Keep Religious Views Out of Politics! (Unless I Agree With Them!)

"Religion" and "politics" are two such special words, aren't they? As soon as one of these words turns up at a party, muscles begin to clench, fears are aroused, and broad feelings of discomfort flood those present. Why? Because they matter and people really disagree on them. If I know one singular fact about the chronically-unclear rules of dating etiquette, it's that neither of these topics are to be mentioned on a first date (to which I reply, "where's the fun in dating??").

What could be worse than one of these words at a party?

Both of them.



Trust me. Bringing up the role of religion in politics has been an unsuccessful party trick for me. If you share my cultural milieu, then the knee-jerk reaction is quick and clear:

  • Religion has no place in politics.
  • You must not enforce religiously-originated requirements on the diverse public.
  • Separation of church (or, say, mosque, temple, or synagogue) and state is a fundamental tenet of freedom in America and other democratic nations.

But, I think our society more truly revealed itself when the Pope came to visit last year. We simultaneously had both liberals and conservatives rushing to claim the Pope as one of their own, while quickly dismissing anything they disagreed with under the premise that "religion should keep out of politics."


As soon as the Pope started talking about climate change, conservatives (such as Sen Rubio and Gov. Bush) who often see the Vatican as an ally in their pursuit of 'traditional values', politely told the Pope to keep out of politics, and to focus on more papal pursuits. Liberals, who have made a habit of demanding people and popes alike to keep their religious views out of public legal matters of marriage, abortion and the like, suddenly welcomed this Pope who wanted action on poverty and the environment.

Similarly, when -- for a brief moment -- the internet world thought that the Pope has lent his pontifical support to Kim Davis and her pursuit of her "religious freedom," there was a predictable role reversal. Liberals immediately protested the influence of a religious leader in public debate. Conservative commentators were quick to boast about the support the Pope gave to their cause.

These examples are representative of most people's approach to religion in politics most of the time. It's quite pragmatic, and not very principled. I don't believe people when they say 'religion should keep out of politics' anymore. Instead I've developed a simple formula for how most people seem to think:

  • When religious views agree with my politics, then they should be involved in politics -- it's about time religion actually did something meaningful for society!
  • When religious views disagree with my politics, then they should keep out of politics -- it's not their place to go pushing their religious convictions onto others!

Given that it seems that religion is here to stay, we should probably work on finding more sensible ways to deal with it in our public discourse.