Regarding Religion's Role in Government

By Rev. John-Brian Paprock, Coordinator, Madison Area Interfaith Network

(A response to Wisconsin State Journal editorials & letters, 1/24 & 1/31/99)

In a country where religious freedom is a founding principle, it seems strange to read letters and opinions of people with religious conviction seem so against one of our most cherished freedoms. But are they? It also seems strange to see Atheists use this opportunity for religion bashing, when it is the same religious freedom that gives them the right to be Atheists. It would be tremendously simplistic, and perhaps even harmful, to suggest that this is a debate between Atheists and Christians alone. If it is, it should not be. These are core issues that confront people of diverse belief systems everyday.

As entertaining as extreme views are, they do not represent the majority for whom belief (or non-belief) is personal, intimate and part of their way of life. In fact, those concerned should understand that religion does not happen in a vacuum. It is, more often than not, integrated into an individual's value system and deeply impacts that individual's way of interacting in society. In our society, this includes voting for laws and lawmakers and influencing public policy. Separation of Church and State is important, but the State cannot be a "religious-free zone" either. In fact the "separation of Church and State" was designed to protect religious minorities. To legislate "religious free zones" goes against the core of religious freedom and freedom of belief. If there are places in our society that do not allow for this freedom, then we are moving away from being a free society. Being intimately involved with the tremendous diversity of spiritual and religious beliefs in our area, I can say that religious persecution and intolerance permeates our society. There are inequalities. To clarify this point, allow me to ask a few questions: What are acceptable religious and spiritual beliefs? When and where are they acceptable? Now, take a moment to answer the same questions for those in society that do not believe what you believe. Can you see the discrepancies?

Perhaps, since religious freedom is a personal freedom and right, defended since the founding of the United States, it ought to remain personal. When it does cross into the domain of public debate, I believe it would be wise and prudent to remember some key ideas:

  1. Not every religious or spiritually oriented person is Christian. Many religious and ethnically diverse groups have been persecuted and have sought refuge in our free country. In our area, somewhere around 25% of the population is affiliated with a religious/spiritual group that is not Christian.
  2. There were indigenous people on our continent that had a cooperative confederacy that much of the United States' founding idea was based upon. These are universal ideas, acceptable to those with diverse religious beliefs, like the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. The original colonies, as a whole, were very diverse in beliefs: from liberal Quakers and Unitarians to conservative Puritans and Roman Catholics. Indigenous beliefs from Europe and Africa were also part of that original United States. And, yes, there were Atheists as well. Christians can claim these founding principles as much as those of any other belief system.
  3. Not everyone, even within their own faith tradition, understands, or even accepts, the Truths espoused by various religious and spiritual groups. This includes the reality that hypocrisy is all too easily pointed out. It seems to me that if the energy of debate were put into practicing the universal teachings of love and compassion, there would be greater understanding of those that believe differently.
  4. One Christian does not and cannot speak for all Christians. Although much progress has been done in the area of ecumenical activities, there are still thousands of denominations with various degrees of similarity of belief and structure. Similarly, one Atheist does not speak for all Atheists.
  5. Agreeing with someone on one particular point (or even many points) does not mean conversion. Sometimes it seems the debate is more around trying to prove that one side has not converted, rather than on the issue at hand. It is all right to agree with your enemy (or so I'm told).
  6. At the same time, not agreeing with someone does not make that person your enemy, an agent of the devil or a religious fanatic. Raising issues that need to be examined is often an attribute of friendship, whether or not they are well received.

The debate about religion's role in government has been interesting and well deserved. It should always be a topic in the public square, because of the intimate connection between what we believe and the policies we support.