Does religion have no place in policymaking?
Posted on April 19, 2017
In Oklahoma, state legislators are debating a bill that would make it illegal for women to have abortions if they are seeking the procedure solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or other genetic abnormalities.
In defense of the bill he authored, state Rep. George Faught said that even in instances of pregnancy by rape or incest, “God can bring beauty out of ashes.”
In an opinion article for the Oklahoma Daily, Taitum Wilson rightfully condemns Rep. Faught’s heartless religious rationalization:
“When politicians use ideas of religion as an argument for or against legislation, it is ignoring the concept of separation between church and state. Religious freedom is one of the most basic principles the United States was founded upon, but religious freedom is not simply the freedom to be a Christian — it is the freedom to practice any religion or no religion at all, and our representatives should illustrate that in their debates and policy-making.
While all people indeed have a right to their beliefs and to interpret the Bible however they see fit, these beliefs and interpretations have no place in American politics. Religion has a time and a place, and it is certainly not in the governing of the United States.”
This is a common argument, one which I spent an entire master’s thesis deconstructing. I was moved to write on the subject after hearing this statement by U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, regarding an abortion measure being considered in Congress in 2009:
“It further places the religious views, mind you, of some into our public policy again. We’re a democracy, we’re not a theocracy.”
This is an appealing line of argument, but I’ve noticed it is rarely applied in a consistent fashion. Liberals who argue conservative religious views have no place in policymaking usually do not object to the use of liberal religious views to counter conservative ones or to achieve other policy goals. In fact, they often welcome and encourage it. Consider an email I received earlier this week from a liberal religious advocacy organization:
Religiosity does not inherently translate into conservative political ideology. While it is true, that many religious conservatives see their political ideology as originating directly from scripture, the same can hold true for progressives who do not feel that scripture and progressive political values are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, many progressive individuals believe that religious themes like social justice, peace, and mercy provide a framework for social action, and as such, it is their religious duty to advocate for causes such as immigration, healthcare, and social welfare.
So what is it? Do liberals simply think particular religious beliefs have no role in policymaking? Are they inconsistent in their application of a core principle?
Some liberals might reply that when Rep. George Faught said even in instances of pregnancy by rape or incest, “God can bring beauty out of ashes,” he was making a very specific religious statement to justify a very specific policy. Liberal interpretations of religion, on the other hand, tend to be more universal in the nature.
Yet it’s hard to prove this difference truly exists, at least so cleanly. On a daily basis I see countless examples of liberal religious organizations and individuals advancing specific policy goals through references to their religious faith. Their universal interpretations often lead directly to specific policy prescriptions.
Still, there may be a way reconcile this apparent inconsistency. Consider the following logic:
- Religion has no place in public policy.
- However, religion is often used as the basis for public policy initiatives.
- Therefore, it is acceptable to use religion to oppose sectarian public policy initiatives that would injure others.
- But, in the long run, policymaking should be secularized.
Sound good? Well, problems remain.
First, liberal religious organizations do not simply oppose initiatives; as mentioned, they also advance their own. So, this approach would require something of liberal organizations they may not be willing to accept. And why should they? Second, and perhaps more importantly, by allowing the employment of religion for policy ends they prefer, liberals may in the process extend the very system of religious-based policy that they seek to destroy. When exactly will we know policymaking is fit for the removal of religion all together? Or will liberal religious believers simply crowd out conservative religious beliefs in favor of liberal ones?
In the end, there are really two options: we demand that, in policymaking, all religious believers translate their religious concerns into secular reasons that can be understood and analyzed by all; or we simply accept and address the beliefs and reasons that people provide, whether they are religious or not.
Whichever you choose, this much is clear: we cannot create a coherent and fair system of policy discourse when certain religious reasons are permitted, and others are not.