Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Did I Say Religion? I Meant My Religion, Not Your Religion.

This week is religion in politics--where when people say they want to make space for religion in the "public square," what they really mean is space only for their particular brand of religion, expressed only in their particular way.

East Valley Tribune, August 18, 2002

It was an interesting week for religion in politics, with people usually fighting for more instead demanding less.

The University of North Carolina drew flak by asking students to read portions of a translation of the Quran. Students then would write a 300-word essay, either about the excerpt or why they declined to read it. The Family Policy Network sued to stop this effort at bringing religion into education.

This summer gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon appeared on Christian television to say he wanted to “reclaim government in the name of G-d.” In interviews, he attacks “liberal judges” he claims want to expel religion from civic life: “[T]here has been an effort underfoot for many years to try to take G-d off our money and out of our national motto,” Salmon said.

Shortly afterward, anonymous “Vote Mormon” posters appeared next to Salmon’s campaign signs. Salmon, and this newspaper, denounced the signs as “a cowardly, underhanded act of bigotry” aimed at anti-Mormon prejudice.

Both Salmon and FPN consider themselves “pro-religion,” but instead of expanding religion’s space in the “public square,” both fought to shrink it. FPN demanded the university drop any teaching of the Quran unless taught in a manner FPN deemed “balanced,” and that the school shouldn’t teach any particular religion unless it taught them all -- a sure-fire recipe for teaching none. Salmon supporters just tore out the signs.

Apparently, candidates may discuss their religious faith generally, or list church membership in campaign mailers, or “target” religious voters -- but any specific discussion of a candidate’s actual religion by anybody else is unconscionable bigotry. “Politicians of faith” urge people to vote for them because of religious beliefs, but it’s offensive for anybody to oppose them based on those same beliefs. Religion is relevant, even essential, to politics -- but only on the candidate’s own terms.

Nobody considers religion more relevant than that holier-than-thou Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who never met an issue that didn’t deserve faith-based rhetoric (except for letting corporations not expense stock options). Lieberman links many political positions to his beliefs as a deeply religious Jew. George W. Bush cited Jesus as the most important influence on his politics, but when asked to explain what he meant to people of different faiths, replied, “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.” Both believe very different things, and both can’t be “correct,” but each considers religious beliefs fundamental to his politics, and a valid way to seek voter support.

But it’s only for support; nobody can oppose a candidate based on his or her self-advertised religious beliefs. Religion is a ratchet, shamelessly available to help a candidate, but never to oppose -- just like politicians who use their families brazenly while campaigning, then demand “privacy” when that better suits their needs.

This faith-based campaigning creates a blandly homogenized political religion, where everybody but atheists shares unspecified fundamental beliefs. (You know what they are, and if you don’t, well, it’s hard to explain.) This civic religion considers having any religious beliefs as a good thing, whatever those beliefs are -- thereby making differences simply irrelevant, which really makes religion less important and fundamental. However, that tolerance has its limits, as in North Carolina, where the FPN doesn’t consider Islam acceptable for the public square. (And if they get to exclude Islam today, what other minorities get ruled “out of bounds” tomorrow?)

Ultimately, politics is an argument. You take a stand, your opponent opposes, and voters sort it out. But you can’t have that kind of argument about religion. You believe this, I believe that, and nobody can sort it out, not with logic and certainly not in this world.

For those who say we need more religion in politics -- you can’t argue about it, so what good is it?

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