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religion and public life
How comfortable are Americans with political leaders who use religious rhetoric? Where should the line be drawn on the place of religion in public life and public policy? Here are the views of E.J. Dionne, Jr., co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals; Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance; Wayne Slater, reporter for the The Dallas Morning News; Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet; Jim Wallis, editor-in-chief, Sojourners Magazine; and Alan Jacobs, professor at Wheaton College.

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E.J. Dionne
Co-chair Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Washington Post columnist

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You've written that right now, the new millennium, that there's going to be a renegotiation of how we understand church and state. Can you talk about that a bit?

Yes. I think we've gone through a series of stages in our national public life. I think the moment the Constitution was written, there was a very strong feeling for, if not church-state separation -- that's Jefferson's phrase, but not all the founders' phrase -- a strong sense of an emphasis on religious liberty.

But the context of that over a long period of our history was really a white Protestant context. You could argue that much of our history was a period of a tolerant white Protestant hegemony. The word tolerance is important, because a lot of other people came into the country, including my people. But it was nonetheless a time when the public language of the country was very Protestant. Probably the highest form of that language was Lincoln's second inaugural address.

That began to break down first in the 1930s, I think, with first, Al Smith runs for president. The cities and the new immigrant groups including Catholics and Jews start asserting themselves. Then John Kennedy is elected president.

I think you had a kind of second stage in the 1960s, when you had a combination of the assertion of African-Americans and later Latinos, Catholics, with Kennedy saying, "No, this is not a white Protestant country." A lot of liberal Protestants were supportive of that project. You had the court decisions against prayer in schools. You had a real kind of pressure for greater secularization, and I think some of that happened in the broader culture.

I think we're at a stage now where what we're trying to do is to preserve the gains of religious liberty from that period, but accepting that perhaps we were too hostile to religious voices in the public sphere. I don't think this view is confined to the religious right. I think there are a lot of people who say that their own views on matters -- for many liberal Christians, on poverty and welfare and attitudes towards the poor -- that it's perfectly legitimate to root your political views in a set of religious beliefs.

You have certain obligations in a free tolerant republic to present your arguments in ways that are accessible to everybody else. But your views can perfectly well come from your religious beliefs. That's why I think we're in this new stage of renegotiation. …

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You've written, "Don't be scared about this." A lot of people are really scared -- this sort of merging of church and state when it comes to faith-based initiatives; this idea we can give money to organizations that are religious in a different way than, say, the Salvation Army is. Talk about that a little bit.

The reason I'm not scared about this stuff representing a major threat to religious freedom is because I think religious freedom is baked so deeply in our culture, and indeed, baked so deeply in each and every one of us. My friend David Brooks popularized this great term, "flexidoxy." He said on the one hand, we're are at a moment when people are looking for religious certainty. They're looking for orthodoxy.

Yet, being American, we're also looking for our orthodoxy to be flexible. Some people might not be comfortable with the way orthodoxy looks at sexuality or the role of women or any number of other things. So we created this flexidoxy. So I think it's inherent in Americans to be this sort of mixture of things and to keep something in balance. …

If you look at popular attitudes toward religion, one of the things that's struck me out of some of the peer polling we've done is if you ask two different questions, you get two very different answers. On the one hand, you ask people, "Do you want your president to be a religious person?" You get a number like 70 percent saying yes.

Then you ask, "Do you dislike it when a politician talks too much about how religious he is?" And you get 50 percent yes. So you've got a big overlap here. I think that speaks to a healthy ambivalence. Those two might look inconsistent. How are we going to know somebody's deeply religious if the voters don't want them to talk about it? But there's a healthy ambivalence there, which is they respect people who are religious, but a large number of Americans don't want it to enter the public square too much.

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wayne slater
Reporter, The Dallas Morning News

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If you asked George Bush, "Are your public policies based on your religious beliefs? Does God dictate that a particular public policy be a public policy in a secular nation?" he'll be careful. He'll say, "This is not what God dictates. But my religious faith informs my attitudes about public policy."

It's a clear, but somewhat subtle distinction. On the one hand, he's the president of a secular and pluralistic nation. So he has to make decisions and advocate policies, whether it's about gay marriage, or whether it's about taxes, or whether it's about highway funding, that reflect the best interest that he has and who he is in his heart.

But as an evangelical Christian, he has a role as part of the divine drama that's underway, that he reflects those ultimate values, those intrinsic values of evangelical Christianity. So if you talk to George Bush and you say, "Do you make decisions based on what God tells you?" he'll say no. But if you ask him, "Do you make decisions based on a fundamental faith that reflects your attitude about Christianity and the attitudes and points of view of Christianity?" he'll say, "Yes. I reflect the fundamental values and ethics of a Christian faith."

Isn't the outcome of those questions exactly the same thing?

Yes, the outcome is exactly the same. When President Bush says that, "I don't make public policy based on what God tells me in my ear," but on the other hand, says, "I make public policy that reflects my Christian attitude and tradition," he's, in effect, saying and doing exactly the same thing. The resulting policies are the same. They reflect the Christian worldview, an evangelical ethic. But politically, it's much more successful in his approach.

The truth is, I think Americans like the idea that their president is ethical, and that their president is fundamentally religious. But I think an awful lot of Americans would be very uncomfortable if their president were to say to them, "Not only am I acting as it reflects my Christian values, but I'm acting exactly as God told me in my ear." The result may be the same. But to Christians and to non-Christians alike who are among voters, that's a very different approach and a very different message. …

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Jim wallis
Editor-in-chief, Sojourners Magazine

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… I've said this to Democratic leaders -- they often seem to be clueless about religion or faith, or [are] dismissive or disrespectful. There are religious fundamentalists that we all know of and speak of. There are also secular fundamentalists, people who have a disdain for religion, and many of those voices are in the Democratic Party.

So religious people often feel alienated or disrespected by Democrats. I think that's very sad. I think political leaders of both parties need to respect religious people and their values and the tradition in this country.

I believe in the separation of church and state -- absolutely. But I don't believe in the separation of public life from our values, our basic values, and for many of us, our religious values. One of them for me is this deep concern about overcoming poverty. That is a religious value for me, not just a political one.

You said something that I thought was interesting. You said that when people think of the word evangelical, they get worried; there are often bad connotations. …

I think it's because of the religious right. I think there is a fear among many Americans about the word evangelical, evangelicals, because they associate that term with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition.

I think that's a shame, because I don't think they're really in the evangelical tradition. They are American fundamentalists who espouse a kind of cultural American religion that doesn't have much to do, as I read, [with] biblical faith, with evangelicalism. …

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Steve waldman
Editor-in-Chief, Beliefnet

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A lot of reporters, when Bush started using all this religious rhetoric, thought, "Whoa, he's really going to alienate people with that. He's gone way too far."

Well actually, there've been studies that have shown that most people think that Bush's use of religious rhetoric is fine, that he doesn't use too much. In fact, more people who say that he doesn't use enough religious rhetoric than who say he uses too much.

Even the majority of Democrats say that he doesn't use too much religious rhetoric. So in political terms anyway, he seems to have found the right balance of how to use religious rhetoric in a way that conveys strength and compassion and moral certainty without going too far and scaring people.

Were you surprised when you saw those survey results? Are reporters just making a lot of bunk out of this whole thing? Is this just what Americans want? Do they want their president to be religious? They want him or her to use very strong religious language? Is this what we want?

I think Americans do want their president to be someone of faith. Partially I think it's because they know how hard a job it is, and they want their president to have inner resources. They want the president to be talking to God instead of the paintings on the wall when there's a really stressful, horrible moment.

I think they think it gives you strength and that he can identify with people like them. So by and large, I think people view piety as a positive.

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Richard cizik
National Association of Evangelicals

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What we're talking about is an evangelical view that you can't compartmentalize religion and civil government. If Christ is redeemer, over not just the private, the church, but the public, the state, then the state itself can be redeemed in a positive sense. You cannot, to the evangelical, relegate faith to the private arena only. You simply can't do that. Right behavior coming from right beliefs are two sides of the same spiritual coin.

But that challenges the modern fundamental assumptions about Western political values that, "Well, religion is private. Politics is public. And never the twain shall meet." So by our very pietistic influence, evangelicals are challenging, I would say, the biases of Western political foundation. …

That is a very controversial statement.

Sure. It's very controversial. In 1994, Alan Brinkley, writing in the American Historical Review, said, "This view, this pietistic view of evangelicals," he says, "it's the most challenging thought to conservatism." Why? Because it challenges the idea that religion is for the private realm only, and the idea that you only take publicly accessible arguments into the political arena.

So this pietistic view and methodology challenged the secularists in ways that makes them go bonkers. Of course. But are we storming the ramparts to undo America's separation of church and state? Absolutely not. But that notion doesn't include the separation of values from public life. I hope not. If it does, we're really in trouble.

So your idea is, you can have both at the same time?

Yes. It's possible to have the separation of the institutions of church and state without separating -- wrongly so -- the religious values that Americans have from their civil government. There's no problem here, really. It can be entirely acceptable to believe in the separation of church and state without accepting this notion that, "Oh, well, religion's just private, has no public good."

Why, that's to say the guy on the street who has a problem with drugs can only be treated by somebody who's a secular behavioralist, as opposed to the Christian minister with the Salvation Army, or the Gospel Union Rescue Mission, who comes in and says, "Hey, I love you. Jesus loves you. Come in, and let's work on this problem you have."

You say this drives the secularists bonkers.

Oh, absolutely.

Why? Why would you perceive that it makes secularists just very concerned and worried?

Well, the secularist believes that we're undoing the American experiment -- that we are trampling upon the separation of church and state. The secularist wants to relegate religious belief to the margins of public life. The evangelical, with his pietistic influence, says, "Absolutely not. I'm going to bring those religious values right into the center of all of life, including politics."

To which the secular elitist says, "Whoa, Nellie. Stop," and then charges -- erroneously so -- that this is violative of the separation of church and state. Well, it's not at all. But that's what the charge has been.

So to you, as an evangelical, having the president be evangelical is sort of the greatest thing ever, because it's all about that union.

Oh, I would caution those who are worried about evangelical influence. But first of all, representing evangelicals in Washington, I'm not out to create a voting bloc per se. Even if I could, I'm not. Secondly, I'm not here in Washington to broker influence for Jesus Christ. That's not my role.

Why not?

We understand the distinctions between the civil and the religious realms. When we're in the religious realm, we believe importantly in being faithful and obedient to Jesus Christ and his call for righteousness and holiness, and a life in conformity to his values with what are his appropriate civic goals and values.

Those appropriate civic goals and values are those things that we as Americans, generally, regardless of religious belief, can adhere to and accept. We can make a distinction in our mind, as evangelicals, between the two. Of course.

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Rev. Dr. C. Welton gaddy
President, The Interfaith Alliance

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Several issues in the news now point to the necessity of the people in this nation having a long, honest, thoughtful civil debate on the relationship between religion, politics and the institution of government. The proposed constitutional amendment on marriage is one of those issues. The continuing debate about abortion is one of those issues.

Here's what's involved. Here's what needs to be discussed. Should a person in public office attempt to use that office to legislate his or her particular religious views? Or are the values that should govern and guide public officials those common values of democracy that all of us know well?

My own view is that we should only legislate those values which are a part of the common good; that when we begin to try and legislate the particular values of a particular religious tradition, then we get into serious problems with religious liberty and maybe even compromise or eradicate the very guarantee that has let religion be vital in this land and has given religion a voice in government to begin with. …

It seems like the undercurrent of this conversation … is not that it's a constitutional problem, but in a way, it could harm religion. Religion itself in this country is, in a sense, under attack. Do you agree with that, and if so, could you explain it a bit?

Look, I'm for religion. I've spent my whole life in religious communities. The motivations for what I do have deep personal historical religious roots. Much of the criticism that I offer -- constitutionally, politically, and even more specifically related to the president -- are about what his way of treating religion ultimately does to undercut the authority, the uniqueness, the power of religion.

Every time that religion has identified itself or entangled itself with a particular political movement or a particular government, religion has been harmed by that. I see religion as a powerful positive healing force for this nation and the world. But that force is blunted, weakened, compromised inestimably, if we turn religion into a tool for advancing political strategy; if we make it a matter of how to win political office; if we treat it as anything other than a sacred part of life from which we ought to draw sustenance and values and strength for living courageously as good citizens.

It is because I am for religion that I critique making religion secondary and houses of worship political institutions.

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posted april 29, 2004

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