The notion that there is a "wall of separation" between church and state is either in serious danger or increasingly destructive of religious freedom, if we listen to the loudest voices in recent months. Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, is seen either as a symbol of the wrongful intrusion of religious beliefs into civic duties or as a martyr at the hands of a godless government. Both points of view are argued so vehemently that there seems no middle ground - and we forget that religion can actually, in reasonable hands, play a constructive role in political life. It is a role that all sides on the church-state divide should welcome - and judiciously manage.
Religion and politics share a joint interest - fostering healthy people, families, and communities. Religion in politics thus has at least two roles. It can offer ideas about the appropriateness of specific policies in promoting the common good, and it can strengthen the role of religious values in political discourse - and thus comity in our constitutional system. To play these roles well, people of faith - and most especially political candidates who claim that faith guides them - need to keep in mind not only their rights but their responsibilities.
No matter the subject - abortion, stem cell and fetal tissue research, or the right-to-die, to cite just a few examples - the views of people based on their religious beliefs can add viewpoints to the full conversation we need on matters of civic concern, just as can the views of those who approach these issues from other points of reference. If we were thankful in the 1960s, when religion played a powerful role in the struggle for civil rights, we should not deny its place in the twenty-first century struggle over how to balance the right to life and the right to choose. At the same time, if one cheers the insertion of religion into debates about government's impact on family life, one should welcome the voice of those whose beliefs use an expanded definition of family, marriage and what constitutes a loving relationship that deserves the sanction of the state. On whatever side you sit on the fault lines of these issues, you have the dual obligation to exercise your voice and respectfully listen.
Since religious expression in political discourse is a right, adhering to religious values in that expression should be a responsibility. When religious viewpoints are pressed without regard to such values, people of faith act as if political ends justify any means - the antithesis of a faith-driven life.
Truth in political positions is one obvious requirement. The Ninth Commandment prohibits "false witness," a standard that should be applied to all forms of political speech. Whether in debates, dialogue, or political advertising, willful ignorance or manipulation of information and facts in service to religion cannot be defended on religious grounds.
Forgiveness, which implies a willingness to lay past judgments aside, is another, especially in today's political climate, overripe with blame: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged . . . Forgive, and you will be forgiven" (Luke 6:37). There is too much celebration of religious correctness and too little magnanimity in political discourse today. The religious person who casts stones and cannot find any redeeming value in opponents mistakes the message of faith.
Compassion and empathy not enmity, love not hate, are maxims also enjoined in religious teachings. The Golden Rule is endemic to all faiths, and the admonition that "Thou salt love they neighbor as thyself" to many. As Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to live up to that standard, he understood that he had to love segregationists as human beings, "because God loves them." His language, as a result, was one of brotherhood not hatred, whose byproduct can be violence in the hands of extremists, who are quick to claim the mantle of religion for their acts.
Some may find in these sentiments a hoped-for rebuke of the excesses of religious speech in modern political life. Sadly, there are examples of such excess. The recent cheers and standing ovation at the Values Voter Summit of the Family Research Council upon the announcement that John Boehner would resign from his role as Speaker of the House and from Congress itself was certainly not a demonstration of compassion, forgiveness, empathy, or brotherly love.
But those pleased with this rebuke should understand that every argument directed at people of faith is directed equally at them. Honesty is a moral value, not just a biblical injunction. Forgiveness towards people of faith with whom one disagrees is also an expectation of a secular life. The plea for loving one's fellows does not depend on religious citations, as humanists have for so long maintained. Compassion is dictated by the ethos of any well-lived life, not only a religious one.
If religion teaches nothing else, it should remind us of the need to be humble in the face of all we do not know and cannot understand. If secularism teaches us nothing else, it is that toleration of other views is essential in the face of the inevitable weakness of human reason. Politics and religion can co-exist, if we can remember these lessons.