Rabbi Kass' Viewpoint: Religion In A Free Society
Religion and politics have been part of the social scene since the dawn of civilization. Moreover, they have intermingled with each other throughout most of that time in a very intimate way which has had disastrous consequences for human freedom. Tyranny, oppression, and intergroup hostility constitute the lot of most countries where church and state have acted in alliance with each other. It was an appreciation and understanding of this fact that led the Founding Fathers of our nation to advocate the separation of church and state and to prohibit the creation of a religious establishment. Indeed, according to the eminent historian, Henry Steele Commager, it was the separation of church and state which marked the most revolutionary aspect of this country’s formation and which evoked more attention, applause, and censure than anything else. No other Western nation had ever ventured upon so reckless an endeavor.
What is, of course, most remarkable, is that the separation of church and state worked so well, to the benefit of both. Politically, ours is the freest country on the face of the Earth. Religiously, this nation has managed to include people of all faiths and still maintain peace and harmony among them. Furthermore, all of the religions have flourished in an atmosphere which forbids the government to meddle in their affairs.
The separation between church and state, as envisioned in the Constitution, however, was never intended to be total. If it were, how could the government grant tax exemption to religious institutions, pay for chaplains in the armed forces, sponsor the recitation of prayers in Congress, inscribe “In God We Trust” on our currency, and include the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? In truth, advocates of total separation have from time to time challenged these “religious” practices by the government as unconstitutional; but these changes have been consistently rejected by the courts.
The principle of church-state separation was also not intended to deprive religious leaders of the right to express their views on public issues. Throughout the history of this Republic religious leaders have spoken up on important social problems and played pivotal roles in influencing public opinion. That is important to think about as the nation readies itself for the election of 2008.
What is essential is that when religion enters the public arena, its spokespersons observe the rules of political debate in a democratic society. The first of these is to respect the right to dissent without impugning the sincerity and motives of your opponents. The second is to recognize that no one has a monopoly on truth and virtue. Your opponents might just turn out to be right, and they are entitled to a sympathetic hearing no less than yourself. The third is to understand that the principle of pluralism undergirds our diverse society so that each group must exercise a measure of self-restraint when seeking to promote its point of view. Not all privately held ideals can or should be translated into public law. Finally, the government and its leaders must seek to refrain from actions which would tend to make any religion the official faith of the country since there could be no more blatant violation of the First Amendment than that.
Within these constraints, religious groups have the right and obligation to play an active role in the public arena. Democracy depends upon all citizens and groups being informed and getting involved in what is going on around them. Let the institutions of church and state remain separate from each other in the future as they have in the past; at the same time, however, may the religions of America continue to cast a shaft of illumination on the pressing questions of our times so that we can move forward in providing solutions that meet the highest standards of probity and propriety.