In 2013, when the Texas legislature debated and passed a law—now under review by federal courts—designed to sharply reduce access to legal abortion in the nation’s second most populous state, Senator Dan Patrick asked his colleagues, “If you believe in God, how would God vote if he were here?”
Then Patrick, who has since ascended—albeit through an earthly election—to the office of lieutenant governor, suggested that people who pray to God in times of tragedy (yes, he played the 9/11 card) are hypocrites if, when the issue involves abortion, they say, “‘no, no, God, sorry, we’re not with you on this one.’”
This quote is not funny, though some liberal media commentators mistakenly treated it as a joke. It is, rather, a stellar example of the danger of using religion as a rationale for decidedly non-celestial political decisions. The minute a politician claims to speak for God in any argument, the purpose is not to further democratic negotiation but to shut off discussion. Thus sayeth the Lord. Case closed.
Religious believers—like secular Americans—have a perfect right to voice their moral convictions in public policy debates. When believers live out their faith instead of bloviating about it, as demonstrated last summer in the expressions of devout Christian forgiveness by the families of African Americans murdered in a Charleston church by a white supremacist, they are even more effective in influencing public opinion.
What believers do not have a right to do is enshrine their precepts as universal morality that overrides the democratic process and must be obeyed by fellow citizens—religious or nonreligious—of different beliefs. Unearned religious forgiveness, for example—however admirable many Americans may find it as a personal moral gesture—has no place in the criminal justice system. At the other end of the religious spectrum, the endlessly cited “eye for eye” quote from Exodus offers no justification for capital punishment today.
In our pluralistic society, religious parents would rightly be outraged if I were permitted to lecture their children about my atheist convictions in public schools. But secular and non-fundamentalist religious parents in Louisiana must live with a legislative fiat, endorsed by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, that allows public schools to present the creation myth in Genesis as a valid alternative to settled science.
Policy disputes involving the relationship between religion and government range from obvious cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage to other, less publicized ones, such as back-door attempts to introduce public financing for charter schools that have a religious agenda. Even religious conservatives disagree on some of these issues, but persistent political efforts to erode the separation of churches (not just one) and state are supported mainly by a once-unimaginable coalition of right-wing Protestant fundamentalists; the most conservative American Catholic bishops; a minority of lay Catholics with a pre-Vatican II mentality; and ultra-orthodox Jews who have somehow managed to forget how bad state-institutionalized religion was for the Jews of Europe.
But some liberals have also succumbed to the delusion that religion should drive public policy. They argue that we should fight income inequality to further, in the liberal evangelical Jim Wallis’s phrase, “God’s politics.” Since millions of Americans believe (incorrectly) that the Bible says “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” it seems unlikely that God’s politics will create a political consensus on this issue. Deities somehow seem to favor political ideas already accepted by their worshippers here on earth.
As everyone with a modicum of religious knowledge knows, the world’s three main monotheistic faiths accepted slavery for most of their history. Both freethinkers and liberal religious believers, most notably Quakers, played an important role in the abolitionist movement, but many mainstream religious institutions in the North, until the eve of the Civil War, cared more about maintaining relationships with their southern co-religionists than about slavery. The Union Army, not religion, brought an end to ownership of humans in the United States. For nearly a century afterward, most white religious institutions did not hear the voice of God telling them that Jim Crow was nearly as evil as slavery itself.
I am an admirer, not a worshipper, of the men who forged the American Revolution. Trying to discern the “original intent” of the founders is rather like drawing conclusions about modern social issues from the Bible. Men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote so much—like the authors of the Scriptures—that you can find almost anything you want in their opinions. Did these men of the Enlightenment contradict themselves? Yes, they did—they contained multitudes.
But one thing is clear (pace Justice Scalia): the framers never intended to create a “Christian nation” or even a religion-based government. If they had, they would have said so in the Constitution—and the deliberate omission of God from the nation’s basic legal framework continues to pose a troublesome barrier for preacher-politicians. Religious conservatives in the nineteenth century never thought that the United States had been established as a Christian nation, or they would not have tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to promote a “Christian amendment” to the Constitution.
Regardless of their individual and collective shortcomings, the framers understood the great truth that solutions to human problems depend on human actions. In public policy disputes with a moral dimension—that is, every important policy dispute—democracy demands a political consensus that transcends all religions and, inevitably, runs counter to some. Equating morality with religion is one of the great mistakes—and great lies—of those who hate secular government.
When politics involves moral issues raised to the highest power—war and racism are prime examples—a free and religiously diverse people cannot decide on the basis of what the god of a Texas legislator or Jim Wallis or the Satmar Rebbe or President Obama or Pope Francis has to say.
Abraham Lincoln put it best in the runup to the Emancipation Proclamation. He said that he had been approached with conflicting advice by religious men who were “equally certain that they represent the Divine will.” Lincoln confessed that he too would like to know the will of Providence but added, “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”
These are not the days of miracles either—although it would be close to a miracle if American politicians took responsibility for what they do here on earth without pretending that the answers can be found in anyone’s vision of heaven.
Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan Books, 2005) and the forthcoming Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion (Pantheon, 2016).
This article is part of Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, click here.