Over the past few months, I have been involved in several discussions with friends of mine at Yale regarding the increasing role of religion and faith in governmental decisions, as typified by President Bush. In each of my conversations about this issue, the liberal participants assert that the president’s use of his faith to justify some of his actions is unacceptable, while conservatives tend to not have a problem with it. Religious affiliation, as well as frequency and methods of worship seem irrelevant to the positions taken by my interlocutors.
There is no question that gay and abortion rights issues matter, and that how much of a role religion plays in government is important. The left is largely convinced that religion should play no role in government, asserting that opposition to gay marriage and abortion is invalid because of its predominately Christian basis. They believe that it is a direct violation of the first line of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — because legislating based on religious beliefs forces adherence to them by the entire county, not just by those who hold those specific convictions.
This idea, however, is based on the misconception that everyone follows his religion in the same way. More specifically, it demands that everyone should follow his religion in the same way. While liberals accuse the Christian right of this line of thinking, in actuality the left is guilty of that fallacy. They do not understand what the faith of these individuals demands of them.
Sen. Kerry crystallized this misunderstanding in his discussion of abortion during the second presidential debate, when he said, “[I] can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever.” This shows a failure to understand that, for many people who believe life begins at conception, and therefore that abortion is murder, standing idly by while abortions continue means they are choosing to condone murder — even if they do so to respect others who do not “share that article of faith.”
In the third debate, Kerry expanded on this, stating that his faith is his reason for protecting the environment, fighting poverty and defending justice. What he and other liberals fail to understand is that many religious people cannot draw the distinction that Kerry does — the distinction between private religion and public life. For these people, faith permeates every decision they make, and ignoring that to support someone else’s views is a betrayal of their God. It makes no sense to such people that they would use faith to legislate on poverty and the environment but draw the line at abortion. The same faith that tells them abortion is wrong tells them that not to act on it is equally wrong.
Furthermore, it is wrong of outsiders to say that this makes their views or their actions any less valid; to say that legislation based on personal convictions, simply because those convictions are faith-based, is illegitimate. Such a demand is discrimination that disqualifies, with extreme prejudice, an entire class of people and their ideas from the political arena. Yes, our society has benefited greatly from its ability to secularize public life. But, we have equally benefited by having leadership from men and women of devout faith alongside some who may never have set foot in a church.
The beauty of the First Amendment lies in the fact that it does not reject religion at the hands of secularization, but embraces it as an important part of American life. Like it or not, this nation appeared as a haven for people of all religions where they could debate their beliefs and try to incorporate them into public life without defining what others could or should believe. We have learned over time that our secular nation is strengthened rather than weakened by people who express their religious convictions in public discourse. Such action only improves our ability to reach meaningful consensus.
We can debate the merits of legal abortion and gay marriage as much as we want. You can tell the people who oppose them that their views are faulty and that you disagree. But a person who asserts that these stances are illegitimate because of the faith behind them is just as bad as a Christian who tells you that your views are illegitimate because they lack a religious background, or because they come from a different one. As a nation, the only way we can progress is by moving past a debate over the legitimacy of a person’s reason for believing what he does and by focusing instead on the merits of his conclusions.
Brian Cook is a senior in Pierson College.