Truth, Freedom, and Religion

In the early days of the Revolutionary War one of the American generals, Nathanael Greene, expressed his desire for America to be an independent nation from Britain. His sentiments echoed that of many others of his day. Gen. Greene wrote:

“Heaven hath decreed that tottering empire Britain to irretrievable ruin and thanks to God, since Providence hath so determined, America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons…. Permit me then to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety and rectitude thereof.” (as cited by D. McCullough in 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005; emphasis added).

Contrary to the beliefs of many who are foes of organized Christian religions, the United States of America was founded upon religious principles and to some extent, religion. Our nation was not founded upon a particular religious sect but it certainly was never meant to be “free from” religion. There are movements that would remove any mention of religion from public discourse, especially in government. This is completely at odds with the Constitution. I recognize that Gen. Greene was not one of the Founding Fathers, per se, but his sentiments were in line with many others of his day.

Some feel justified in attacking religion in part because of a few words Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson believed in God but He did not believe in the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He was also critical of some of the prevailing religions of his day. He was also critical of nations that had state religions – many people in the soon to be United States were; after all, that is why many of their fathers had come to America, for the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit. Here is the problem with building so much on Thomas Jefferson’s few sayings and writings that were critical of religion – Thomas Jefferson was merely one of the Founding Fathers. He was very influential, he wrote the Declaration of Independence and was involved in the framing of the Constitution, but he was only one voice out of many. But here is the more important issue – Thomas Jefferson did not write the Constitution; James Madison wrote most of it. A number of other men had their input (and all states’ representatives had to ratify it) but it was largely written by Madison.

John Adams, who was very religious, and Thomas Paine, who was deist like Jefferson also had a lot of input to the Constitution. In any case, none of the Founding Fathers were atheist. Those who were critical of the religions of their day grew up in a time when there was little religious freedom. America was in practice the only ‘civilized’ place on earth where there was relative religious freedom. Some religions had become oppressive and none of the Christian religions were quite like the religion Jesus Christ had established [I focus on Christian religions because at the time that was mainly what there was in America]. In light of this, the critical statements and beliefs were understandable. However, none of the Founding Fathers ever called for the abolishment of religion – most were religious, God-fearing men.

Those who would remove religion from public discourse (and even the government) would remove one of the pillars of our great nation. Religious principles played and play a large role in our government. Judeo-Christian beliefs are at the foundation of our legal system. This does not discount the influence of philosophers such as John Locke but neither should we discount the influence of Judeo-Christian principles. The Bill of Rights explicitly protects religions in the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means that just as there should not be a state religion (like there was and is in Britain) there also should not be freedom from religion. Again, religions are protected by this clause. Christian religions are the some of the staunchest defenders of liberty; a nation without religion would not be a free one.

Religious Values and Public Policy, Part 5

Continuing Dallin H. Oaks’ speech:

Perhaps the root fear of those who object to official church participation in political debates is power: They fear that believers will choose to follow the directions or counsel of their religious leaders. Those who have this fear should remember the celebrated maxim of Jefferson: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” 9 Some may believe that reason is not free when religious leaders have spoken, but I doubt that any religious leader in twentieth-century America has such a grip on followers that they cannot make a reasoned choice in the privacy of the voting booth. In fact, I have a hard time believing that the teachings of religions or churches deprive their adherents of any more autonomy in exerting the rights of citizenship than the teachings and practices of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmental organizations, political parties, or any other membership group in our society.

I submit that religious leaders should have at least as many privileges as any other leaders, and that churches should stand on at least as strong a footing as any other corporation when they enter the public square to participate in public policy debates. The precious constitutional right of petition does not exclude any individual or any group. The same is true of freedom of speech and the press. When religion has a special constitutional right to its free exercise, religious leaders and churches should have more freedom than other persons and organizations, not less.

If churches and church leaders should have full rights to participate in public policy debates, should there be any limits on such participation?

Of course there are limits that apply specially to churches and church officials, as manifest in the United States Constitution’s prohibition against Congress’s making any law respecting an establishment of religion. Some linkages between churches and governments are obviously illegitimate. It would clearly violate this prohibition if a church or church official were to exercise government power or dictate government policies or direct the action of government officials independent of legal procedures or political processes.

Fundamentally, I submit that there is no persuasive objection in law or principle to a church or church leader taking a position on any legislative matter, if it or he or she chooses to do so.

Now, relative to church participation in public debate, when churches or church leaders choose to enter the public sector to engage in debate on a matter of public policy, they should be admitted to the debate and they should expect to participate in it on the same basis as all other participants. In other words, if churches or church leaders choose to oppose or favor a particular piece of legislation, their opinions should be received on the same basis as the opinions offered by other knowledgeable organizations or persons, and they should be considered on their merits.

By the same token, churches and church leaders should expect the same broad latitude of discussion of their views that conventionally applies to everyone else’s participation in public policy debates. A church can claim access to higher authority on moral questions, but its opinions on the application of those moral questions to specific legislation will inevitably be challenged by and measured against secular-based legislative or political judgments. As James E. Wood observed, “While denunciations of injustice, racism, sexism, and nationalism may be clearly rooted in one’s religious faith, their political applications to legislative remedy and public policy are by no means always clear.” 10

Finally, if church leaders were also to exhibit openness and tolerance of opposing views, they would help to overcome the suspicion and resentment sometimes directed toward church or church-leader participation in public debate.

In summary, I have pointed out that many U.S. laws are based on the absolute moral values most Americans affirm, and I have suggested that it cannot be otherwise. I have contended that religious-based values are just as legitimate a basis for political action as any other values. And I have argued that churches and church leaders should be able to participate in public policy debates on the same basis as other persons and organizations, favoring or opposing specific legislative proposals or candidates if they choose to do so.

Politicians sometimes seek to use religion for political purposes, and they sometimes even seek to manipulate churches or church leaders. Ultimately this is always self-defeating. Whenever a church (or a church leader) becomes a pawn or servant of government or a political leader, it loses its status and the credibility it needs to perform its religious mission.

Churches or their leaders can also be the aggressors in the pursuit of intimacy with government. The probable results of this excess have been ably described as “the seduction of the churches to political arrogance and political innocence or even the politicizing of moral absolutes.” 11

The relationship in the world between church and state and between church leaders and politicians should be respectful and distant, as befits two parties who need one another but share the realization that a relationship too close can deprive a pluralistic government of its legitimacy and a divine church of its spiritual mission. Despite that desirable distance, government need not be hostile to religion or pretend to ignore God.

That concludes Dallin H. Oaks talk on religious values and public policy. Original Source.

Religious Values and Public Policy, Part 1

Dallin H. Oaks, a lawyer and LDS Church leader, has written and spoken much on the rising secularism of society. In 1992 he spoke to a group in Washington, D.C. about “the role of religion-based values and religious leaders in public policy debates.” Over the coming days I will post much of his speech, which is found in its entirety here. His words are very salient today, especially with the uproar some supporters of same-sex marriage have made concerning religious groups’ involvement in the passing of the three marriage amendments this past election (Nov. 2008).

Fundamental to the role of religion in public policy is this most important question: Are there moral absolutes? Speaking to…BYU students earlier this year, President Rex E. Lee [the president of BYU] said:

“I cannot think of anything more important than for each of you to build a firm, personal testimony that there are in this life some absolutes, things that never change, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. They are eternal truths, eternal principles and, as Paul tells us, they are and will be the same yesterday, today, and forever.” 1

Unfortunately, other educators deny the existence of God or deem God irrelevant to the human condition. Persons who accept this view deny the existence of moral absolutes. They maintain that right and wrong are relative concepts, and morality is merely a matter of personal choice or expediency. For example, a university professor reported that her students lacked what she called “moral common sense.” She said they believed that “there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments.” 2 In that view, even the most fundamental moral questions have at least two sides, and every assertion of right or wrong is open to debate.

I believe that these contrasting approaches underlie the whole discussion of religious values in public policy. Many differences of opinion over the role of religion in public life simply mirror a difference of opinion over whether there are moral absolutes. But this underlying difference is rarely made explicit. It is as if those who assume that all values are relative have established their assumption by law or tradition and have rendered illegitimate the fundamental belief of those who hold that some values are absolute.

One of the consequences of shifting from moral absolutes to moral relativism in public policy is that this produces a corresponding shift of emphasis from responsibilities to rights. Responsibilities originate in moral absolutes. In contrast, rights find their origin in legal principles, which are easily manipulated by moral relativism. Sooner or later the substance of rights must depend on either the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities or the legal enforcement of duties. When our laws or our public leaders question the existence of absolute moral values, they undercut the basis for the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities, which is economical, and compel our society to rely more and more on the legal enforcement of rights, which is expensive.

I will post more of his speech tomorrow.