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Religion’s grip on politics

Alan Braunholtz

It didn’t surprise me when certain bishops chose to highlight articles of faith while ignoring others that didn’t reflect so well on the political party they personally favor. Hypocrisy by religious leaders is a long thread that snakes through history.While politics shouldn’t tell people what faith to believe, how much should religions, and their particular moral code, influence politics? That depends on us. While all religions are free to speak their views, we should only listen if they argue their morals and views on the ethics of evolving science by engaging in open discussion and honest debate.Saying “this is the only way” because the Bible, the pope, Allah, some all-powerful alien or talking-tree spirit “loves me, appeared to me and told me” doesn’t count as honest debate. It’s an inflexible, preformed position.For faith-based views to influence public policy, these views need to be backed up with reason and scrutiny that appeals to those of different faiths or none. A democratic society is one that depends on reason and justification in the public arena. This allows the whole society to be included. To just regard democracy as elections by which the majority decides whose decisions rule without conversation with, or consideration for, anyone else’s different views results in an antagonistic society of separate groups. When religious groups eschew reason for dogma, they’re very good at creating hostile splits. Northern Ireland, Sudan and India all provide examples of countries trying to overcome this divide.People of most religions and secular thinkers would come pretty close on the basics of moral behavior. The Golden Rule of treating others how you’d like to be treated is common throughout history and faiths. It’s only at the edges with changes in society, medicine and science (stem cell research, for instance) that we need discussion. If instead the dominant faith bullies the others into their “divinely revealed” moralities without reason or evidence to persuade, then religion has hijacked politics to create a theocracy.When the consequences of this are that others will suffer as potential health and happiness are denied – stifled stem cell research that could help over 100 million Americans who suffer from disease – then it could be viewed as going against a wider view of the faith and morals they’re trying to uphold.It’s ironic that the Catholic Church is the source of the most vocal vilifying. Where was this moral outrage during their in-house sexual assault scandals? Now abortion and stem cell research are intrinsically evil and human rights issues, and homosexual behavior is sick and deviant. Says who? With little discussion beyond the “my (insert religious icon of choice here) says so!” there is no prospect of resolving or at least understanding different viewpoints here. If the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death is such a concern, then what about the abandoned cell clusters in fertility clinic freezers? There are also the death penalty and doctrine of “just” wars to consider. Remember, the pope said the war in Iraq wasn’t justified.What about poverty and starvation, and what should those in a position to help do about it? Financing tax cuts for the wealthy with money that could have gone to social programs to alleviate some suffering seems to merit moral debate. Add in unwanted children, family size, overpopulation, positions on birth control and it promises to be a lively discussion.The death penalty is an issue because even if you argue that it’s a deterrent, so saves lives, we have the problem of executing innocent people. A journalism class at Northwestern University found evidence that exonerated 13 people on death row in Illinois. This suggests the justice system is flawed and we have, are and will execute innocent people. There is little political will to address this issue. It doesn’t mesh with a popular “tough on crime” stance. The Illinois legislators repeated refusal to approve changes suggested by a commission set up to investigate the state’s death penalty resulted in Gov. George Ryan commuting all death sentences to life in prison in his last days in office. His conscience wouldn’t allow him to walk away.One of the tenets of a “just” war is that civilian lives are respected to the point that you put your own soldiers at greater risk to avoid harming civilians and any casualties inadvertently inflicted must be proportional to the expected gains.In Afghanistan, some families died when missiles and bombs targeted an unoccupied car. Is destroying a Taliban truck worth the lives of an Afghan family? The recent reported bombing of a wedding party in Iraq instead of the riskier use of ground troops asks the same questions from a moral and “winning the hearts and minds” point of view.Gay marriage is a growing issue. The traditional conservative Christian belief that it’s wrong provides little reason for this view except faith. Offending a significant portion of the public who hold this view is, however, an argument to disallow it. Is it worth offending that many people? But once you start using this “potential to offend” as a reason for restricting equality and liberty, where do you stop? People can be offended by anything, so all behavior could be prohibited. Tolerance is a better solution than restricting personal freedoms for no reason other than “we don’t like it.”It looks to me that these bishops are attacking John Kerry because he’s got the integrity and courage to ask himself this question. How appropriate is it for leaders in a pluralistic society to base public policy on their beliefs without considering the views of those who don’t share them? He is a devout Catholic, but one who instead of blindly following, understands that there are issues that no one has clear answers to, and he declines to force his beliefs onto others. Democratic principles of freedom and equality can be in conflict with traditional religious beliefs. The whole nation needs a leader, not just a conservative part of a particular religion.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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