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Public Square and Where Santorum and Kennedy Belong.

Read these words here:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

Does that make you want to vomit? If it does I suggest you stop reading right now, because you are about to get very offended. If you do not know, this is part of John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. In response to a discussion about this speech Presidential candidate Rick Santorum referenced it making him want to vomit. He continued on about how and why is it people of faith would be denied a place in the public square. He disagrees with the basic tenant of this speech, and the sentiments within it, that a president of the United States should support the idea of a separation of church and state. This of course should continue to disqualify Santorum not only from libertarian consideration for support, but all Americans should pause and reflect on this idea of his.

There is a great deal of discussion this month about the nature of religion in this country when it comes to public policy. What should the proper role be, and what of this notion of Santorum’s that the faithful are being denied a place within the public square as it were? Should we strive for “neutrality” from our public officials when matters of religion intersect with the government? Do we go too far and not nearly far enough in attempting to protect matters of conscience? There are always going to be issues in this regard, especially when religion and politics start to intermingle, in areas of welfare, outreach, education and counseling, where these two entities seem to lean on each other to meet a mutually agreeable goal (this is a great article on how they should be avoiding that altogether). But when you look at everything Santorum has said on the subject, when you look at the calls of a “war on religion” you see that their main concern is not really about their ability to worship and believe as they wish, but that their ability to affect public policy to reflect their faith is being impeded.

There is always a great deal of heated rhetoric that accompanies any issues dealing with homosexuals in this country. People like Santorum talk about the need to protect traditional marriage, traditional values, that the gay’s choose their lifestyle and that he does not have to accept it, because the tenants of his faith demand that he treat it as a sin. In my home state of New Hampshire there is a push to repeal gay marriage, and a legislator has gone so far as to say that gay marriage has injured him, because it offends his faith. This will usually continue on in different veins, on how children of the religious should not have to be exposed to the “gay” in public school, or be allowed to hear that it is ok or acceptable. So what is the proper role of government policy here? If you are saying that the U.S. has a freedom for all to practice the tenants of their faith without government interference, and that the government will not impose a state religion (or practices) on the people, where do we draw the line on these issues? Look to the starting point in this controversy and that should provide the insight, though it rarely does. The counter-argument always comes, in the beginning, couched in the concepts of secular governance: the state needs to protect “traditional” marriage for the sake of the state, the children, the society etc, etc. It always starts there but it can never end there. If you continue to ask the question “why?” eventually we get back to issues of faith. “My faith tells me homosexuality is wrong, therefore no one should be allowed to be a homosexual, out in the open, enjoying all the rights, privileges and immunities of all other Americans.” This is the point where they want to use government policy to place this strictly religious idea into government policy. If it was possible to show that homosexuality was not a choice, at all, if you could bring it to Santorum and show him that this was the way someone was born it would not matter to him, the Catholic church or fundamentalist evangelicals. It is the same with the issue of abortion and contraception. You could say what you want about two dozen divided cells not constituting a life, or that the possession of a uterus does not diminish your rights or make you a ward of the state out to insure you never, ever harm the fetus growing inside of you (the logical, unavoidable consequence of recognizing natural rights for a fertilized egg, more on that in the future). It would not matter to the religious who have decided that life begins at conception, and the state must intercede on its behalf. This is an issue of faith, and if you are dealing with the truly faithful, it will not matter what you say, their belief system will remain intact. What to do with public policy then?

When Santorum talks about the religious in the public square, he is not talking about everyone coming together, all faiths, creeds and philosophies involved to debate a policy outcome that represents a consensus opinion that neither advances or restricts a religious end. If he was he would have to acknowledge that one of those outcomes might be that everyone agrees homosexuals have rights, but that religious institutions do not have to host the events; or that the state has a responsibility to protect life, so “late term abortions” can be outlawed but first term abortions are no one’s business but the person who wants to have it. This of course is a rough amalgam of what we have happening in this country right now. The Santorum’s of this world can not accept this outcome, which has involved decades worth of ever evolving understanding and compromise, because they approach the issue from a place of moral superiority. They are bringing a “truth” to the argument. They believe these things to be wrong, how then can you compromise on a truth such as that? And this is the unspoken problem with bringing religion to the public square.

These individuals like Santorum do not want to be part of the discussion, they are not looking to have their outlook examined and debated, they desire to have their world view be preeminent and imposed as the government policy of the United States. They think homosexuality to be wrong, a sin before god, and that it should not be tolerated… so what? Why should that be part of the discussion? We are talking about people and their rights and responsibilities in an enlightened free society, why does this religious viewpoint that something is wrong out there become part of a discussion about government policy? There are many Muslims that believe in the Sharia principle that blasphemy against the prophet deserves a death sentence. And? Do we or should we entertain such a barbaric and savage notion in this country? Should the status of women and their rights in this country be based on the Koran or the tenants of the Hindu faith? That would be ridiculous, but these individuals continually try and frame the debate as the United States is a “Christian nation” and for that reason Christian teachings should hold this preeminence in the public square. No thought or inclination is given to those who do not believe, do not believe as strongly, or believe something completely different. Something is a sin in your particular faith? Don’t do it then, but please do not insist that because it is a “wrong” for you that the rest of us have to endure a public policy based on that idea. When these questions come up we seem to be very concerned with what the Christian doctrine has to say, but we never seem to take a moment to roll and read chicken bones to divine a proper policy response. While lots of people will make a call to prayer to search for an answer, no one suggests sacrificing oxen to get a direct answer from the powers that be. While there is a great deal of talk about cleaning up the way everyone acts around here before Jesus shows up, no one is overly concerned about Ice Giants ravaging the land, punishing us for our moral transgressions.

There are many millions of faithful out there who would be offended by what I just wrote. They don’t like the idea of relativism or lampooning their beliefs, but the point is still salient: When it comes to issues of faith in the public square, people like Santorum will only accept a very narrow sliver (and interpretation) of the Abrahamic religions (and Muslims and Mormons need not apply it seems). Why no others? Religion, as a matter of personal fulfillment, is fine. You are welcome to practice your faith, even stand on the street corner and proselytize about how grand, wonderful and right your religion is. That someone lives their life in such a way that it offends that faith does not mean anyone has infringed on your rights. No one provided you a pass to never be offended or have your views challenged. You are free to believe what you wish. If someone were to come up to you and say: “you understand that the world is flat don’t you?” your first instinct might very well be to say “you do realize you are a f*&#ing idiot don’t’ you”. Now if that person said “it is the central tenant of my faith that the Earth is flat” what would your response be? Now if that person wanted to make policy based on this religious belief would you see a need to separate such things from public policy discussions? Why is it any different when people start talking about Creationism and the world being 6000 years old?

America is the greatest expression of freedom and progress in the history of this planet, and while it is undeniable that there have been times in our history that government and religion have been intertwined, that does not make it the rule or the gold standard for how we should operate going forward. Can anyone actually believe that if our country had imposed a simple, biblical interpretation of the world on our government and its people that we would be here reading this right now. If people did not question the orthodox nature of what religion dictates where exactly would we be right now? Computers, space travel, vaccinations, nuclear power and a thousand other things are byproducts of inquisitive minds that were not restricted by their government in only believing things written in a 5000 year old book by people who had no notion or idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe.  We need to be spending a lot more time dealing with the problems of the 21st century, and looking backward probably is not going to provide the answers. There also needs to be a fairness, and when politicians pander to religion in any regard they need to be called out, be that Santorum and his issues with gays and contraception, or Obama and his incredibly asinine use of scripture to support tax policy.

All people will approach the public square bringing their understanding, education, and beliefs and engage in discussions about the proper role of the state, and your faith can dictate what you believe should be the proper policy. You will have to come up with a justification for how, why and for what reason anyone else’s life should be impacted by government policy beyond your religious beliefs though. One man’s sin is another’s virtue, and you may not always be in the majority to decide what set of religious doctrines will be followed. It would be very nice to have that separation at that point, wouldn’t it? There are many things about JFK that should make someone want to vomit, but ask yourself if one of those things is believing in an America where the presidency is: a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office. If not, then start telling Santorum and his ilk that there was a very good reason for the First Amendment, and they continue to illustrate it everyday.

3 comments:

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    1. Thank you, really a big fan of your work, which I have read all over the net, but will start following directly from your blog as of today.

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