Religion, a friend of mine joked, is being treated today the same way homosexuality once was: As long as it is practiced only among consenting adults behind closed doors, it is tolerated.
I thought of this irreverent quip while watching NBC’S news coverage of the Supreme Court decision striking down Louisiana’s “creation science” law. The counsel who represented Louisiana argued that the legislature was merely seeking to assure equal discussion of equally valid theories regarding the origins of man; academic freedom demanded no less. Anchor Tom Brokaw appeared frustrated. Finally he growled, “But weren’t many sponsors of this bill religious people—doing this for religious reasons?”
For Brokaw, apparently a person with religious motivations has no business injecting those into public debate; it seems religious convictions might contaminate public policy.
This shocking attitude is held not just by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, but by a lot of otherwise sensible people who have been conditioned into believing that public debate should be free of any religious influence.
The U.S. Supreme Court has encouraged this mindset. In 1971’s Lemon v. Curtzman, the Court applied a threefold test of constitutionality: first, a law’s primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion; second, it must not result in excessive entanglement of government with religion. Fair enough so far. But the third tenet holds that a law must be adopted with a “secular intent”—and that is where difficulties arise.
It was on this third point, in fact, that the Louisiana law was struck down. The law’s drafters expressly stated a secular purpose—balanced academic teaching—but that expressed purpose was held by the Court to be a “sham.” Justice Brennan argued bluntly in a majority decision that the sponsor’s motivation was religious—hence the law itself was unconstitutional.
My concern here is not to argue the merits of the Louisiana law. It may not have been wisely drafted or advanced true academic freedom. But the grounds on which it was struck down establishes a chilling precedent. If the effect of the Court’s decision is to hold that any motivation for passing a law—be it conservatism, liberalism, Marxism, or whatever—is valid except religion, then we will have perverted religious freedom into a monstrous form of religious repression.
Congressman Henry Hyde offers a firsthand account of what it means to run afoul of this bigotry. In 1976 Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which barred federal funding of abortion in the Medicaid program. Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other groups challenged the amendment’s constitutionality, claiming it imposed “a peculiarly religious view of when a human life begins.” To prove their theory, the plaintiffs’ lawyers asked to review Hyde’s mail for expressions of religious sentiment—such as the suspicious use of “God bless you” at the end of a letter. Their private investigator followed Hyde to a mass for the unborn, covertly making notes as the congressman read Scripture, took Communion, and prayed.
The plaintiffs testified that these observations evidenced a simmering religious conspiracy, claiming that Hyde, a devout Catholic, could not separate his religion from his politics and that the Hyde Amendment was thus unconstitutional.
Planned Parenthood and the ACLU ultimately lost their case. But Hyde later wrote, “Some powerful members of the cultural elites in our country … go to Gestapo lengths to inhibit [religious] expression.”
The authors of a New York law outlawing the use of children in pornography certainly went to lengths to avoid a legal battle like Hyde’s or Louisiana’s. In its preamble, the statute specifically states that the law is not based on any moral or religious considerations. Only by making such a specific disclaimer did the bill’s drafters believe they could avoid a court challenge.
That this bias against religious motivations exists is disturbing enough. But do we really understand where this growing intolerance can lead us—what kind of society we would have if the public square were sanitized of religious values?
The abolition campaign, the reform of inhumane prison and working conditions, child labor laws, education reform, and the civil rights movement: all these sprang from religiously informed motives. What would the history of social justice be like without the likes of William Wilberforce, John Wesley, Lord Shaftesbury, William Jennings Bryan, Martin Luther King? Such leaders were from both the political Left and Right, theological liberals and conservatives alike.
Even such a generally irreligious observer as John Dewey once commented, “The church-going classes, those who have come under the influence of … Christianity … form the backbone of philanthropic and social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education. They embody and express the spirit of kindly good will towards [those] in economic disadvantage.”
Religiously motivated political activism brings a transcendent moral perspective to the turmoil of contemporary political affairs. While the separation of the institutions of church and state is a vital constitutional safeguard, no one ever intended the religious and political realms to be separated. To do so is to sterilize our body politic and leave it morally impoverished.
For me, Tom Brokaw’s question was hauntingly reminiscent of the celebrated remark of Lord Melbourne in Parliament 200 years ago. Rising in indignation to oppose the abolition campaign led by an outspoken Christian, William Wilberforce, Melbourne thundered, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” Had Melbourne prevailed and Wilberforce been disqualified because he spoke his Christian conscience, the abominable slave trade might not have ended.
Two centuries ago the answer to Melbourne’s challenge was yes: in the name of humanity and justice, religion must invade public life. The answer to Tom Brokaw’s question today should be no less.
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