Monday, December 06, 2004

Religion in a 'Secular' State

We hear quite a bit these days about America as a 'secular' state. The ACLU and other groups committed to divorcing government from religion want to remove 'God' from our pledge, remove it from our coins, and Sandra Day O'Connor has written of 'not real religion' but 'cermonial religion' -- the religious-seeming ceremonial phrases that we don't 'really mean.' A friend of mine recently remarked that, if it is true that Bush won on the basis of evangelical Christians' support, then we are no better than Iran because religious fanatacism is driving the government here just as it is there.

Statements like these bely the infantile simplicity of the liberal's conception of the intersection of religion and politics: Either we are secular, tolerant, and free, or the government is oppressive and theocratic. But in America, religious freedom means exactly what its name implies: that we are free to exercise whatever religion we care to, and that the federal government will not establish any particular religion as the official true path to enlightenment or heaven or whereever you think religion leads us. It does not mean that religion and government are to be completely separated -- that is not possible, and attempts to effect such a state of existence have always led to horrible consequences.

One cannot divorce a government of laws from laws, one cannot divorce laws from morality, and one cannot divorce morality from religion. Thus, one cannot divorce a government of laws from religion, and attempting to do so debases that government, loosens it from its moorings and causes it to drift in a very dangerous manner. The first premise of the syllogism is self-evidenjt. The second is not. But it is true. Laws and morality both deal with 'oughts' in different ways. The laws of a society, from a speed limit to a health regulation to the criminal code, shape society in a particular way and proscribe certain conduct with the end of reaching what is the minimum acceptable situation in terms of the community's judgments about what ought to be. Those judgments about what ought to be stem from morality, either that of the King, the dictator, or the demos. We in America choose democracy principally because we believe it leads to the best moral outcomes. Put another way, we believe that the collective knowledge of the 'best' of us, our elected representatives, will be able to best approximate what actually should be in their judgments about what the law will be. The same theory holds for a properly philosophic King -- he guides the nation on a course to what he think is the most just and right situation. From the speed limit, with its consideration of the importance of saving human lives, to the prohibition against rape, with its concern for the sanctity and autonomy of each and every human person, every law concerns morality. If we forget why we have rape laws and speed limits, or if we contend that we only have them because the polis desires them, and not because thsoe laws reflect some higher value, they lose power and can be changed as soon as our opinions, or those of those in power, change.

Morality, then, cannot be divorced from religion. Without some metaphysical conception of our being and existence, and howe we came to be, we cannot say that our values and 'oughts' are set in stone -- we must allow for differentiation. And even if a different morality shocks our personal conscience, without some idea of our creation and purpose, we cannot say that that different morality is any less valid than our own. But if we have a conception of creation and divine purpose, those traits and aspirations humans are endowed with take on new meaning because they become part of a grander plan, part of a higher law. Only with some higher law, wheter it be written on our hearts at the moment of creation, or written on all creation in its patterns of development and flourishing, can we say that one thing is wrong and another is right, can we justify our laws at their very base. I am no supporter of the idea of Hugo Grotius, that natural law can be divorced from its creator or the notion of a God -- without those metaphysical underpinnings, upon what would such a law depend and who would its violation transgress? A law is no law if the violation of that law offends no one or no thing. Thus there must be a natural, divine law if our moral laws and values are laws at all.

So, taking the syllogism as a whole, government, without religion, is a loose, dangerous thing. If our only principle is democracy divorced from religion, than democracy is more dangerous than divine-right monarchy because whatever evil the demos endorses is no longer evil and has all the moral force it needs. That is a frightening thought, and one secular liberals would do well to contemplate a bit more deeply.


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