The Confluence of Religion and Politics

October 29, 2009

The Fall conference of the International Interfaith Initiative which I attended October 8 & 9, featured a keynote conversation with the Hamilton brothers-- Richard and Lee .  Richard has had a long career as a Methodist minister and social activist in the Indianpolis area. Lee was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana from 1965-1999.  He also served as Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and Democratic CoChairman of the Iraq Study Group which was organized by the United States Institute of Peace.

Richard's son, David Hamilton , is a United States federal judge, and is currently the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. On March 17, 2009, President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Hamilton to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. On June 4, 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination, which must still be approved by the full US Senate.

All three Hamiltons have been leading proponents for progressive causes in Indiana. 

Some key points that were made in this conversation were that religion is at the center of many political issues, religion can be good but it can also be intolerant, religion should not expect privilege, issues should be subject to debate, and there is a burden to persuade.  There are three tiers of religion in the public square.  It can motivate people to action such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work in the civil rights movement .  There must be balance between free exercise and establishment of religion . Faith motivates many to serve.

Other points discussed were that religious leaders hold the key to local culture, the fight for social justice if attached to religion is more fierce (could be positive or negative), and religion is sometimes used by leaders to stir rivalries between groups which is more likely to happen if the people do not know each other personally. 

A most important point emphasized was that it is most unfortunate in our society that there are too many voices of self interest and not enough who speak for the common good.  An underlying assumption which bothered me was that religion is necessary for one to be a good person and to do good.   This again emphasizes the need for us secular humanists to get our opinions into the mainstream, to work along side these progressives, and to let them know that we too are good people and do good in the world.

Barack Obama has a great chapter titled, "Faith." in his book, The Audacity of Hope .   Here is what he says about religion's role in public policy:

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religious-specific, values.   It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.  If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.  

For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, such rules of engagement may seem just one more example of the tyranny of the secular and material worlds over the sacred and eternal.  But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice.  Almost by definition, faith and reason operate in different domains and involve different paths to discerning truth.  Reason--and science--involves the accumulation of knowledge based on realities that we can all apprehend.  Religion, by contrast, is based on truths that are not provable through ordinary human understanding--the "belief in things not seen." When science teachers insist on keeping creationism or intelligent design out of their classrooms, they are not asserting that scientific knowledge is superior to religious insight.  They are simply insisting that each path to knowledge involves different rules and that those rules are not interchangeable.  p. 219

While I question whether "belief in things not seen" really equals truth, I can agree with President Obama and with the Hamiltons that religion should not expect privilege,  issues should be subject to debate, and that  proposals based on religion must be subject to argument and amenable to reason.