Questions for Atheists: Church, State and Social Justice

Mike Clawson here…

So some of you know that I am currently back in graduate school working towards a PhD in Religious History. This affords me lots of opportunity to read fascinating books and contemplate interesting ideas, unfortunately it doesn’t often afford me much time to actually write about any of them, either here or at my own blog. However, the other day I was reading about the history of Methodism in America and came across an interesting paragraph that made me wonder about a few things that I really wanted to run by you all here. Speaking of the struggles over slavery among Methodists in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Norwood writes:

“In slavery we have a clear case of the unavoidable mingling of church history and economic history. Try as they would to stay out of secular affairs, churchmen were caught up in events. Slavery, slave revolts, and the underground railroad pressed in upon the church as powerfully as upon business and finance. Churchmen might claim to stay out of politics – but they could not.”

Let me first just say that I very much support the separation of church and state. I don’t want any government dictating to people what they have to believe, nor do I want any religious groups trying to legislate their own morality on others. I am especially angered and embarrassed by the political agenda and actions of the Religious Right who are explicit about their desire to “take back America for God.” On this issue, I stand united with the atheists here for the continued separation of church and state.

However, Norwood’s account of the abolitionist movement among Methodists 150+ years ago reminded me once again that sometimes things are not quite so cut and dried. You see, while I support the separation of church and state, I also strongly support numerous other social justice causes – e.g. racial reconciliation, the abolition of modern slavery, fair wages and fair trade, environmental protection, active international peacemaking, Third World debt reduction, immigration rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights, etc. – and actively encourage other Christians and churches to do the same, not just as an add-on to their faith, but as an essential component of it. According to my own personal understanding of Christianity, these sorts of things are inseparable from the meaning of the gospel. However, these issues are also inherently “political”. I can’t get involved in these issues without stepping onto the turf of “the State”.

Now of course I can do this as an individual citizen with no problem, but what about as a pastor? (I no longer lead a church community, but I did for three years, and often faced this dilemma.) Am I crossing a line by encouraging my members to actively engage with these issues? Should a church community take up a social cause, abolishing modern slavery or supporting GLBT rights for example, that directly involves influencing the legislative process? Is that blurring the line between church and state too much?

Also, does it make a difference to you that my faith leads me to support “liberal” or “progressive” social causes, versus “conservative” ones? I mean, I’m still attempting to “impose my own religious morality” on society – it just so happens that my particular religious morality leads me, for instance, to support rights for GLBT folks rather than restrict them. But should that make a difference? Does the “wall of separation” only protect us from religious opinions we don’t happen to like?

And before any of you answer too quickly in favor of the church staying completely out of politics regardless of the issue, stop and consider the historical examples. Do we tend to applaud and affirm the numerous churches who just stood on the sidelines of the slavery issue and refused to take a stand way back then? Or fast-forward to the Civil Rights era – would most of us have preferred that Martin Luther King Jr. had just kept his mouth shut, since, after all, he was speaking and acting as a religious leader out of a religious motivation (don’t forget that the organization he founded was called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)? Do we tend to look favorably on the many, many other church leaders who just stood by in that fight and refused to stand with MLK because he was just “too political”? Was it okay for them to avoid speaking out for justice by hiding behind “separation of church and state”?

Or to take an even more extreme example, what about Nazi Germany? I am currently taking a class on the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was among a handful of clergymen that actively took a stand against the Third Reich, and who eventually ended up being executed in a prison camp for participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Do we say that Bonhoeffer did the right thing by getting involved in “politics”, or should he have just stayed out of it, as so many other churchmen did back then? Don’t we typically condemn the church (Lutheran, Catholic, whatever) for not having the courage to speak out against Hitler and his genocide against the Jews when they had the chance? But of course, for them to do so, as Bonhoeffer did, would have required a suspension of any kind of separation of church and state.

So I guess that’s my question – in your opinion, is the separation of church and state an absolute principle, or do exceptions apply for matters of social justice? And if the latter, then where do we draw the line? How much involvement is too much, and when is it not yet nearly enough?

Again, when I was a pastor this was a question I had to deal with on a regular basis. I have my own thoughts on it, but my mind is in no way settled on the issue, so I would be very much interested to hear yours as well.

Peace…

  • http://aurorawalkingvacation.blogspot.com Paul

    Mike, the idea of separation of church and state does not require churches to stay out of politically charged events. It requires the government to be secular in nature – that is, not endorsing any one religion over any other, and not allowing any government decisions to be made based solely on religious grounds. And, it requires that churches that enjoy the benefits of tax free status do not endsorse one political party over any other, or attempt to dictate how a congregation should cast votes in an election.

    The church is free to speak on the issues, and suggest what it sees as “Christian” responses to said issues.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Thanks Paul. I am familiar with what is currently allowed legally. However, the thrust of my question had more to do with “ought” than “is”. I know what the government says is okay, but I’m interested in what you all think is okay.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I don’t think separation of church and state means that pastors should refrain from commenting about politics. More generally, I don’t think that it means that theists, including theist politicians, should somehow keep their religious beliefs from influencing their poltical activities and votes—I don’t even see how that’s possible to ask someone to do (nor am I aware of any Supreme Court rulings that interpret the 1st Amendment in such a fashion). It means that the government can’t make laws that favor one religion or set of religious beliefs over another, or religion over irreligion, and that in the end, even if laws have religious motivations, they have to have a legitimate secular purpose. But if a legislator has religious beliefs that lead him to conclude, for example, that abortion is murder, that has to affect his/her vote. I would, however, hope that religious people would consider that even if they’re virtually certain about moral belief X, it’s not necessarily appropriate or even helpful to have the government try to implement moral belief X (actually, that’s a pretty good thing for non-religious people to consider as well).

    BTW, I appreciate the point of your examples, but I feel the need to point out that the theological arguments in favor of slavery, and the support of churches for slavery and segregation, were fairly substantial as well.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    I think you are reading too much into the separation of church and state. I would not say (and I think very few would) that religious leaders should not be involved citizens. Separation of church and state means one cannot be both a part of the state and working for the church at the same time.

    That’s why we deny tax exemptions to churches whose ministers promote specific candidates for office. They can’t work for the secular government (tax exemptions being compensation for public works) and the church from the same pulpit.

    It is not a suspension of separation of church and state to stand up and say “I don’t agree with what you are doing and I will not stand by while you do it.”

    By all means be an engaged citizen. Campaign for social causes. Vote. But if you take public office, act for everyone, not just those who share your theology. That means if you are trying to pass a bill you better have a reason for it that would be persuasive for non-believers. I forget which founding father said something to that effect – probably Jefferson, he gets all the best quotes – but basically, if you can think of no other reason for a law than “it’s God’s will” then don’t pass that law. If God created the world in such a way that we could see his hand and wish to worship him, then there will be worldly justification enough without pointing to book or priest.

    If your religion requires you to alter behaviors of non-believers and believers alike, then don’t do so by the threat of force that is the law. If your religion says you should bring about an end to abortions, then create social conditions whereby nobody feels the need for one. Don’t use the government as a tool for your religion by using it to threaten earthly punishments for people who violate divine will.

    Finally, one word about MLK. You say he acted out of a religious motivation. I don’t agree. He wanted to end the disparate treatment of blacks and whites in America. There’s nothing inherently religious about that. He may have found support for his goal in his religion, and he may have found religion amenable to achieving social change, but his motivation was based on the fact that black people were suffering relative to white people.

  • Revyloution

    Mike, I think the real issue here is how the church imposes itself upon the body politic. In your case, you use your own moral compass, and a loose interpretation of the nicer parts of the New Testament to support your views. In my opinion, that isn’t using the Church to push a viewpoint. Its a viewpoint changing the Church.

    When we complain as atheists about a faith imposing itself upon government, we are universally complaining about people who use a strict interpretation of a religious text in order to limit the rights of a group of people.

    Its not a matter of ‘we like it when your with us, or we hate it when your against us’, its simply a matter of not wanting an individuals morality (no matter how its derived) to be imposed upon another person.

    As long as youre in favor of letting people determine their own morality, and keeping the government neutral, then were on the same side of the fence. Even if you do have an imaginary friend :)

  • Mike

    Hi Mike (I like that name),
    What makes your christian morality different from my atheistic morality? I propose there is none. Being a christian does not make you a moral person. Nor does being atheist make me a immoral person. When considering whether religious groups cross the line between “church and state” on issues of being better citizens in this world and caring for the well being of our fellow humans, environment and planet, the religious factor is mute.

    It’s a different matter if you are going to preach to your congregation supporting a specific political party or candidate because they/she/he is morally superior because of their/her/his religious affiliation. One, it’s not true and two, your crossing that line. There is no reason that political issues need to involve a religious flavor. All of us care about progressive or conservative issues and can discuss and support them without injecting a theist/atheist bias.

    You are to be commended for your liberal attitude toward humanistic issues. I just think you are giving religion too much credit for all the moral and good things that people strive for.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    The separation of church and state is one thing, the separation of religion and politics is another. The former is desirable in every way, the later is impossible even if desired.

    Quite simply, our values are so shaped by our worldviews, whether they be religious or irreligious. To speak of valueless politics is just irrational nonsense. We can partition our institutions, we can’t partition our values.

  • http://christyagonzalez.blogspot.com/ Christy

    Thanks for bringing up an interesting point, Mike. I will mostly reiterate what Paul said, which is that churches and pastors should not tell congregations to favor one party or candidate over another. Rather, I believe they should encourage members of the congregation to look into what each candidate’s positions on different issues are and vote the way their hearts guide them.

    I also think it is perfectly acceptable for a pastor or church leader to take a public stance on issues that are important to them as individuals and even to discuss how their faith may influence these positions. As long as church leaders encourage others to make their own decisions, and never ever tell others who to vote for, I think there is no harm in being a socially active member of society and also an active Christian, or believer of whatever faith you may be.

    This even goes for church leaders who have differing opinions than what we personally hold. After all, aren’t we atheists always saying we’d rather Christians show than tell? It is all well and good to say so, but we have to mean it. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that less progressive church leaders often tell rather than show, as in: vote for candidate X or agree with me on issue Z.

    I realize that I just rambled on unnecessarily and probably helped very little. Just wanted to put in my two cents, :) .

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I don’t care if religion motivates people to make political actions, as long as they can also make good secular justifications for those actions. By secular, I mean that it respects no particular religious preference over another. Otherwise, it’s just the majority religion imposing laws which exclusively favor themselves.

    And that’s how I view secularism. It’s not about preventing religion from ever saying anything about politics, it’s about preventing the majority (or most vocal) religion from oppressing everyone else.

  • Miko

    I’d say the key question is: does the state do a good job of addressing issues of social justice?

    I would claim that the state does an abysmal job in this area, for structural reasons that exist independently of who’s currently running things. I agree with you on every issue you list (with the exception of “active international peacemaking,” which sounds like a terrifying oxymoron to me), yet on each one I see the state as more of a hindrance than an aid. On some of them, the state is the sole hindrance.

    Unfortunately, this structure often seduces people into using the totally ineffective state-approved channels instead of direct action. (Similarly, look at how the labor movement is slowly dying under the corporatist NLRB restrictions.) If a church in the 1800′s was trying to lobby the government to end slavery; I disapprove. If the same church was ignoring what the government said the law was and running a stop on the underground railroad anyway, I approve wholeheartedly. Extending this example, note that the lobbying of the government to end slavery had, in the end, basically no effect whatsoever. The Emancipation Proclamation was (at the time) a mostly unenforceable political stunt (and which, notably, did not make slavery illegal); slavery ended because the former slaves themselves decided to end it by leaving the plantations in mass numbers. All it took was enough chaos to make the Fugitive Slave Act unenforceable (of course, the presence of armies helped somewhat).

    You say that certain issues concerning gospel inherently step on the turf of the state. The logical implication of this is that a society without a central government would lack religion as well; do you really believe this? If not, why not sidestep the whole state/church issue by exploring the decentralized and individual/societal ways by which your goals can be pursued and achieved?

  • Miko

    When we complain as atheists about a faith imposing itself upon government, we are universally complaining about people who use a strict interpretation of a religious text in order to limit the rights of a group of people.

    On the contrary, if they’re trying to limit the rights of group of people (or of individuals), I’m against it without regard to how strict their textual interpretation is.

  • Tom

    I’m happy that religious figures have come out in support of secular rights. I think some are unwilling to see that Christianity is based on some surprisingly? humanistic principles, and that it’s followers are capable of strictly secular good. The difference for some is where the motivation comes from to uphold these rights. Most here are not going to accept that religion itself is a source of good, but that instead the secular influences on religion are responsible.

    So do the religious belong in politics? It depends, just like you say. If it is the right issue and the religious principle is in line with humanistic principle (for instance don’t murder as a commandment), the religious can step into politics with their religion. But if it is not a humanistic principle, religion does not have the authority to make rules over human affairs. Supernatural rules don’t belong in the natural world.

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    Very good question, Mike.

    Here’s my take. There’s no problem discussing moral issues in church, even where those issues are also political issues, as long as it’s well understood that political action by the religious is still political and should be interpreted that way (so objections to such political action as political should not be condemned as “attacking my religion”)

    However, there’s a clear point at which I think it becomes completely out of order. If a pastor is telling you who to vote for or not to vote for – or anything even suggestive of that, it’s politics pure and simple, and such a church should immediately lose tax exempt status (as current law holds but never seems to be applied).

    People should be free to discuss what they think is right or wrong, but their political actions are political, not religious – even when informed by religion.

  • Revyloution

    Miko, you said this

    The Emancipation Proclamation was (at the time) a mostly unenforceable political stunt (and which, notably, did not make slavery illegal); slavery ended because the former slaves themselves decided to end it by leaving the plantations in mass numbers. All it took was enough chaos to make the Fugitive Slave Act unenforceable

    I couldnt disagree more. A law isnt effective because its enforceable, its effective because a majority of the populace under it agree with it. Laws, just like leaders and money, only have value when people believe in them. The Emancipation had the effect of making most people in the US assume that we shouldnt have slavery in the US.

    A tyrany can enforce limiting civil liberties through fear. Encouraging freedoms can only be created through empowerment of the populace.

  • http://rebeccas-opinions.blogspot.com Rebecca

    Personally, I think if a religious body is working on behalf of a disempowered or disenfranchised group, then its ok. Human rights and social justice are great places for religious bodies to work in.

    I disagree with religious institutions telling people and attempting to influence the government on issues regarding how people should run their lives, and influencing debates on abortion, same sex relationships or other issues that is widely at odds with modern society. Oh and taking power for power’s sake.

    When it comes down to it though, people are political creatures and telling religious people to keep out of politics or to attempt to keep their religion out of politics isn’t sane.

    I don’t think that any religious institution should tell people how to vote, to endorse a particular candidate or party (as happened in Australia in the 50s). I remember one of the last few times I went to church (some years ago) was around the time of an election. A politician had asked the parish priest to endorse him, which the priest considered immoral. He publicly stated during the service that he had been approached (did not name the politician) and that he was not endorsing any politician and that everyone was to vote with their conscience. That was a good call.

    When abortion was decriminalised in Victoria (Australia) religious groups waded in and claimed that it was the end of morality or times or something… and one later claimed that the bushfires that killed over 100 people earlier this year were punishment from God for the decriminalisation of abortion, which was widely condemned by politicians and other religious groups.

    That sort of behaviour from religious groups I consider inappropriate. However, I support some religious groups who work with the poor and disadvantaged in a secular manner (not proselytising) because that is what they are called to do. That I support.

    Its not a black and white question and so there aren’t any black and white answers. Which is the way things generally are.

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com Pinkydead

    Slavery and GLBT rights – interesting choice.

    How many of the “evils” of the world might not exist in the first place if churches had kept to themselves.

    To be honest, I don’t think slavery (in US) was caused by church interference – however, it was bouyed up by it and otherwise righteous individuals were coaxed into an apathetic acceptance of an evil situation.

    I think that GLBT rights group would be far happier if the churches’ boots were removed their neck rather than trying to influence the political system which will follow once an environment of religious tolerance pervades. Sure, you don’t support the oppressive principle but as long as you give succor to it you are complicit.

  • keddaw

    I’m still attempting to “impose my own religious morality” on society

    People should always try to convince society to follow their morality, religious or otherwise. The problem is shown by your choice of words: impose. I would like society to conform to my morality, but if I cannot convince people that my version is right where do I get the right to ‘force’ other people to conform to what I consider right?

    The real problem with religious morality is that people get the ‘right’ to force others from god. When I look at a GLBT or racial issue then whatever I may personally feel about it I cannot morally or intellectually bring myself to try and force my views onto society. When a religious person sees the same issue they immediately think that their view has to be the correct one and they have not only the right but the obligation to force their views onto society.

    So, if you want to view your human morality through a religious prism go ahead, but please ask yourself if the end result removes rights from people without adding rights to anyone else. For example, by removing the ‘right’ for gay people to get married you remove the right for healthcare etc. without protecting or adding rights to anyone else. By removing the right of black people to sit at the front of the bus you do not add or protect the rights of anyone else. Not that morality should be done on balance of rights but this seems to be a reasonable question to ask before trying to get legislation passed.

  • cathy

    King came out of a religious tradition because the culture he lived in made that far easier. There were many places in the south where it was illegal for blacks to gather in public places other than churches. The Northern led movements, like the Pullman Porter unionization or the Muslim movements which were either secular or not Christian could not have started in the south because a single group meeting of black people would have been arrested or killed (not that the northern people experienced no judicial discrimination or violence, but the north generally made it easier to meet in a group without legal sanction). A. Philip Randolph, co-organizer of the March on Washington, founder of the first nationally recognized black union, and well known civil rights activist whose followers organized the March on Washington (King attended and spoke, but did not organize) was an atheist and a socialist. Randolph, unlike King, stuck beside other organizers who were punished for being gay. So, why don’t we talk about the Randolps or the Malcolm X’s for that matter? Oh, right, because that wouldn’t play into the Christianity is the source of all good theme our society likes to put out. I’ve read King’s books and the works of abolitionists and rarely do they cite religion as the sole reason for their activity. King, in fact, makes his central arguments around inequality of life conditions, not religion. Just because some religios people did good things does not mean that they did those good things merely because they were religious.

  • TXatheist

    Mike, hope you are well, that’s a good question. I guess you are a representative of the church when you are a pastor. The UU church has a social justice group so the pastor gets invited but isn’t the originator. As hard is it may be I think as a pastor in a small church you may take the lead with a project and some may follow and others may leave but you stuck to your principles so you did your best.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    I just happen to have recently had a discussion on a Dutch blog about the relationship between religion and politics, so I have some thoughts on this.

    In my opinion, religious people and religious organizations have just as much right to weigh in on political issues as secular people and secular organizations do, even when they have religious motivations to do so.

    However, the problems start when believers don’t just have religious motivations, but also try to use religious arguments to make their case. By doing so, they force the government to take a stand on these arguments. Whether the government accepts these religious arguments, or rejects them, it can always be seen as the government endorsing one particular religious view over another.

    And I’m not even talking about trying to make religious arguments immune to criticism by claiming freedom of religion.

    Either way, when not just religious motivations, but religious arguments are brought into politics, democracy will likely suffer, as will freedom of religion.

  • Aj

    It is wrong and dangerous to use revelation as moral authority, especially in a political movement. People have a legal right to political expression, even if it’s irrational.

  • The Other Tom

    Mike,

    Ultimately what I want at the moment is for churches to obey the law. That means basically what Paul said – they should talk about politics and political issues as much as they like, but should refrain from either directly endorsing candidates or telling their members how to vote, unless they want to give up their tax free status. I also expect them to obey related laws about tax-free entities making political donations unless they want to give up their tax free status. Of course, if they do choose to give up their tax free status, I think they should feel free to say what they want about voting and donate as they please, within the bounds of the laws about political donations in general.

    I think tax-free status for churches is wrong, because I feel that is very literally congress making a law respecting an establishment of religion, and violates equal protection under the law. However, I recognize that tax-free status for churches isn’t going to go away any time soon whether I like it or not, so I instead hold my wants to the idea that tax-free status is a bargain made between society and churches in which we let them pay no taxes in exchange for the church agreeing to some political limitations, and if they want to keep their tax free status, they should be made to hold up their end of the bargain.

    The separation of church and state is part of the rule of law. This isn’t really applicable to the case of nazi germany, which you bring up, because essentially there was no rule of law – there was rule of dictator instead. As such, the best way I could describe my feeling about the situation is “all bets are off”, and I wouldn’t object to pretty much anyone doing pretty much anything toward restoring the legitimate rule of law.

    If you look at the american south in the time of Martin Luther King Jr, you’ll find that the rule of law had also broken down there: the southern states were essentially ignoring the Constitution, the highest law of our land, and using the pretense of law as a tool for violating legitimate laws, knowing full well what they were doing. So again, I have no problem with anything Dr. King might have felt it necessary to do to restore the rule of law by restoring equal protection under the law.

    I contrast that with the current situation regarding gay marriage, in which I believe the Constitution requires gay marriage be legal in order to have equal protection under the law, but I recognize that (in many cases, not all, but perhaps most) there is honest disagreement about this fact, so state and federal government agencies that are doing the wrong thing are (usually) doing so out of honest (if repugnant) error, rather than deliberately ignoring legitimate law, so I feel it vital that we gay people must continue to behave in a lawful manner as we continue to demand our Constitution-given right to equal protection under the law.

  • AxeGrrl

    Mike wrote:

    What makes your christian morality different from my atheistic morality? I propose there is none. Being a christian does not make you a moral person. Nor does being atheist make me a immoral person. When considering whether religious groups cross the line between “church and state” on issues of being better citizens in this world and caring for the well being of our fellow humans, environment and planet, the religious factor is mute.

    You are to be commended for your liberal attitude toward humanistic issues. I just think you are giving religion too much credit for all the moral and good things that people strive for.

    Very nicely said :)

  • AxeGrrl

    keddaw wrote:

    People should always try to convince society to follow their morality, religious or otherwise.

    Really?

    why?

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Miller said:

    I don’t care if religion motivates people to make political actions, as long as they can also make good secular justifications for those actions

    Recipricostity would demand that if religious people need to provide irreligious justification for their views and voting patterns, irreligious people need to provide religious justification for theirs. You gonna make that a dogmatic law? LOL. Look, anyone who wants to win over a broad cross section of the public is gonna need to be ‘multilingual’

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    The other Tom said

    I think tax-free status for churches is wrong

    As a Christian I agree, I think deals like this inevitably turn into Faustian bargains, not least for the churches.

  • Stephan

    As a Christian I have often thought about this, and my conclusion has been to put a secular test on my political views. I may believe a certain way as a Christian, but if I cannot make a non-Biblical case for that belief, then I should not push to make it public policy.

    For instance I am uncertain of the morality of same-sex marriage. But up to this point nobody has made a convincing argument as to why same-sex marriage is bad public policy, or that continuing to ban it is good public policy. As such, I believe it should legally be allowed, even if I do not necessarily believe it lines up with my Christian values.

    I think in most of the cases Mike talked about (slavery, environmental protection, peacemaking, etc.) a very strong secular case can be made for the without needed to reference Christian morality.

  • Tyro

    Churches aren’t like other social groups, they’re tax-exempt and so act like charities. We all know they are not, but this is the disguise they have to wear if they wish this privileged spot in society. While they wish to maintain this thinly crafted illusion, they must follow certain rules such as avoiding politics.

    If they do wish to engage in politics, and I have no problem with that in principle, then they should lose their tax-exempt status, simple as that. I would rather that they all lose their tax-exempt status and have to re-apply as a charity directly so that only the few churches which actually does significant charitable work rather than lining their own coffers will get this sizable boon but that’s another debate :)

  • http://camelswithhammers.com Camels With Hammers

    Forgive me for not reading the other comments first and risking redundancy if others have said what I will already.

    1. Every citizen, religious or not, should be politically informed and politically engaged. Declaring yourself a “churchman” should not exempt you from either political responsibility or opportunity.

    2. When you DO engage in political discussion, you should do so only as a citizen, not as presuming special authority due to your position as a “churchman” or a religious believer of any other kind. You should not imply to your congregation or to your fellow citizens that you believe that you have special authority to pronounce upon political matters because you have “theological expertise” or a “calling from God.” That’s tacitly introducing into public, secular debate claims to esoteric, unconfirmable authority that no human being has a right to simply assert.

    3. You are free to argue whatever case you believe in rationally and morally with the best secularly accessible reasons you can give. If your position is just, then you should have no problem making a case that needs no reference to any special book to demonstrate its justice. No claims that cannot be backed up by reasons amenable to general human reason and moral judgment which is not tied to any specific dogmatic tradition should be admissible in a public arena. If your argument depends on the resurrection of Jesus or on his being a god-man who spoke with divine authority to have persuasive force, then you do not have an argument that deserves any respect to general reason or to people who are outside your faith tradition. Positions that cannot be supported by general reason and be made amenable to the general conscience of humanity should not be imposed on human beings generally.

    Of course this language I’ve been using of “general” human reason and morality has been vague. To fill it in, read some Rawls. Imagine yourself behind a veil of ignorance which prevents you from knowing what religion you will hold to, what your conception of the good life will be, what your race, economic status, class, gender, sex, sexual orientation, etc. would be. Imagine not knowing who in society you will be and then consider what general system of distributing rights, privileges, and protections you would accept if you might wind up someone of any religion, race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. When you reason in this way, you reason as fairly and universally as we can imagine.

    When you make arguments for public policies you have to ask yourself whether they would be amenable to people behind the veil of ignorance. Do your arguments depend on people accepting the prejudices that come with your sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, class, idiosyncratic view of what the good life is? If your arguments depend on considerations which would not be acceptable across those various lines, they are not going to be good bases for policies which will affect people across those lines.

    If your understanding of your religion happens to give you positions which are ones that secular reasoning would also support then by all means advance those positions but in the public sphere use secular reasons. And if you advise your fellow religious people to vote, do so as a fellow citizen, not as a religious authority, and advise them to vote for reasons they can justify to their irreligious or differently religious neighbors.

    But don’t presume that your religion gives special credibility to proposals which lack sufficient independent moral or political justification to stand up behind the veil of ignorance. Don’t habituate people to taking religious authority as an acceptable justification for political stances. Even if your positions happen to be secularly defensible, if you encourage people to treat religious authority as the source of political justification then in the future religious reasons will be cited for indefensible positions. It is better to be consistent. Presently there are people who simultaneously cite MLK Jr.’s religious authority as a justification for explicitly religious arguments in the public sphere and then turn around and make religious arguments against gay rights.

    It was NOT the religious character of MLK Jr.’s appeals that made them just, it was their independently morally defensible character that did. And in the case of opposition to gay rights, the religious character of the arguments does not make up in the least for their lack of moral defensibility.

    So, by all means, do not shirk political responsibility for some religious calling. You are a citizen in a democracy. You are responsible for your country. But you are also responsible for separating church and state. You may defend beliefs that come from your religion as long as they have a secular justification. It does not matter where your beliefs come from, only how they are justified. But when they do not have a secular justification, do not presume to impose them on secular society. Where they do, simply explain and defend them as much as possible within secular terms.

    And when you exhort people to political justice, make your appeal on secular terms of justice, fairness, equality, human flourishing, human rights, etc. and do not legitimize the bullshit notion that being recognized as an authority by a religious tradition gives you any special authority in the public sphere beyond the intellectual and moral strength of your arguments.

  • Tim Stroud

    Mike, we should not confuse all issues that religious people have opinions on with church-state seperation issues. Civil rights is not a church-state seperation issue. GLBT rights is not a church-state seperation issue. It is true that religious people cannot help but become political. But if being political is all that is required as the definition of the violation of church-state seperation then you have painted yourself into an inescapable corner. Man is a political animal.

    Voters may or may not have a religious motivation but religious motivation is not necessarily the same as the imposition of religion when the end result does not reference religion and has shared secular reasoning. (i.e. religious motivation to outlaw murder based on the 10 Commandments vs secular motivation to outlaw murder based on secular humanists rules)

    By the same argument, don’t confuse exercise of freedom of speech with a suspension of church-state seperation. Church state seperation applies when a religion’s laws or strictly religious laws, not shared by or able to be reasoned to through a secular viewpoint, is imposed on a group of people or on a state.

    Bonhoffer’s speaking out against Hitler and his genocide of the Jews was a stand shared by secular, multi-religious and religious thinking. Also, the fact that one man’s behaviour may only be based on his strictly religious viewpoint does not mean that the end behaviour or result cannot be supported or shared by other, secular, reasoning.

    Although the means of reasoning may vastly differ, the end result is where theists and atheists must meet and become allies to influence government policy.

  • Matt

    Separating church and state does not mean that you cannot vote based on your religious convictions, but it would greatly assist any cause if your political arguments could also have a secular appeal that isn’t strictly limited to your religion and individuals that generally think like you. Separating church and state means that the government cannot favor one religious domination, which would constitute imposing the will of one faith on a nation with diversity in religion. For example, if any convincing argument could be made against abortion, “my god says it’s bad” isn’t one. Instead, there could possibly be some reasons for opposing this practice that find their basis in science or humanistic principles, which tend to be more universal and shared by a wide body of citizens.

    “Church state separation applies when a religion’s laws or strictly religious laws, not shared by or able to be reasoned to through a secular viewpoint, is imposed on a group of people or on a state.”

    This sums it up beautifully. My example would be to not simply campaign against civil rights for LGBT Americans because your religious interpretation of the Bible commands you to do so. Similarly, the government should not accept arguments like these if they do not have any compelling legal justifications.

    “And when you exhort people to political justice, make your appeal on secular terms of justice, fairness, equality, human flourishing, human rights, etc. and do not legitimize the bullshit notion that being recognized as an authority by a religious tradition gives you any special authority in the public sphere beyond the intellectual and moral strength of your arguments.”

    ^^^

    This.

    I think that religion flourishes when we respect *all* systems of faith equally, whether it’s Christianity, Buddhism, etc. You can certainly participate in politics, but imagine a situation in which all political action is justified by one religious interpretation that favors one religious group. This does not have any wide appeal in society.

    It’s tantamount to a dictator imposing his will on society strictly due to his delusion of special authority. Religious individuals should not share such a mindset, particularly in a society with a richness in personal faith and politics.

  • Eyck

    The idea of a secular state is protect people’s rights to freely practice their own religion. The framers of our Constitution understood this well. I think it’s helpful to refer to the original text: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. The way I see it, the Free Exercise Clause follows from the Establishment Clause. In other words, the framers, mindful of the persecution of minorities in England, believed that a government which associated with a given religious viewpoint would come to discriminate against others.

    You can’t reasonably ask our religious political leaders to come to decisions without considering the issue spiritually. But the idea of a secular society is that, for the sake of fairness, we divorce our moral feelings from our religious ones. I don’t care if governors or senators or presidents look to the Bible for guidance, but they cannot use their religious beliefs as justification.

    I profoundly disagree with the Religious Right because I disagree with their interpretation of Scripture and their theocratic ideals. Theocracy, respecting a specific establishment of religion, threatens my right to freely exercise my faith. I despise the hate and misinformation many of their members spew about me and others like me: both Jews and conscientious, moral nonbelievers.

    But I do not dispute their right to take stands on political issues. To do so would be abridging their right to freely exercise their faith. Religious leaders have the same rights as other citizens to voice their beliefs.

  • Mary

    I would hold a church group to the same ethical standard as I would hold an individual, a civic group or a government. Do not harm, use force against, or restrict the peaceful actions of people. If you see anyone, including the government, harming or controlling others, act to abolish such behavior. These issues are not religious or political, they are ethical.

    Freedom allows people of every religion to practice their beliefs without fear, as long as they are not harming others. I would also suggest that supporting some of the issues you mention is not the job of the government (to limit or force people to do things), but is instead best done by voluntary action. Good causes do not have to be government mandates.

  • Joshua

    Mike,
    I think one of the key ideas that the commentators have laid out is that most atheists are quite happy with the current legal doctrines as described by Paul in the first post. Your reply seems to indicate that you’re aware of the rules but you want to know what we think the rules should be. From most of the comments, I think it is apparent that most atheists think the rules should be exactly what they are now. So long as the government doesn’t endorse a religion (or religion in general – that’s maybe one point where atheists would want stricter rules), and churches are subject to the same non-politicking rules that other tax-exempt entities are, we are probably living within the exact legal structure that would of use would ideally choose.

    The examples you listed in your post are of two types: 1) religious people working within the system to advance a cause (civil rights, GLBT rights, slavery before the war) and 2) religious people working to bring down the system itself (Nazi Germany, the civil war itself). So long as I, as an atheist, would support our current government, I would have no problem with a church working within the system to bring about change, and I would oppose churches working outside the system just as I would oppose secular people doing so, like bombing abortion clinics, etc. For both secular and religious people I think acts that edge close to the line should be treated warily (civil disobedience or blocking access to clinics).

    You seem to want us to carefully consider whether we would want to exclude the church from the great causes of the past like opposing slavery or supporting civil rights, but it is not clear to me that churches could not do all that great work by working within the current legal structure.

    I guess I don’t see the validity of your final question:
    “is the separation of church and state an absolute principle, or do exceptions apply for matters of social justice? And if the latter, then where do we draw the line? How much involvement is too much, and when is it not yet nearly enough?
    I think separation is as absolute as any social/moral principle can be, but I don’t see how it keeps the church from being as involved in social justice issues as you would reasonably hope. The only thing you might want to do beyond the boundaries is endorse candidates from the pulpit and tell people what party to vote for. I think that in the long term that will do more to harm the very causes you intend to support by discrediting your church as an independent voice.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    Mr. Stone:

    Recipricostity would demand that if religious people need to provide irreligious justification for their views and voting patterns, irreligious people need to provide religious justification for theirs. You gonna make that a dogmatic law?

    That is patently ridiculous. What justification do you give for making reciprocity a requirement?
    A is a believer.
    B is not.
    A is just as affected by high taxes, bad schools, foreign threats etc. as B is.
    In other words, both are equally affected by religion-free justifications for civil action.
    The reverse is not true. B is not at all affected by A’s religion-formed justifications. B is not seeking reward of a deity or to avoid punishment.
    All we ask is that justifications be universal, not that the religious provide justifications that they themselves would not believe.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Mike asked

    Also, does it make a difference to you that my faith leads me to support “liberal” or “progressive” social causes, versus “conservative” ones? I mean, I’m still attempting to “impose my own religious morality” on society – it just so happens that my particular religious morality leads me, for instance, to support rights for GLBT folks rather than restrict them. But should that make a difference? Does the “wall of separation” only protect us from religious opinions we don’t happen to like?

    One must distinguish between the motivation to support one or another public policy position and the reasons one offers others to attempt to persuade them to adopt it. It’s a situation similar to Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification in science. It makes no difference at all where a scientific hypothesis comes from — Kekule could dream the structure of the benzene molecule. However, it makes a substantial difference how one justifies the knowledge claim to others. Kekule didn’t justify his hypothesis about the structure of the molecule by referring to his dream; he referred to observable evidence and empirically testable inferences from the proposed structure.

    Similarly, I don’t care where someone’s views on public policy came from, but I do care about how they are justified, how one argues for their adoption by the government. If one’s religious views lead one to this or that position, liberal or conservative or whatever, that’s fine, but don’t try to sell it as policy to be imposed on others on the basis of those religious views. The “wall of separation” (in the U.S. at least) implies that one has to make a case for a public policy position that is based on secular arguments, arguments from evidence and values that are independent of any particular religious view.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    A. Philip Randolph, co-organizer of the March on Washington, founder of the first nationally recognized black union, and well known civil rights activist whose followers organized the March on Washington (King attended and spoke, but did not organize) was an atheist

    I’ve been looking for this and I can’t find a reliable source. Much of what is on the internet says he was a Methodist but that his politics were secular. His magazine claimed a prayer is wishful thinking and that its value depended on what was prayed for. That’s as close to a profession of atheism as I could find and it’s not convincing to me.

  • JulietEcho

    I apologize for not reading the other comments like I usually do – busy weekend.

    A few things come to mind. For instance, if a church does want to get publicly involved in politics – if it’s very important to the members of that church – they are always free to openly relinquish their tax-exempt status. I can imagine being religious and belonging to a church willing to make such a sacrifice.

    While religious people may have religious reasons for supporting both liberal and conservative political movements/laws/politicians, the important question is: “Is there a good secular argument for _______?” If there isn’t, and the only arguments to be found are based on religion, then passing such a law would be unconstitutional. If, however, people have religious reasons for supporting things that also have strong arguments in their favor that don’t rely on religion, I don’t see a problem. The difficulty in many situations is getting religious people to recognize the distinction.

    Lastly, churches are largely free to make their own internal choices, such as allowing/denying membership, performing ceremonies for different kinds of people, etc. Churches definitely make a societal difference when they decide whether to ordain female clergy or whether to allow unapologetic gay members. They aren’t making a difference by supporting a specific law from the pulpit or by donating money to a political organization – they’re making a difference through example.

  • Matt

    I think this applies to prayer in schools that rely on public funds from all citizens, as well. Despite what some religious individuals claim, prayer is not prohibited in schools that embrace students of all backgrounds. There’s a distinction between not allowing something entirely and not making the practice mandatory.

    So long as the practice does not interfere with the educational purpose of the institution, prayer is certainly permitted. In my former school, students would pray in after-hours organizations, the hallways before class, lunchrooms, etc. However, due to the diversity of the student body and the complications that would arise (not to mention the classroom interruptions), it cannot be mandated in classrooms.

    Besides, what if one prayer involved kneeling on the ground? What if some students needed to wear religious attire during their prayer sessions? Would the atheists in the class simply have to silence themselves? How would this fit into the schedule of the school day without wasting precious time for education? Could this possibly make faith-based bullying more likely?

    As others have said, a separation of church and state is not hostile to religion. It simply encourages a neutral environment that acknowledges our diversity in belief. You could even call it a “balance of powers” to ensure that individuals of all faiths – and individuals of no faith at all – are equal under our legal system.

  • http://www.CoreyMondello.com Corey Mondello

    “Theologians Under Hitler” book and dvd show the dangers of mixing the two in ANY way.

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.

    He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.

    It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.”

    ~Thomas Jefferson, to Horatio G Spafford, March 17, 1814

    “The number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church and the State.”

    ~ James Madison a.k.a. ‘The Father of the Constitution of the United States of America

    I am always offended when people assume that when a person does not believe in a God or one religion, that they are void of “morals”.

    I ask;

    Who burns “witches” alive to this day?

    Who makes laws providing them special recognition and protections?

    Who believes they have the right to take other peoople’s money and use it for whatever they want?

    Who would rather have a child be left in foster home after foster home instead of bring adopted by a loving person or persons?

    Who protected child rapists for decades?

    Do any names come to mind?

    Catholic Church, Mormon Church, Christian Church (most of them), etc….

    The excuse of “It is just a few bad apples” does not fly when it comes to churches.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Recipricostity would demand that if religious people need to provide irreligious justification for their views and voting patterns, irreligious people need to provide religious justification for theirs.

    I disagree. And the quote you’re responding to was about “secular” justifications; I’m not quite sure what “irreligious” justification is. Would you also say the following?:

    Reciprocity would demand that if Muslims need to provide non-sharia-based justification for their views and voting patterns, non-Muslims need to provide sharia-based justifications for theirs.

    As most commentators have said, there’s nothing wrong with religious people having religious reasons for their voting patterns. But if a religious person can’t provide any reason for a law other than that their specific religious beliefs—e.g. if a Jew can’t provide a reason other than “that what the Talmud says,” or a Christian can’t provide a reason other than “that’s what God wants”—then that law is incredibly problematic from a church-state standpoint. Because then the only purpose of that law is to have the government enforce a particular religious belief. This, for example, is why the U.S. Supreme Court said in Lemon v. Kurtzman that for a law to be constitutional under the First Amendment, it had to have a secular legislative purpose. They did not then say “Oh, and also, reciprocity demands that the law also have a religious legislative purpose.” Because that would have turned the First Amendment on its head.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    . . .note that the lobbying of the government to end slavery had, in the end, basically no effect whatsoever. . . slavery ended because the former slaves themselves decided to end it by leaving the plantations in mass numbers.

    I realize that some people have an ideological need to claim that no government action ever helps with any problem, but this is frankly ridiculous. Slaves had wanted to leave the plantations in mass numbers for centuries. They were finally able to do so when the occupying federal forces ended slavery.

  • J Myers

    @AxeGrrl:

    Really?

    why?

    Perhaps keddaw’s formulation was a bit loose, but the reasoning is obvious: if you have worked out how it is that humans ought to behave, it would follow that you should encourage them to behave thus. Such encouragement itself would be a moral imperative–what use is a moral system that includes as a tenet indifference to noncompliance? Indeed, in what sense can such a construct even be called a moral system?

    Of course, there are always the questions of how precisely such a system can be specified, and whether or not one is in error; perhaps it would bet better to say something like “People should always try to convince society to follow their morality, religious or otherwise, while remaining open to the revision of the moral system they are advocating as new evidence and arguments would indicate,” but I think keddaw’s original wording is sufficiently clear for those conversing in good faith.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    @Matt Stone

    I don’t care if religion motivates people to make political actions, as long as they can also make good secular justifications for those actions

    Recipricostity would demand that if religious people need to provide irreligious justification for their views and voting patterns, irreligious people need to provide religious justification for theirs. You gonna make that a dogmatic law?

    Wrong, wrong, wrong! I do believe I said secular, not irreligious. And you conveniently left out the part where I explained that secular simply means that it favors no particular religious preference over another. That means it doesn’t favor irreligious people either, except in the sense that it levels a previously tilted playing field.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    I haven’t read the other 41 comments, so my apologies if this has already been stated. :)

    Politics and the Bible get very messy. When I was attending my Baptist school, we had a discussion over the death penalty. Everyone used the Bible to back their positions. Everyone. It’s like this on every other issue you mentioned as well: GLBT rights, slavery, etc, etc. We remember the churches that aided those through the underground railroad; we forget the ones who preached in favor of slavery. For every liberal Christian facing this dilemma, many more are on the conservative side of things. Would this have been the case during the time of slavery as well? I don’t have a history degree; I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if religion helped play a role in perpetuating slavery longer than it may have been resolved with the same good people without religion, just as it does the same today in the GLBT community despite many Christians who play a role in establishing equality.

    From a pastoral perspective, speaking as a former minister’s wife, I think one of the largest problems in the church today is pastors who don’t teach the Bible, but dictate it to their congregations. They don’t preach sermons addressing problems with the passages they teach, and assume that if they believe something, everyone else should, too. Politically, I think it is very wrong to use the pulpit as a soapbox: there is no facilitation of discussion. People either have to sit through your viewpoints, whether or not they agree or care, or leave, which is generally frowned upon. When a person whom people view as an authority figure preaches politics, his congregation often either follows mindlessly or leaves. From a Christian perspective, this is not glorifying to God: it builds rifts and isolates those who do not agree. Something to remember is that in the 17th century, churches played a community center role: people socialized, gathered news, etc. Now we have the internet, newspapers, and a myriad of political groups to do that job for the church.

    To me, a minister should play the part of a teacher, who presents the facts and let the people decide their own religious and political viewpoints.

  • Edmond

    As a gay, atheist, Washington State resident, I feel lately like I’ve been under the vise of religious oppression more than usual. This article brought to mind my own feelings of religious anathema, and my struggle with my shame of those feelings. Everything the theists say is true of me, I AM hostile to religion, I DO harbor an agenda that, bottom line, favors my interests and defeats theirs. I feel I have good reasons to feel the way I do, but my shame is, even when there ARE religious groups who DO stand up and say “We are allies with the GLBT community!”, I secretly feel like “who cares, if you’re speaking for religion then don’t help us.” I know I shouldn’t feel this way, I should welcome anyone who agrees with my message, no matter what their motivation is. So how do I deal with this?

    I have to agree with the singular message nearly everyone else has summed up above. Please DO get involved in the political process, whether you’re a religious person or not. Please DO express your opinion on all the public topics. Just DON’T say “God told me to.”

  • Pseudonym

    My rule of thumb: Issues are okay, candidates are not.

    Obviously, there can’t always be a clean separation. If one side of politics is advocating the use of torture and the other isn’t (to pick a completely unrealistic example), then commenting on the issue has the inevitable effect of promoting one side over the other.

    I guess the thing is to ask yourself what it would be okay for any other non-profit organisation to do. Can a diabetes advocacy and awareness organisation publically comment on the health care debate? So long as they stay on that topic (and anything related), that seems fine to me.

  • Pseudonym

    Edmond:

    I feel I have good reasons to feel the way I do, but my shame is, even when there ARE religious groups who DO stand up and say “We are allies with the GLBT community!”, I secretly feel like “who cares, if you’re speaking for religion then don’t help us.” I know I shouldn’t feel this way, I should welcome anyone who agrees with my message, no matter what their motivation is. So how do I deal with this?

    This is just a suggestion, but have you considered picking an organisation or two that is “on your side” and actually talking to them? Clerics generally don’t bite. Especially liberal ones.

  • Edmond

    @Pseudonym…

    I appreciate your suggestion, but no, and again to my shame, I have not picked any such organization (sorry for the Zed, we must be on opposite sides of the Pond) on my side. I know they don’t bite, neither do I. But I guess I’m immobilized by feelings of “I’m glad you think gay people deserve equality just like you, but I don’t want to hear about your god”. Feeling like this is MY shortcoming, not theirs. But I don’t know what I could LEARN in talking to them. We ALREADY agree that it’s wrong to force gay people into 2nd-class citizenship. I have no interest in how they interpret the bible to support their position. They’re just another group of people interpreting the bible their own way, to support their own beliefs. My feelings are, self-serving as they may be, the bible’s been interpreted enough. I’m tired of hearing everyone’s idea of what the creator of the universe has to say. None of them can agree on each other’s interpretations anyway. Why should I be interested in any of their opinions? Seems like it would be more productive to talk to an organization that I DON’T agree with, so there’s actually some headway that could be made, instead of “preaching to the choir”, pun intended.

    That said, Pseudonym, ARE there some specific organizations that you might suggest I talk with, that it might help make the world a better place, or at least make a better me? My mouth is full of venom for those that would credit their god for reducing the value of my life. I don’t think I have it in me to withhold that venom from those that say they value my life equally, but they still credit it to god.

    A different flavor of crazy is still crazy.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    The only thing you might want to do beyond the boundaries is endorse candidates from the pulpit and tell people what party to vote for.

    So how do you feel about church groups endorsing particular legislation? If a conservative religious group actively supports and encourages their members to vote for anti-abortion legislation, or anti-gay legislation, (and gives their members religious, not secular reasons for it) is that okay? Likewise, if my church (as an institution, not just as individuals within the church) supports legislation to forgive the debts of Third World countries, or to stop human trafficking, and tells our members to vote for it (or encourage our representatives to do so), again for religious and not simply secular reasons, is that okay too?

    (And again, by “okay”, I don’t mean what is currently legal, but what you feel is morally right.)

  • Matt

    Mike,

    Personally, I believe that the church should let its members decide for themselves. They can encourage their members to support said legislation, but they should not force them to do so simply because they belong to the institution. Churches should rely on convincing arguments, and not presumptions of special knowledge and authority.

    Ultimately, government decisions touch all of us to some extent. I don’t think that these aforementioned laws should have a narrow religious purpose. Ideally, secular laws are neutral on the matter of religion and treat all faiths with the same amount of attention. Secularism is falsely connected with a hostility to faith, but many spiritual individuals could also be proudly secular with respect to public policy.

    For the legislation, my question would be, “What are the arguments supporting it?”

    “God told me so” is not a very convincing argument if you want to appeal to a wide body of voters with religious diversity. Instead, explain why the law would benefit individuals of differing backgrounds, and not simply individuals that already think like you.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Vincent said,

    All we ask is that justifications be universal, not that the religious provide justifications that they themselves would not believe.

    Because we share different worldviews there is no universal justification.

  • Matt

    Matt Stone,

    I believe that “universal” in this context means that that the justifications are not bogged down by religious favoritism. Despite our differing worldviews, we should treat all faiths equally under the law. In this way, secular law ensures religious neutrality that is respectful to a wide variety of belief systems without being subjected to the will of one.

  • keddaw

    @ Axe Grrl & J Myers
    Thanks J, well phrased.

    If you have a view of morality then it is incumbent upon you to try to convince others that this is the right way to live, while being open to the fact that you may be wrong. Anything else is immoral (or misanthropic).

    My personal view is that it is in the best interests of society for people to be unable to force their morality onto others – actually my view is that morality is personal and subjective therefore even a generally agreed upon morality should not be forced onto everyone. The Constitution does its best to show this by not allowing any branch of government or any state religion to be able to ride roughshod over people’s rights.

    The best take on morality (that I can come up with) is to have people unable to remove, reduce or impinge upon people’s freedom unless they are harming other people or their rights. This is the view I want to convince other people to take, but I cannot force this view onto others even though I see it as benevolent. If only other people could take that view with their less than benevolent morality.

  • AxeGrrl

    J Myers wrote:

    Perhaps keddaw’s formulation was a bit loose, but the reasoning is obvious: if you have worked out how it is that humans ought to behave, it would follow that you should encourage them to behave thus. Such encouragement itself would be a moral imperative

    But the main point was about legally enforcing one’s morality on others.

    I have no issue with the idea that if one embraces a certain moral code and believes it to be the ‘best’ one out there then one could be seen as having some responsibility in making others see why it’s ‘best’.

    But that’s a separate issue from going that extra step and trying to legally impose that moral code on others.

    As has been said several different ways in this thread, if the ONLY supporting argument you have for defending a certain moral position is “my religion teaches that this is right“, then you’re not justified in arguing that everyone else should be legally held to that particular ‘standard’.

  • AxeGrrl

    keddaw wrote:

    The best take on morality (that I can come up with) is to have people unable to remove, reduce or impinge upon people’s freedom unless they are harming other people or their rights. This is the view I want to convince other people to take, but I cannot force this view onto others even though I see it as benevolent.

    I completely agree with your main ‘view’ there keddaw, and I also appreciate the whole idea of ‘not imposing’ one’s personal morality on others….but here’s my question to you:

    what possible negative repurcussions could come from establishing a ‘legal community standard’ that declares that no person or group should be “able to remove, reduce or impinge upon people’s freedom unless they are harming other people or their rights“?

  • AxeGrrl

    Vincent said,

    All we ask is that justifications be universal, not that the religious provide justifications that they themselves would not believe.

    Matt Stone replied:

    Because we share different worldviews there is no universal justification.

    Yet again, if the only justification for a certain value/moral stance is one’s personal religious/spiritual beliefs (things based on speculative premises)….

    if those morals/values have no secular arguments to support them as well….

    then there’s no possible way of justifying the idea that those values/morals should be given the force of law to affect everyone.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    @Mike Clawson:

    So how do you feel about church groups endorsing particular legislation? If a conservative religious group actively supports and encourages their members to vote for anti-abortion legislation, or anti-gay legislation, (and gives their members religious, not secular reasons for it) is that okay?

    I think churches should really be careful when they endorse any particular legislation, whether on secular grounds or not. After all, a priest is a person of authority to their followers. Therefore, any priest telling their followers how to vote is walking a very fine line between merely giving advice and coercion.

    When a priests gives religious arguments why his followers should vote a particular way, it gets even worse. First of all, this is definitely coercion: vote this way, because God wants it, and if you don’t, you’ll be a sinner. That’s not how things should work in a democracy.

    Secondly, when a priest gives religious reasons for a vote, unless they are simply appealing to human decency, they are trying to influence the outcome of the democratic process for purely religious purposes. Especially in the case where people can vote directly on legislation, they can try enlisting their followers to get the laws that match their religious views, ensuring that everyone else has to live according to those same religious views. This can subvert the whole church/state separation.

    So a priest should tread very carefully when giving any voting advice, and should best stay away from using religious arguments altogether. It doesn’t even matter whether I think they are on the correct side of the argument or not.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I agree with others who say that it is OK for religious leaders to argue for political causes as long as they do so using secular justifications. I think it crosses the line to use religious justifications because religious justifications are arbitrary and should not be included in a system of government. If one believes morals come from God, then those morals are arbitrary (at the whim of the God). The bible itself is all over the place on moral issues due to the fact that it was written by many people with views that were all over the place. Religious people who reference the bible cherry pick those passages and interpretations that agree with their own view. All I’m saying is that instead of pointing to the bible (or God), espouse the actual secular reasons that would lead you to point to those particular passages. As long as you keep the discussion at the level of how you make you choice (of where you would point), then we can have an intelligent discussion and one that needs to be had in the political arena. I think that pointing to the bible or to God is a Non sequitur with ethics and morality (and the state). This is my view of the separation of church and state.

  • http://kimsplayplace.blogspot.com Kim

    Since I didn’t see anyone bring it up, why would anyone support forcing anyone to abide by their beliefs/morals through the threat of government force? If people want to participate in income redistribution, then they can do so without politics at all.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Jeff:

    I agree with others who say that it is OK for religious leaders to argue for political causes as long as they do so using secular justifications.

    This seems a little much to ask. I agree that all laws should have secular justifications, but if a religious leader believes that there are also valid religious reasons to take a certain political stance, why shouldn’t he or she tell people that? The reasons you give

    because religious justifications are arbitrary. . . If one believes morals come from God, then those morals are arbitrary. . . The bible itself is all over the place on moral issues. . . Religious people who reference the bible cherry pick those passages and interpretations that agree with their own view.

    seem to amount to the statement that there are no valid religious reasons to take a certain political stance, because religion is kind of dumb. As an atheist, I have a certain sympathy for the quoted statements above, but I hardly expect religious leaders to. If they’re religious leaders they presumably believe that their religion give them valid religious reasons as to the best way to live their life. Why should they exclude the (from their viewpoint) valid religious reasons that they should believe certain things about abortion or torture, or the way that they should vote on these issues?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Autumnal Harvest Says says: Why should they exclude … valid religious reasons that they should believe certain things…

    Even if you ignore atheists, I think it is to religious people’s advantage to require secularly derived moral reasons for political action. As an example it is not hard to find religious authorities citing different parts of the bible for and against gay rights (or slavery or racism or sexism or almost any other isms you can think of). What makes one person pay attention to one passage while another person cites a different passage and come to different conclusions? It can’t be the bible itself because both people refer to the same book. There must be underlying reasons why each person chooses to give more weight to their passage of choice. It is these underlying reasons that need to be argued in the political arena. Not the bible passages themselves. Religious people need to understand the risk (to freedom and morality) if any one group of people get to make all the choices as to which biblical passages “trump” other biblical passages. Most Christians wouldn’t want Fred Felts (or even the Southern Baptist Convention) making all these decisions for everyone. The best way to protect everybody’s religious freedom is to require secular moral justification in the political arena. I think it is religious leaders getting caught up in the “cultural wars” that offer the sophomoric argument that morals come from God. When they really think about it, they would have to admit that is a bad idea. They should say God says to do something because it is right. It isn’t right because God said to do it. People can then look to what is right as a “first cause” before God. Atheists and religious people can then find common cause in looking to what is right morally.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I think churches should really be careful when they endorse any particular legislation, whether on secular grounds or not. After all, a priest is a person of authority to their followers. Therefore, any priest telling their followers how to vote is walking a very fine line between merely giving advice and coercion.

    When a priests gives religious arguments why his followers should vote a particular way, it gets even worse. First of all, this is definitely coercion: vote this way, because God wants it, and if you don’t, you’ll be a sinner. That’s not how things should work in a democracy.

    Secondly, when a priest gives religious reasons for a vote, unless they are simply appealing to human decency, they are trying to influence the outcome of the democratic process for purely religious purposes. Especially in the case where people can vote directly on legislation, they can try enlisting their followers to get the laws that match their religious views, ensuring that everyone else has to live according to those same religious views. This can subvert the whole church/state separation.

    So a priest should tread very carefully when giving any voting advice, and should best stay away from using religious arguments altogether. It doesn’t even matter whether I think they are on the correct side of the argument or not.

    So even in the context of a church community where most of the members share the certain basic religious beliefs, a religious leader ought to avoid using religious arguments? That just seems a little odd, don’t you think?

    For instance, a couple of years ago my house church was working our way through the Gospel of Luke, and we got to the parables where Jesus talks about forgiving debts and about how the rich ought not exploit the poor. We used that as an opportunity to talk about the modern day problem of Third World debt and drew a parallel between Jesus’ teachings and our own involvement in contemporary injustices. At the end we suggested that our folks get involved in the Jubilee movement, and specifically encouraged them to contact Dennis Hastert (our local congressman) to tell him to support a then-current House bill that would speed up debt relief for Haiti (a country our church was directly involved in serving).

    Keep in mind that in our house church community, all of this was done in the context of a communal study/discussion that I led, but did not dominate. I taught from the Bible and gave my viewpoints, but there was also plenty of opportunity for pushback, questions, and alternative views, if folks in the church wanted to offer any.

    So you’re saying that I still went too far with all that? If I wanted to talk about debt relief, even to a group of folks who believe in and are motivated by the teachings of Jesus, I still should have just left Jesus out of it and given purely “secular” reasons for it, or merely appealed to “human decency”? Again, that advice just seems a bit odd to me.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    If I wanted to talk about debt relief, even to a group of folks who believe in and are motivated by the teachings of Jesus, I still should have just left Jesus out of it and given purely “secular” reasons for it, or merely appealed to “human decency”?

    I would ask you the following question. Did Jesus say those things because forgiving dept and not exploiting the poor is the right thing to do or did he just make arbitrary proclamations that people should follow simply because He said it (where He could have easily said the opposite and then that would have been the right thing to do)? You can mention Jesus as motivation for finding the right course of action but point out that Jesus said it because it is right. It isn’t right because Jesus said it. That’s all I’m saying. We need to take responsibility for making the correct moral decisions. Otherwise, there will be all too many people who will be happy to make moral judgments for us and act like their opinions must be followed or you are sinning against God and may burn in Hell. As examples of such people, look at the people who wrote the bible itself. Look at the people who decided what stories should be included in the bible. Look at the people that cherry-pick what to talk about in the bible.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    @Mike Clawson:
    I said preachers should be very careful with mixing religion and politics, not that they can’t talk about politics from a religious perspective at all. But sometimes, a preacher talking politics can indeed be highly inappropriate.

    However, in this particular example that you give, I can’t tell from what you told us whether you have been careful enough or not. If all you did was use a parable to bring up the topic of Third World debt, and then discuss how supporting this bill would be a good thing, I don’t have too much of a problem with it. If what you said boils down to “Jesus wants us to do this, so go and call your congressman”, then yes, you probably went too far.

    This really shouldn’t be odd. You are in an authority position, even if you say you didn’t dominate the discussion. If you tell people that a certain action will bring them closer to God, how likely are they to not believe you? How likely are they to do anything other than what you’ve told them?

    You may be using your authority to do good, at least in your eyes, and I might even agree with you. But this sort of authority should not be used lightly, and is easily abused as well.

    The thing is, you seem to be arguing that it’s OK to mix religion and politics, as long as it’s for a good cause. For instance, I doubt that you would argue that it is good for churches to threaten their followers with hell and eternal damnation if they don’t oppose gay marriage.

    However, I’m sure that those churches too think that they’re supporting a good cause, because that’s what they think the Bible tells them. And while the threat of hell may be very explicit and harsh, God’s displeasure is also clearly implied if you tell people to do something because that’s how Jesus would want it.

    But the end doesn’t always justify the means. While I would prefer your approach over that of a church who threatens with hell over not opposing gay marriage, the reasons why I reject the mixing of church and politics in the latter case also apply to you:
    1) The Bible is clearly a poor source of morality, as throughout history it’s been used on both sides of every human rights issue.
    2) A church has a lot of influence over their followers. This influence can easily be abused to force their morality onto their followers. If they have enough followers, they may even attempt to abuse that influence to force their morality onto the rest of the population.

    Finally, you came to an atheist forum to ask us what we thought was appropriate for a preacher. Not what the law says, but what we thought was appropriate. Why are you surprised by the answers? Does it really surprise you so much that we want preachers to be careful with the influence they wield? That we want them to be especially careful when the authoritarian nature of religion touches on the things we value in a democratic society?

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Jeff, in essence, you’re saying that Christians shouldn’t use the Bible to decide how to vote because the Bible is of no use for deciding any moral issue, political or otherwise. You’re saying all Christians can do is cherry-pick Bible verses to reach the conclusions that they wanted to reach. As an atheist, I don’t disagree, but this doesn’t seem to be an argument about how Christians should behave in politics; it’s an argument as to why they should chuck the Bible in the trash and stop being Christians.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Deen – I’m very sympathetic to your concerns over the influence and authority of religious leaders, and was always very cognizant and careful of that when I led a church myself. However, what I found odd was not those cautions of yours, but the fact that your proposed remedy seemed to imply that pastors ought to somehow talk about moral and political issues with their congregations without bringing religion into it. But that’s the point of a church. That’s why the people are there. They don’t simply want a moral pep-talk. They want to think about morality, both personal and social, through the lens of their deepest beliefs and commitments. The job of a pastor is to help them do that. I totally agree that this can be done in a destructive, authoritative way, but, in my experience, it can also be done in a communal, collaborative and egalitarian way. (For instance, in my house church, I repeatedly – almost every Sunday, and especially when we were dealing with controversial issues – reminded folks that my way of interpreting the Bible was just my opinion and that no one had to agree with me just because I was the pastor. And the open, discussion-based format of our gatherings gave them ample opportunity to express any disagreements, which they frequently did.)

    So again, I’m all for avoiding imposing religious morality on people in an authoritarian way, but for me it doesn’t follow from that that I should just leave religion out of it all together. But maybe that’s not what you were saying and I just misunderstood.

  • keddaw

    AxeGrrl: what possible negative repurcussions could come from establishing a ‘legal community standard’ that declares that no person or group should be “able to remove, reduce or impinge upon people’s freedom unless they are harming other people or their rights“?

    I am loathe to get into this as it may strike some here as heartless and controversial, but since you asked: My moral, and intellectual (I am trying to get the two lined up), view is that the government should cease spying on the people who vote them in, or out. This would mean a massive reduction in security spending which would mean an increased chance of another 9/11. This is a price I am more than willing to pay to live in a free and open democratic society. Others may not.

    So negative repercussions include an increased chance of terrorism, a possible increase in homelessness and poverty (I am for limited government and taxation for wealth redistribution is intellectually, but maybe not morally, wrong), a general increase in crime due to less surveillance etc. Is that a price you are willing to pay? I am, but I realise that it’s a choice everyone has to make themselves and while I would try to convince as many people as possible that it’s right, it would be indefensible and hypocritical to force it on everyone.

  • keddaw

    Kim: Since I didn’t see anyone bring it up, why would anyone support forcing anyone to abide by their beliefs/morals through the threat of government force? If people want to participate in income redistribution, then they can do so without politics at all.

    If you believe that it is moral for the rich to help the poor then not only would you tell the rich to do so, you’d force them. You would ignore their pleading, their freedom to be selfish bar stewards, their ability to control their own destiny, and make them be nice people or go to jail. After all, it’s for their own good and the good of society as a whole. Possibly.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    Keddaw said:

    …a possible increase in homelessness and poverty… Is that a price you are willing to pay? I am…

    I doubt that you are. It’s very unlikely that you personally have to pay that price. Others will pay that price for you. Makes it rather easy for you to say you’re willing to pay that price.

  • keddaw

    @Deen
    Society will pay that price. As a member of that society I am at risk from the things I said. I live in a major city so would be at a greater risk of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack. That increase in risk is the price I am willing to pay.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    @Mike Clawson:

    So again, I’m all for avoiding imposing religious morality on people in an authoritarian way, but for me it doesn’t follow from that that I should just leave religion out of it all together. But maybe that’s not what you were saying and I just misunderstood.

    I think I can clear that up.

    I am aware that I can hardly ask of a preacher to not bring religion into moral discussions. It’s also inevitable that moral discussions will touch on politics every once in a while. So in that sense I’m OK with discussing politics from a religious standpoint – as long as the preacher treads very lightly, as I said.

    But if you ask me what I personally would really prefer, then yes, I guess I would prefer preachers – as well as every other religious person – to not base their moral views on the Bible. I’d prefer it if people would not base their morals on what they think God wants. I think I have some pretty decent reasons for that preference too: the Bible is an unreliable document, that often gives contradictory advice. And you could attribute almost anything to God that you want (and people have), as he doesn’t seem to be available to correct us. And in the end, it makes morality more about following an arbitrary set of rules (and God will punish you if you don’t), instead of about the human lives actually affected by these moral rules.

    It’s possible that you and your church already mostly focus on the human side of morality. In that case: great, but then why would you still need the Bible to support your moral arguments? “Be good to people” doesn’t nearly need that many pages to express, and most people by far will recognize it as a good idea, even if it didn’t come from God. It seems to me, the only purpose the Bible still serves at that point is to provide more authority to moral arguments. Which brings us back to the possible pitfalls of using authority to make people do what you think is right.

    Or do you need to talk about morality from a religious or Biblical point of view because that’s what people want? And because it’s the church’s job to give it to them? You seem to have implied this in your comment. But we’re talking about what is the moral thing to do here, and simply giving people what they want may not always be the moral thing to do.

    I agree with what appears to be your main point though: discussing moral issues (and therefore sometimes politics) from a religious point of view is what churches do. Therefore, I know I can’t really expect preachers to stop doing this. However, I personally do think it would be better if they did stop. Since, as an atheist I don’t recognize religion, the Bible, or God as proper sources of morality (or policy), it would be inconsistent for me to think otherwise.

  • http://s2solutions.us/wordpress Seth Strong

    It’s been said before but basically using a Godtext as the basis for your morality doesn’t fly very well with me. If you read of the morality first from a godtext and then the morality stands on its own, then you have something I might want to hear about. There are a lot of written words, they don’t all qualify for being in my head and I prefer them to stay out of legislation affecting me until I’m convinced of the benefit.

    As a religious leader with social agendas that involve secular allies, I would hope you would merge your language somewhat so your religious audience gets wind that there are secular pillars to your reasoning. That will also garner nonreligious respect, I think.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    @keddaw: what about becoming poor or losing your home? Is that a price you’re willing to pay too?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Thanks for clarifying Deen.

    And yes, my question was not really about whether or not any of you here think a religiously-based morality is legitimate. I already know the answer to that one. :)

    As you identified, my question was: given that religious people are going to think about socio-political ethics/morality in religious terms (whether you personally like it or not), what, in y’alls opinion, is the best way for them to carry those convictions to the political sphere, if at all, especially when they happen to line up with your own secular political convictions?

    I appreciate all of you who have taken the time to respond to that question. There have been a lot of great answers and much that I agree with and have practiced myself as a pastor.

    Peace

  • keddaw

    @Deen
    The increased risk of homelessness and poverty is a price I am more than willing to pay. However, I am hopeful that in human nature there lies a spark of generosity and anyone afflicted by such woes would be helped out by charity.

    Which leads into the central argument against wealth redistribution by the government – it is charitable works and charity should be by choice, not forced, with imprisonment for those who are selfish.

    Not that I am against tax, people’s rights and property rights have to be enforced and that enforcement costs money that should be paid for by those who gain from those rights.

  • J Myers

    AxeGrrl:

    But the main point was about legally enforcing one’s morality on others.

    Whatever you might consider to be the main point in this thread, you had asked for an explanation of one particular statement that had nothing at all to do with legally imposed morality. If you want to discuss that now, very well:

    But that’s a separate issue from going that extra step and trying to legally impose that moral code on others.

    Any legal system “legally imposes a moral code”; unless every person subjected to the system agrees perfectly with every law and sanction, there is an element of imposition. So, are you an anarchist, or do you think that some degree of imposition is acceptable? If the latter, what are your criteria? I’m particularly interested to see how they would differ from keddaw’s guideline “to have people unable to remove, reduce or impinge upon people’s freedom unless they are harming other people or their rights,” with which you’ve already claimed to agree.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    @Mike Clawson

    As you identified, my question was: given that religious people are going to think about socio-political ethics/morality in religious terms (whether you personally like it or not), what, in y’alls opinion, is the best way for them to carry those convictions to the political sphere, if at all, especially when they happen to line up with your own secular political convictions?

    I don’t think you can separate whether it’s justified to bring your religious convictions into politics from the question whether the religious morality itself is justified. After all, if I actually thought religion were a proper source of morality, then I’d be morally bound to advocate in favor of bringing religion into politics (although there would still be the small matter of freedom of religion to deal with). As it is, however, I have to reject religion as a source of morals, and advocate against bringing religion into politics.

    From this position it directly follows that when deciding if it’s justified to bring religious convictions into politics, it shouldn’t matter whether I happen to agree with the conclusions of these convictions or not. Either way, these convictions are not justified by anything I would consider a reasonable basis. If it did matter what the conclusions were, I’d be applying a double standard. Although I have to admit that as a practical matter, I’d likely spend considerably more time refuting those religious convictions I happen to not agree with than those I do agree with.

    And finally, if your religious convictions came to similar conclusions as my secular convictions, then that means you didn’t really need the religious convictions to begin with. You clearly could have used my secular reasoning to reach the same conclusions. Therefore, your religious convictions don’t really have anything to add to the political debate. In fact, they have the potential to greatly distract from this debate, by turning the debate away from the issues and making it about religion instead. So I think it’s better to leave the religious convictions out of politics as much as possible.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    J. Myers said:

    Any legal system “legally imposes a moral code”; unless every person subjected to the system agrees perfectly with every law and sanction, there is an element of imposition.

    And in fact the absense of a legal system imposes a moral code as well. At the very least, it allows anyone to try and impose their moral code on anyone else.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    Vincent said,

    All we ask is that justifications be universal, not that the religious provide justifications that they themselves would not believe.

    Because we share different worldviews there is no universal justification.

    That’s just not true. If construction noise and vibrations keep people awake at night, a law prohibiting construction work after 10pm is based on the universal justification of getting a decent night’s sleep. Whether your religion says don’t work at night or not makes no difference since noise at night affects everyone equally. That’s a universal justification.

  • keddaw

    No Vincent, not only are you technically wrong, your example is about the worst you could make. If the resulting delay of working during non-sleeping hours leads to massive delays in rush hour traffic then it is economically and socially justified to inconvenience a few people temporarily to minimise the inconvenience to masses of people over a longer period. There is no universal.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    I think you are mistaking universal reason with universal outcome (or universal benefit).
    Time and tides wait for no man as the saying goes. If a law is passed based on time or tides it is passed based on a universal reason, even if some people benefit and others are harmed by the law.
    It is not dependent upon some immeasurable belief.


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