Fri, 22 Sep 2000

U.S.: Religion in the public square

By Doug Bandow

SEOUL: The American left has always had a simple view of religious people and politics. If they are liberal, welcome. If they aren't, be gone. So it seems to be with Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

People of faith have played a critical role in U.S. politics since the nation's founding. Even in our more secular age people of faith, Christians, Jews, and others, have played a leading role in such political crusades as the civil rights and anti- Vietnam War movements. In these, leftwing politicians and journalists laid out a red carpet.

But in the 1970s religious conservatives - fundamentalists and Southern Baptists, for instance - began to enter the political realm. And they wanted, gasp!, to protect the unborn, teach moral values in school and protect their families from Washington social engineers. For the left, this was beyond the pale: Religion obviously had no place in public life.

Now, however, a Sabbath-observant Jew is running for Vice President as a Democrat. His running mate, Al Gore, declares himself to be a born-again Christian who often asks himself "What would Jesus do?" Never mind what Jesus would do. What should a good liberal do? Nothing, it turns out. The religious rhetoric might be embarrassing. But Gore and Lieberman are reliably leftish in their politics. So most liberals accept what would otherwise be seen as ostentatious religiosity.

Nevertheless, the Lieberman candidacy, win or lose, will make it harder for the usual suspects to criticize religious conservatives. Past GOP-Christian connections seems less exceptional after the Lieberman candidacy.

In fact, it is entirely proper for religious people to be involved in politics. The humanist has no more claim than the Christian or Jew to be heard.

But just as secularists should accept the participation of religious believers, the latter need to recognize that the public square is a public place. Government is a civil institution, charged with enforcement of civil, not ecclesiastical, law.

It is intended to serve everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike. Religious-based moral principles belong in the public square, but the state is not a vehicle for advancing any particular faith.

Thus, fulfillment of most the president's duties, from managing nuclear weapons to setting budget policy, requires more intelligent analysis and political competence than religious faith.

Just as Martin Luther said he preferred to be governed by a smart Turk than a stupid Christian, so should Americans prefer a faithless president able to maintain peace and prosperity than a faithful president liable to lead the nation to disaster.

This doesn't mean that moral character isn't important. But the starting point for choosing a public official should be public competence.

Moreover, Christian moral theology, at least, is not particularly helpful in constructing public policy. There is no scripturally-mandated political agenda.

Some religious concerns are appropriately matters of government concern. Abortion, for instance, involves another human life. But most issues are questions of prudence, not theology, presumably one reason James instructed his readers to ask for wisdom from God, "who gives generously to all without finding fault." (James 1: 5) Control of sin simply because it is sin is not a proper state function. The ancient Hebrew covenant nation bears no resemblance to today's flamboyantly secular state; the early Christian church showed little interest in enlisting government authority on its behalf.

To the contrary, the Apostle Paul instructed his Corinthian readers that while they were "not to associate" with the immoral who called themselves believers, they were to leave alone nonmembers. "God will judge those outside," he wrote. (1 Cor. 5:12-3) The writer is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to U.S. president Ronald Reagan. - Ed.

-- The Korea Herald / Asia News Network