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Faith and the public sphere

This is a page from the original version of Pagan Vigil. There are some formatting differences. Originally published at

Does religion really define public morality? Should government control religion?

I'm a big believer in the separation of church and state. One of the reasons I started this blog was to show people that you can be a "person of faith" interested in politics and history without being a member of any of the "Big Three" monotheisms.

The way I see it, faith and religion are personal matters while politics is public. If you choose to study the Bible and try to live your life according to what you believe is demanded of you, more power to you. If you try to force others to live by those same rules, we have a problem. More specifically, you have a problem because it WILL backfire.

That's where I bring out the classic parity test. There is no reason I should live under the rules of your religion if you are not willing to live under the rules of mine.

You choose your religion and how you honor that faith. I shouldn't have anything to do with it, just as you shouldn't have anything to do with mine. Faith is an individual journey that no one else can make for you.

That is why mixing religion and government is a Really Bad Idea™. You can't do it without compromising both.

Let's look at the most accepted American example, tax exemption for religion and non-profit foundations. In order to keep their tax exempt status, churches and faith groups have to sacrifice their freedom of speech. It doesn't seem like that big of a price to pay and it's accepted as part of the "American way." In fact, it's pretty much a given that your church isn't a "real" church unless it is exempt under 501(c)(3) of the Federal tax code.

But think about this another way. Under US law, the Internal Revenue Service has authority to decide what is and is not an acceptable religion and what is and is not acceptable activity for that religion.

Some compromise, huh?

The so-called Faith Based Initiative makes it worse. Because a designated faith group receives Federal funding, they have to adhere to Federal hiring and personnel standards, even if those standards violate the rules of the faith. It's the old velvet chain routine, the more special protections and privileges granted to a group, the more the FedGovs control the group.

It's no secret that government strives to control religion. Traditionally, some of the strongest critics of American government have come from faith groups. Sometimes a person who has earned moral authority through their leadership in faith group applies that authority to a wider sphere.

Even as a Pagan, I am more likely to listen to a priest, minister, rabbi or imam who's active in the community. I'll definitely pay more attention to them than I would the average politico. Just because I will listen doesn't mean I will submit to their beliefs.

Religion can't be allowed the coercive power of government, government can't be allowed the moral justification of religion.

Honoring your faith is admirable. Demanding that I honor your faith is despicable. That's why we need to find things we share rather than using faith to define the morality of our society. We can agree to outlaw theft and vandalism, we can't agree on marriage. We can agree that people shouldn't drive under the influence, we can't agree to ban all intoxicants. We can agree that people should be free to make their own choices, we can't agree which choices should be eliminated.

If your enlightenment demands that I sacrifice, you missed the point.

Posted: Sat - July 28, 2007 at 01:09 PM

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