Posted August 2, 2007
Religion in the Public Arena
The Vital Role of Spiritual Values
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JULY 29, 2007 - The intersection between religion and politics continues to provide ample cause for debate, with contentious issues in the areas of bioethics, family policy and social justice. While some insist that religion should have no place in politics, a book published last year proposed that a pluralistic democratic society is in need of faith and religious arguments in public debate.
Brendan Sweetman explained his position in "Why Politics Needs Religion: The Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square" (InterVarsity Press). Sweetman, a professor of philosophy at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, is convinced that attempts to remove religion from politics are based on a misunderstanding of modern pluralism.
Sweetman starts with an explanation of what he terms "worldviews" that underpin our concept of reality, the nature of human persons, and moral and political values. A wide variety of these worldviews exist, some of them purely secular, others that are based on religion.
Proponents of secularism, the book explains, wish to exclude worldviews founded on religion because they are supposedly based on sources that are not reliable or are irrational. In a pluralistic society is it not sustainable, according to secularists, to introduce religious arguments because this is imposing elements of a religion on others who do not share these beliefs.
Sweetman quickly points out, however, such a position ignores the substantial part that reason plays in religion. Sweetman, who early on in the book declares his Catholic faith, cites the example of Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Evangelium Vitae," which contained a lengthy explanation on rational grounds for opposing abortion.
"The secularist conveniently ignores the issue of the rationality of religious belief, or superficially denies that religious belief can be rational, or fails to compare the rationality of religious belief with that of secularist beliefs," Sweetman argues.
It is time, he proposes, that we move away from the view that religion is somehow a synonym for irrational. The religious view of the world in general, Sweetman maintains, has nothing to fear from rational scrutiny.
The book also maintains that religion should not be considered as some kind of threat to democracy; on the contrary it can make a valuable contribution to public debates. For a society to be truly democratic it should take into account the worldviews of its members and allow them to participate by adding their voice, it says.
Religion can also make a valuable contribution to discussions on human rights, political values and the concept we have of the human person, Sweetman adds.
He admits that religions do not always live up to the beliefs they proclaim, and that there is often disagreement among religions on moral, social and political matters. Moreover, not all elements of religion are suitable in terms of providing guidance for public policy, and Sweetman also explains that he is not claiming that all religious beliefs are rational.
The religious worldview does, however, have a valid contribution to make and it deserves a hearing. In fact, suppressing a religious worldview without any chance of a public debate being held on the arguments it proposes is a violation of democratic principles.
One objection raised by secularists, Sweetman notes, is the argument that religion introduces division and dogmatism, or even violence, into the political arena. It is true that religion can divide, Sweetman admits, but this is equally true of purely secular-founded arguments. The 20th century provides abundant examples of excesses committed in the name of secular ideologies.
Catholics in action
A series of recommendations over religion's role in politics came last year in the form of a question-and-answer booklet authored by the Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona. In his pamphlet, "Catholics in the Public Square," published by Basilica Press, he recommends the faithful to be respectful of the beliefs of others, or of those who have no faith.
At the same time, however, "Catholics should not be afraid to embrace their identity or to put their faith into practice in public life."
The Church, Bishop Olmsted continues, does not seek to impose its doctrine on others. It is, nevertheless, legitimately concerned about the common good, the promotion of justice and the welfare of society.
There is, unfortunately, he observes, discrimination against people of faith, and especially Catholics when they express their views in public debates. Not only is there misrepresentation of what Catholic view are, but there is also outright hostility to people of any faith.
"Nonetheless, it is our duty to engage the culture, not run from it," Bishop Olmsted comments. People of faith, like others, have every right to bring their views and beliefs into public.
Another recent contribution to the theme of religion's role in politics came from Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl. On April 13 he spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
In recent years there has been a weakening of support in public opinion for the role of basic religious values as a support for laws and public policy, the archbishop commented. Instead of values that are common to many faiths there are increasing calls for purely secular justifications of governmental policy.
Archbishop Wuerl argued that this tendency is contrary to the prevailing views of America's founders. There is one common principle in the American political experience, he maintained: "The belief in the binding character of moral law is fundamental to any understanding of American thought."
Catholic thought is in agreement, the archbishop continued. He noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the importance of the natural moral law and how the commandments are privileged expressions of the natural law.
"Religious faith has played and continues to play a significant role in promoting social justice issues as it does in defending all innocent human life," the archbishop explained. Faith, he added, helps us to see our life and to judge right and wrong according to God's wisdom.
Moreover, Archbishop Wuerl emphasized, attempting to separate morality and political life, or spiritual values from human values, is "a schizophrenic approach to life," that only brings "devastation to the person and to society."
"The secular model is not sufficient to sustain a true reflection on human action capable of giving guidance that is faithful to a life-giving understanding of human nature," he concluded.
That argument is also frequently made by Benedict XVI. One of his most recent interventions on the need for faith and moral values in politics and society came in his July 5 speech to a group of bishops from the Dominican Republic, in Rome for their five-yearly visit.
It is the role of laypeople to work and act directly in constructing the temporal order, the Pope noted. Nevertheless, they need to be guided in this by the light of the Gospel and Christian love.
Christians who are active on the public sphere should, the Pontiff recommended, give public testimony to their faith and not live two parallel lives: one which is spiritual; and another which is secular, dedicated to their participation in social, political and cultural activities.
Instead, the Pope urged, they should strive for coherence between their lives and their faith, thus providing an eloquent testimony of the truth of the Christian message. A coherence only too often lacking among many active in public life.