Debating the Separation of Religion and Politics / The Bishops’ Conscience Clause
by Richard John Neuhaus
Last Saturday, the British magazine The Economist , sponsored a debate on this resolution: "Religion and politics should always be kept separate." There was an audience of about a thousand, and at the beginning of the debate the vote was about five to one in favor of the resolution. This is Manhattan, after all. At the end of the debate the house was pretty evenly divided but still with a slight majority in favor. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was the lead for the other side. He spent most of his time highlighting some of the less circumspect statements of Jerry Falwell and others on the "religious right" who, according to Lynn, want to establish a theocracy in America. Barry Lynn deeply mourns the passing of Jerry Falwell.
Herewith my opening statement at the debate. The connections between religion and politics is a huge subject and, in First Things and elsewhere, I have addressed other dimensions of the question. But this was tailored to an audience assumed, correctly, to be strongly hostile to the argument. And the house was turned around, almost. You might perhaps find the statement of some interest.
I speak in favor of the separation of church and state, and therefore against the resolution that religion and politics should always be kept separate. Permit me to explain. To enforce the exclusion of religion from politics, or from public life more generally, violates the First Amendment guarantee of the "free exercise of religion." The free exercise of religion is the reason for the separation of church and state¯a principle that aims not at protecting the state from religion but at protecting religion from the state.
In the First Amendment, religious freedom is of a piece with, indeed is in the very same sentence with, free speech, free press, free assembly, and the right to challenge government policy. Hence the resolution put before this house flatly contradicts the guarantees of a free and democratic society enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.
Secondly, I urge you to oppose the resolution because it is foolish to attempt to do what by definition cannot be done. Such an attempt can only intensify confusions and conflicts, further polarizing our public life. To exclude religion is to exclude from politics the deepest moral convictions of millions of citizens¯indeed, in this society, the great majority of citizens. Thus the resolution before this house is a formula for the death of democracy and should be resolutely defeated.
What do we mean by politics? I believe the best brief answer is proposed by Aristotle. Aristotle teaches that politics is free persons deliberating the question "How ought we to order our life together?" The ought in that definition indicates that politics is in its very nature, if not always in its practice, a moral enterprise. The very vocabulary of political debate is inescapably moral: What is just? What is unjust? What is fair? What is unfair? What serves the common good? On these questions we all have convictions, and they are moral convictions.
It is not true that our society is divided between a moral majority of the religious, on the one hand, and an immoral or amoral minority of the nonreligious, on the other. Atheists can have moral convictions that are every bit as strong as the moral convictions of the devout Christian or observant Jew. What we have in the political arena is not a division between the moral and the immoral but an ongoing contention between different moral visions addressing the political question¯how ought we to order our life together?
This ongoing contention, this experience of being locked in civil argument, is nothing less than democracy in action. It is Lincoln and Douglas debating the morality of slavery; it is the argument about whether unborn children have rights we are obliged to respect; it is the argument over whether the war in Iraq is just or unjust. And on and on. These are all moral arguments to which people bring their best moral judgment. In short, our political system calls for open-ended argument about all the great issues that touch upon the question "How ought we to order our life together?"
The idea that some citizens should be excluded from addressing that question because their arguments are religious, or that others should be excluded because their arguments are nonreligious or antireligious, is an idea deeply alien to the representative democracy that this constitutional order is designed to protect. A foundational principle of that order is that all citizens have equal standing in the public square.
But what about the institutions of religion such as churches or synagogues? They may understand themselves to be divinely constituted, but, in the view of the Constitution, they are voluntary associations of citizens who join together for freely chosen purposes. They are in this respect on the same constitutional footing as labor unions, political action groups, professional associations, and a host of other organizations formed by common purpose. In the heat of the political fray, all these institutions are tempted to claim that, on the issues that matter most to them, they have a monopoly on morality. All of them are wrong about that.
Religious institutions are also¯some might say especially¯tempted to claim a monopoly on morality. Whether it is the religious right or the much less discussed religious left, their leaders sometimes make a political assertion and then claim, "Thus saith the Lord." Jim Wallis, a prominent leader of the religious left and of the Democratic party’s effort to reach so-called values voters, has even written a book with the title God’s Politics . In his book, he lays out, among many other things, how the prophet Isaiah would rewrite the federal budget of the United States. This is presumption and foolishness of a high order. But the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion guarantees that foolish things will be done in the name of religion. Just as the guarantee of free speech ensures that foolish things will be said in innumerable other causes. We all¯left and right, liberal and conservative¯have a constitutional right to be stupid.
As I have suggested, religion cannot be separated from politics. More precisely, religion cannot be separated from democratic politics. But I do believe that religious leaders should be more circumspect and restrained than they sometimes are in addressing political issues, and that for two reasons. The first and most important reason is that the dynamics of political battle tend to corrupt religion, blurring the distinctions between the temporal and the eternal, the sacred and the profane. So the first concern is for the integrity of religion.
The second concern is for the integrity of politics. Making distinctively religious arguments in political debates tends to be both ineffective and unnecessarily polarizing. Citizens who are religious, like all citizens, should as much as possible make arguments on the basis of public reasons that are accessible to everyone. That is my advice to both the religious left and the religious right, to both Jim Wallis and Pat Robertson. But they are under no constitutional obligation to accept my advice, and, based on past history, they probably won’t. Remember the constitutional right to do dumb things.
There is a long and complicated history by which the West, and America in particular, has arrived at our commitment to freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of political action. These freedoms, as they are enshrined in the First Amendment, are all of a piece. Our history and our commitment is not shared by everyone in the world. In most dramatic contrast today are Islamic societies in which, as many see it, the brutal choice is posed between monolithic religion or monolithic secularism. We have to hope that is not the case, but that is a problem for Muslims to resolve.
Thank God, and thank the American Founders, our circumstance is very different. Ours is a pluralistic society in which, by the means of representative democracy, all citizens¯whether religious, nonreligious, antireligious, or undecided¯are on an equal footing as they bring their diverse and sometimes conflicting moral visions to bear on the great question of politics¯how ought we to order our life together?
The resolution before the house is "Religion and politics should always be kept separate." Because it violates the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion and associated guarantees such as free speech, because it is alien to the American experience, and because it could not be implemented without undermining the equality essential to a pluralistic and democratic society, I urge you to defeat this profoundly illiberal resolution.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has just completed its fall meeting in Baltimore, and, with predictable alacrity, the usual suspects are jumping in to reap what benefits they can for their favored causes. Which I suppose means that I’m jumping in too. Fair enough.
The focus of attention is on the " Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship " document and a statement on the Iraq War. The latter is technically a statement by the outgoing president of the conference, Bishop William Skylstad, but it is approved by the conference. "Faithful Citizenship" is in a decades-long line with election-year documents issued by the conference and is sometimes referred to as a voting guide, which it is not. This year’s document is different in that it is the product of a much wider process of consultation and was debated on the floor in open session.
"Faithful Citizenship" is a carefully considered reflection on political responsibility, the difference between "intrinsic evils" and prudential judgments, and the ways in which conscience is rightly formed. Several news stories have highlighted that the bishops left "loopholes" or created "leeway" for Catholics to vote for pro-abortion candidates. That is not true. The document repeatedly and emphatically gives top priority to the protection of innocent human life in instances such as abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research.
But, of course and of necessity, it also says: "In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching."
The "conscience clause" is not a loophole but speaks to a solemn obligation. It is clear Catholic teaching that one must act in accord with conscience, even if one’s conscience is misguided. At the same time, one is obliged to form one’s conscience according to moral truth. It is also the Church’s teaching, reiterated in this document, that acting according to a rightly formed conscience is a matter that impinges upon one’s eternal salvation.
It is obvious that some Catholics are, if not pro-abortion, at least of the view that opposition to abortion is trumped by other matters they consider more important, such as an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, their preferred health plan, or a Democratic victory in the presidential election. If knowingly and with full intent they collaborate in the intrinsic evil of abortion, they may say that the conscience clause provides them with a loophole. In such an instance, as "Faithful Citizenship" rightly underscores, they are provided only with the choice to surrender their soul’s salvation.
The first news reports on Bishop Skylstad’s statement on Iraq, which was approved by the conference, highlighted the statement that the situation in Iraq is unacceptable and unsustainable. One can hardly imagine how anyone could say that it is acceptable and sustainable. The question is what is to be done about it. The statement says that the conference "encourages our national leaders to focus on the morally and politically demanding, but carefully limited goal, of fostering a ‘responsible transition’ and withdrawal at the earliest opportunity consistent with that goal."
The statement goes on to say: "We do not have specific competence in political, economic, and military strategies and do not assess particular tactics, but we can, as teachers, share a moral tradition to help inform policy choices. Our Catholic teaching on war and peace offers hard questions, not easy answers. Our nation must now focus more on the ethics of exit than on the ethics of intervention."
Exactly. People may argue until the cows come home about the rightness or wrongness of what was done in 2003, but the question now is what is required for a "responsible transition," recognizing that such a transition entails many considerations, including stability in the Middle East, the credibility of American power in world affairs, and the prospect of securing a government of law and basic decency for the Iraqi people. The statement is notable also for lifting up concerns that are largely neglected by others, especially the plight of refugees and of the Chaldean Christians in Iraq.
All in all, the statement on Iraq is a carefully considered moral reflection on a set of problems that do not lend themselves to easy resolution. In this statement, as in the "Faithful Citizenship" document, the bishops have provided an example of how teachers of the Church can inform public discourse by neither exceeding their competence nor shirking their responsibility.