Boston, Mass.–In his speech at the Democratic Convention, Ron Reagan complained that, in the case of embryonic-stem-cell research, “the theology of the few” was dictating policy. This echoes a sentiment expressed by John Kerry earlier, when he explained how he could believe life begins at conception but still be pro-choice. “I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist.” Both those on the left and libertarian right suggest that it’s O.K. for religious conservatives to have their beliefs, but that they shouldn’t “impose” their theology on others. This is frightening, the argument goes, because we have freedom of religion here in America and no one should be compelled to adopt the religious beliefs of someone else.
But it is perfectly appropriate to force one’s religious beliefs on others.
Let’s say a Senator A opposes the Iraq war on practical grounds. He thinks it’s a distraction from fighting al Qaeda that erodes our credibility overseas. He votes no on the war. Senator B also opposes the war. He’s a Catholic and has read up on just-war theory and concluded that this war is immoral because it was preemptive and could have been avoided through peaceful means. He votes no, too.
They both voted no–and yet one did so for reasons practical, and the other for reasons moral and theological. Is one an appropriate vote and the other not? Slice it further. Let’s say Senator C also voted against the war and, like Senator B, did so primarily for moral reasons. But in his case, Senator C read no Catholic just war theory; instead, he came to view it as immoral after seeing Fahrenheit 9/11. So Senators B and C both voted against for moral reasons: in one case, from having seen a secular movie, and in the other, from having read a religious document.
Are we really saying that only Senators A and C, the ones who didn’t draw upon religion, used legitimate thought processes?
What people really mean when they say so-and-so is imposing his religious beliefs on me is that they don’t happen to agree with those beliefs. Because most of these big issues are decided democratically, it is by definition impossible to impose one’s religious views on someone else. Actually, strike that: It’s impossible to impose one’s religious views any more than we impose any other kind of views. The candidate who wins 51 percent gets to impose his views on all those people who voted for the candidate who got 49 percent.
The Founding Fathers were quite clear that, while they wanted separation of church and state, they also wanted religion to play a major role in shaping political morality. In his farewell address, George Washington said, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
The Left and Right have both followed the advice of the Founding Fathers at different points in history. Abolitionism and the civil-rights movement–two moral highpoints of our history–were driven by people attempting to impose their religious views on others. So is the right-to-life movement.
There is, however, a problem with the way some religious conservatives approach the political sphere. The problem is not dogmatism, but laziness. Someone who rests the argument for a certain position entirely on the fact that his religion told him to is not really attempting to persuade. Even if one is motivated by faith, one still has to convince others using secular, or at least broad-gauge, moral arguments. It is fine for someone to oppose gay marriage because Leviticus frowns on homosexuality. It’s neither appropriate nor smart to say Leviticus calls homosexuality an abomination and so you should too. That is demanding that other people accept your religion. Some religious conservatives forget to persuade because they live in a political cloister, speaking mostly with others who agree with them, and for whom Leviticus is an effective shorthand. One of the reasons the Founding Fathers thought religion important to a functioning democracy is that it would tamp down passions and ensure that people would listen to each other. Religious conservatives need to understand that part of the Founding Fathers’ wisdom, too.
So, Senator Kerry, it’s appropriate for religious conservatives to try to impose their religious views. As for those who merely assert religious dogma, you shouldn’t worry–since they’re likely to lose.
–Steven Waldman is the editor in chief and co-founder of Beliefnet.