I never thought I’d share a screenshot from Tumblr on this blog if we’re being honest. Then again, I also never thought I’d like church history and now I want a Ph.D. in the field, so I guess I’m something of an anti-prophet; I think/say something won’t happen and it does. My budding career in prediction by negation aside, this gem from Tumblr was shared by a Facebook friend and instead of moving on with my life as normal people do, I began to really think about this dialogue and everything it represents. Now, don’t get me wrong, Tumblr is a time-sink filled to bursting with inane garbage, much like Reddit (my preferred site for wasting time). Rarely does anything of value happen there and it’s definitely a poor candidate for a place to seriously think about anything. With all that said, however, this screenshot presents some interesting food for thought and as such, I derived three observations from it:
1. Some people don’t clearly understand what the First Amendment to the United States Constitution actually says, nor can they articulate why it says what it says with respect to history.
2. A general disdain for religion and an assumption that religious people are less intelligent or in some way less able to argue their beliefs is still fashionable. Christians aren’t persecuted in the United States, for example, but some people like to snicker at us and wonder how we get through the day with our puny brains and hatred for common sense. I blame this on the fact that many would rather read a book by Richard Dawkins than one by David Bentley Hart.
3. Some people don’t think about the implications of what they say and sacrifice careful thought for the sake of semi-popular hot takes for fake internet points.
Some of that’s harsh, I know, but it’s true and I’m going to try to unpack that. This is going to be long for a blog post, so strap yourself in and make sure you brought your overnight bag.
The First Amendment
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The notion of “separation of church and state” is typically attributed to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, but the notion as such can be reasonably drawn from the text of the First Amendment itself. The issue is not whether such a thing as a “wall of separation” (Jefferson’s words) should exist; the issue is why such a wall should exist in the first place. While I readily concede that I’m no Constitution scholar, I would suggest that every right enumerated in the Constitution was enumerated in response to issues that the framers of the Constitution recognized both historically and in other nations they observed in their own day. A ready parallel, for instance, can be drawn between the Fifth Amendment and the numerous instances of the abuse of court systems across history. In the same way, I would suggest that the First Amendment’s clause on religion has a similar thrust, grounded particularly in the religious controversy that plagued England following the Protestant Reformation. Insisting that no religion or another be favored by a nation’s government is a reasonable thing to do in light of the fact there were times in history where a person could be killed simply for being Catholic, or for not being Catholic as the case has been.
Therefore, it seems to me a bridge too far to say that separation church and state means that religion has no place whatsoever in politics, and I’ll unpack why that’s nonsense anyway later in this piece. Rather, the separation of church and state is intended to ensure that no one religion can bring the arm of the government down on another. A Jewish president, for instance, could not pen an executive order requiring citizens of the United States to convert to Judaism, nor could Congress pass a law dictating that Muslims cannot do business in the country. In essence, the First Amendment clause concerning religion is intended to keep leaders from acting as theocrats. So no, separation of church and state doesn’t mean what some random Tumblerina thinks it means, and that is good news for the rest of us.
Religion and Politics are Inseparable
This won’t surprise anyone but religion impacts politics and vice versa. What might be surprising is the fact that this is a good thing and a necessary reality. The major question of politics, arguably, is how people and governing bodies interact with one another. Beyond questions of modes of government and market theory are numerous questions that directly impact people. “What is the role of government?” “How should governments be organized?” “Is an authoritarian or libertarian approach to governance better?” These questions are more big picture sorts of things, but the big picture breaks down into smaller vignettes. “Should government spending focus on infrastructure or the military?” “Should marijuana be legal?” “Should the government take down statues of Confederate leaders?” These kinds of questions are not only questions of more immediate interest but they are also political questions.
The major question of religion is how the divine and the mundane interact. “Does a god exist?” “Is there a standard by which all people will be divinely judged?” “Is there a god out there who cares about what we do?” “Do people have to believe in Jesus to be saved?” These are the kinds of questions that often come up in religious discussions. However, religion, particularly Christianity, is not merely concerned with death, judgment, and salvation. Religion historically shares many impulses with philosophy, so much so in fact that I’d contend that some religions (including Christianity) can and should also be considered philosophies, but that’s beside the point. Any religion worth following will have a philosophical framework of some kind. Beyond asking questions about what happens when we die or the nature of the supernatural, religion also asks questions about how we interact with one another. “Are all people truly equal?” “Should I treat others with dignity and respect?” “What does it mean to be a good person?” These are religious questions, ones that various figures have attempted to answer throughout history. They are also questions that radically change the way you view the world and how you interact with those around you.
The way that you answer religious questions invariably affects the way you answer political questions. If you believe that all humans are equal because they are declared so by a supreme being and made in that being’s image, for example, then you will rightly reject the notion that discriminating against others is acceptable, as Americans did in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Slavery only survived as long as it did in the western world, to name another case, because so many people believed that owning other human beings was consistent with their religious principles. It was only when people began to reject that belief, alongside other factors, that abolition movements began to gain traction. Briefly stated, major political change is often preceded by changes in religious sentiment.
You cannot separate the influence of religious thought from political inclination. Reasonable people hold the political positions they do precisely because they are consistent with their religious and philosophical convictions and that is a good thing. No good thing ensues from people not thinking through what they believe and why, and politics is no exception. So no, you should not keep your religion out of politics, quite the opposite in fact. If you don’t bring your religion (or your philosophy if you are irreligious) to politics, then how can you make an informed decision? You can’t, and that’s why I titled this essay as I did. Saying “keep your religion out of politics” only makes sense if you haven’t really thought about what politics and religion are and how they overlap.
Addressing a Challenge
If you read the screenshot above, you’ll notice a challenge was issued therein: give one “non-religious” reason for being against same-sex marriage, stem cell research, or safe abortions. A part of me is tempted to say, “Well, that’s impossible,” with a snark grin, but I won’t, because I know what this person actually meant. He or she isn’t asking you to abandon rationality, though that’s what would be required if one were to act in a way consistent with the word choice here. Really, he or she is asking for a reason that doesn’t involve quoting a Bible passage. The expectation, of course, is that no one can accomplish such a Herculean task. The problem is that it’s actually pretty easy to do. So here they are: 3 “non-religious” arguments. Bear in mind these aren’t necessarily my positions, these are just arguments that are out there. I’ll state them briefly so you can finish reading this before you die of old age.
1. Same-sex marriage: Same-sex marriage should not be legalized because it is not the role of government to validate or regulate sexual preference or choice of domestic partnership between able-bodied/minded and consenting adults. Such decisions should be at the sole discretion of the individuals involved and governments should abandon any attempts to involve themselves in who people choose to live and conduct their lives with. Alternatively: The heteronormative nuclear family is the basis for all of civilization and provides the most basic and elementary environment for interacting with other human beings, as well as being the foundation for functioning communities, historically speaking. Legalizing same-sex marriage offers no such benefit to society, as it only validates a sexual preference and affords same-sex couples the same privileges heteronormative couples have, which are, legally speaking, only cordoned off from same-sex couples as a result of government interference with the concept of marriage. As such, nothing would be accomplished by legalizing same-sex marriage that could not be accomplished by removing governmental underpinnings from marriage.
2. Stem cell research: Most opposition to stem-cell research is not actually opposition to the research itself but to the methods used to acquire stem-cells to work with. Usually, embryos are destroyed in order to gather stem cells. The issue here is twofold. Firstly, some hold the conviction, apart from religious dogma, that embryos should be considered living things and as such, their destruction constitutes killing a living thing. Secondly, it is unnecessary to destroy embryos to gather stem cells. Normal cells can be reverted back to stem cells and stem cells can be gathered from the umbilical cords of recently delivered infants. The issue then is one of why embryos must be destroyed if they don’t have to be.
3. Safe abortions: Even the safest abortions result in the destruction of a zygote, embryo, or fetus. While belief that life begins at conception is predominantly held by religious persons, a non-religious argument can be made as well, hinged mainly on one scientific fact and a series of logical inferences and deductions. The fact is that regardless of the stage of development, the entity in a woman’s uterus is a Homo sapiens by sheer virtue of the fact that it can’t be any other species in a female Homo sapiens’ womb: we as a species aren’t sexually compatible with any other extant species and two members of a species cannot reproduce and create a member of another species. The inference then is that because the zygote/embryo/fetus is Homo sapiens, then it ought to be considered a human being with the right to life. This is because it is the most consistent position to assume that human status begins at conception and because, obviously, all humans have the right to life.
At Long Last, a Conclusion
Whether you agree or disagree with any of these arguments is not the point here. The point is that you can make an argument against any of these things without an overt religious reference. That does not matter, however, because it is foolish of anyone to demand a separation between politics and religion. The two are in constant dialogue and indeed must be so for the sake of rational discourse. With that said, the attentive reader will notice that there’s one point I didn’t discuss and that would be the general disdain many people have for religion, as well as the assumption that religious people are less intelligent. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, this is already a novel and secondly, I’d like to tackle that point by itself in the future. In the meantime, dear reader, don’t separate your religion from your politics. Instead, saturate your political beliefs with thinking based on your deeply held convictions. Let your beliefs about the way the world works and the way things are supposed to work inform how you navigate the political sphere. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why believe something if that belief doesn’t affect you in any way?
Soli Deo Gloria!