Religion and Secular Public Policy
The relationship that never worked
In the American presidential election of 2004, faith-based policies and issues of religion were at the center of the controversy. With his religious stances on abortion, gay marriage, and faith-based education, as well as his campaign's success in painting him as a man of religious conviction, President George W. Bush commanded the pious, Christian population, which appeared in great numbers at the polls. Senator John Kerry's campaign, alternatively, painted its candidate as an intellectual, academic politician. The senator appealed to the more secular and intellectual population that, in the end, proved less populous than the pro-Bush voters. Though it is difficult to formulate a credible argument that the outcome of the election was in fact undemocratic, it is not difficult to find flaws in the election. This is one of the first times in American history that religions have almost entirely aligned themselves with political parties. Such alignment calls into question not the Separation of Church and State nor the legitimacy of the American democracy (though each issue has been raised in reaction to the prevalence of religion in government), but it calls into question the soundness of any democracy that claims secularism as an intrinsic value but whose laws and elections are shaped and influenced by religious beliefs. Because religion is the type of institution in which citizens hold unwavering belief, whereas politics and government require open-mindedness and secular, academic responses to specific social problems, the amalgam of the two institutions religion and politics is truly unethical. Not only is it dangerous for politics to apply something so absolute as religion to such a relative institution as public policy, but it is also risky for a religion to have itself attached to the adaptive nature of politics. Thus, as a matter of ethical practice, not only should religion and public policy not commingle for the sake of political integrity, but such interaction between the two is actually mutually harmful.
Secularism must be an intrinsic value of any democracy if the citizens of that nation aspire to achieve the most perfect possible government. In his seminal 1835 work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that religion and politics seemed to be both interconnected and autonomous of one another, with priests having "divided the intellectual world into two parts: in one, they have left revealed dogmas, and they submit to them without discussing them; in the other, they have placed political truth, and they think that God has abandoned it to the free inquiries of men."1 De Tocqueville was impressed with the ability of the American public to find a balance between religion and politics. Even more than by the apparent balance between the two institutions, de Tocqueville was impressed with the ability of the American government to recognize the importance of both institutions religion and politics but still understand that religious beliefs were not meant to infringe on discussions of public policy. He continues, saying "the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions."2 Thus, it is evident that the best possible scenario for a relationship between a religion and a government is one in which neither infringes upon the other essentially, a secular government.
However, at the same time as he praised America's ability to draw the line between religion and politics, de Tocqueville was aware of the incredible interconnectivity between the two, affirming that "one cannot say that in the United States religion exerts and influence on the laws or on the details of political opinions, but it directs [its subjects], and it is in regulating the family that it works to regulate the state."3 Though de Tocqueville recognized the virtue of a truly secular democracy, he noted that American...
Bibliography: De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Trans. by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. London: Folio Society, 2002.
Machiavelli, Niccolo and Donno, Daniel. The Prince. New York: Bantam, 1984.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism and the 1868 Speech on Capital Punishment. 2nd Ed. George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001.
Morgan, Michael and Shirley, Samuel. Spinoza: Complete Works. Hackett Publishing Company: Chicago, 2002.
Rubin, James. "Disastrous Diplomacy." Foreign Affairs. September / October 2003.
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