For as long as there have been inhabitants of the American continent, multiple sets of religious and moral codes have determined how its populations lived. Whether it be the nature-based religions of Native Americans or the “newer” faith of Christianity brought by European settlers, institutions of distinct beliefs have guided the vast majority of ethnic and social groups that have existed on this land. There’s little doubt that religion has had a heavy influence on our society, and its role in the formation of the United States is strikingly clear in our founding documents. However, there’s considerable debate regarding religion’s role in our government, and how lawmakers have, and continue to, inject their faiths into policy matters.
A recent piece in The New York Times by columnist Frank Bruni highlights attempts by politicians, particularly conservatives, to justify their agendas with reference to personal faith. These instances aren’t reserved for those on the right wing, either. As Bruni points out, during the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama pointed to his faith for the reason he did not support the legality of same-sex marriages.
The fact is, since even the days before the American Revolution until the present, government officials have defended actions and proposed new laws based off of the religious code that they adhere to. This isn’t the correct path to sound administration. Rather, this form of governing results in baseless legislation lacking any real-world evidence and misconstrues the very nature of our founding.
I want to state that I am a religious man, myself. I do not harbor any ill will toward any set of faiths nor those who openly practice their beliefs. However, as a citizen, I do not subscribe to blurring the boundaries of religion and government.
Were our founders religious? Yes. Did they take certain values of their religion — equality, justice, freedom — and incorporate them into our government? Yes. Did they envision a nation where the government enacted laws with the guidance and approval of a higher being? Unequivocally no. James Madison, a key contributor to some of the most important decisions establishing the United States as a nation, was once quoted saying, “the civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
It should come as no surprise that the First Amendment accentuates this fact: the state cannot establish a religion, but it cannot impede the free exercise of one, either. In his piece, Bruni quotes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as saying America had abandoned its identity as a “God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God.” While Mr. Huckabee may truly believe that, he seems to be forgetting that even our founders did not believe in divinely inspired legislation. Moreover, it is important to note that not all of our current lawmakers believe in Christianity like Mr. Huckabee, let alone God.
When we legislate based on morality, issues get distorted to focusing on aspects of life that one can debate ad nauseam. For instance, if I propose a law to you and base it off of a religious teaching in which you don’t believe, then there is no room for debate or compromise. There is no historical precedent to cite, no facts or figures to corroborate that type of theory. Religious beliefs can’t be proven with secular evidence — that is the point of faith. However, this type of argument is continually used for issues ranging from marijuana legalization to gay marriage to abortion.
I believe in God. I do not believe in a government derived from God. Seldom is there a place for religion in politics, and to try and use religion to advocate for particular measures politicizes a part of life that should remain above the jungle that is the current state of American politics. As Mr. Bruni states so accurately, “Politicians’ religions … should be a source of their strength and of their empathy, not of their agendas.” I love practicing my faith, and I love participating in my government. Let’s keep those two actions separate.
Ben Keller is an LSA freshman.