Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A viewpoint on the role of religion in politics

(by Wendy Doniger, Professor the History of Religions, U. of Chicago's Divinity School, as posted on Newsweek and Wash Post)

The Great Pumpkin Goes to Washington

I don’t care a fig about our next president’s personal religious views. The candidate can worship the Great Pumpkin, for all I care, as long as he or she doesn’t assume that the rest of us do too, and that the Great Pumpkin told him to do things such as, to take a case at random, invade Iraq.

But I certainly want to know what any presidential candidate thinks government should and should not do to protect freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The candidate may be a person of deep faith or a godless atheist, but what matters to me is the candidate’s willingness, and ability, to ensure that the law protects the rights of other people to have their own deep faith or godless atheism, and keep them from messing with one another.

I pledge allegiance to the first amendment, which I interpret to mean that government shouldn’t traffic with religion—neither promote it nor persecute it—and this means that, in the public arena, the candidate should not use religious rhetoric, which does nothing but harm, fogging over the clear lines of argument on the issues and eliciting irrelevant and irrational choices in the electorate.

As someone once said of objectivity in science, just because we cannot produce a perfectly sterile environment is no reason to perform surgery in a sewer. In the context of the presidential elections, this would mean that the candidates should debate the issues entirely on their own merits, not with reference to whatever religious (or other) feelings or beliefs may have brought them to their conclusions.

Of course religious (or non-religious) beliefs will play an important part in their judgments about such matters as abortion and euthanasia and stem cell research and the rights of homosexuals to marry, and a less obvious part in judgments about poverty, war, justice, and even about health care, the homeless, and global warming. But those judgments must stand, and be judged, on their own merits, regardless of what beliefs underlie them.

I don’t care how they got to where they stand; I care about where they stand.

This is what I think should happen. What will actually happen is, alas, just the opposite. But let’s try to keep the surgery as far out of the sewer as we can manage.

No comments: