Religion’s Role in Contemporary Governance

In the wake of the Cranston Prayer Banner saga (in a state both a deep political blue and heavily Catholic), it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to take up the more profound, if less exciting, matter of religion’s role in the formation of government policy.  Reviewing Sects, Politics, and Religion: A review of Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics, by Robert Benne, Francis Beckwith provides a description of the broadly drawn sides in the dispute as it stands right now:

Benne distinguishes two positions on the relationship between religion and politics—separationism and fusionism—and argues Christians ought to reject both. As for the first, there are at least two varieties, one secular and one religious.

One sort—championed by writers as diverse as Richard Dawkins, Andrew Sullivan, and Damon Linker—views the participation of religious citizens in the formation of policy as deleterious to democratic liberalism, if the policies these citizens propose have their genesis in their religious beliefs. Benne shows that to actualize this prescription would limit religious liberty in ways inconsistent with the promise of the American founding. For the Founders understood church-state separation as separating the state from the institutional church and not sequestering religion from politics. Moreover, contemporary separationists are notoriously selective when they lament the mixing of religion and politics, for they rarely if ever decry the political activism of liberal Christians in mainline denominations who almost always agree with the left wing of the Democratic Party.

The other sort of separationist is usually a devout Christian who believes that the Church’s involvement in politics will corrupt its character and thus undermine or make more difficult its duty to save and nourish souls. Baptists in the tradition of the late J. M. Dawson (1879–1973) have been strong proponents of this view. This separationist often cites historical cases in which Christian churches have compromised their witness in order to curry favor from the government.

Benne sees this as a legitimate concern. Nevertheless, he argues, because Christianity teaches that God is sovereign over all creation, including political and social institutions, and because the gospel requires us to love our neighbors and to will their good, we must engage the political realm. Christianity is a knowledge tradition that properly informs us about the good, the true, and the beautiful in every facet of human existence.

While separationists offer a theory of how religion and politics ought to interact, fusionists practice their faith with little theoretical reflection. For that reason, Benne’s account of fusionism is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Fusionists connect their political beliefs and/or cultural affiliations and the teachings of their faith. They fail to distinguish positions that seem to be close to obvious entailments of Christian belief (e.g., male–female marriage, pro-life on abortion) and positions over which Christians of goodwill may disagree (e.g., whether a particular war is just, the existence and scope of the welfare state, school-sponsored prayer in public schools, or whether America or another nation is guided by direct providence).

Not surprisingly, most of the public debate occurs between the two forms of separationist — usually with the religious variation of separationist arguing the middle ground between secular separationists and fusionists.  Although, those who are also dedicated federalists may argue that all sides should be able to implement their visions as totally as possible, but on the smallest scale possible.  Thus, the federal government could not dictate to a school district that it can or cannot introduce overtly religious components into their curricula, and even within a state, the people of Westerly would have only passing interest in the decorations that Cranston places on the auditorium wall.  One can see by that example how much variation and diversity would be possible across the entire United States with such an approach.