We the People
France Griggs Sloat
As a means of continuing education, we asked several Xavier faculty: Should they mix? Should religion have a role in government or public policy? What limitations, if any, should be imposed? At what point does it cross the line of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of a state religion?
Here we talk to Paul Colella. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Professor of Philosophy; Director, Philosophy, Politics and the Public
Starting in the 1670s, there was real tension in American life between religious ideals and material prosperity. That’s a fundamental theme that hasn’t really disappeared. We are today the most materialistically secure country in the world but also one that is still looking for its religious center, a kind of spiritual center.
The Founding Fathers believed matters of religion are private, not political. One of the fundamental features of modern democratic political theory is there’s a domain of private conscience and rights that is technically out of political bounds—the freedom of conscience and religion.
So the answer to if religion should have a role in government is no, unless we want to seriously rethink what democratic practice should really mean. There’s a fundamental tension in the American culture between the conditions prior to the establishment of the United States, when religion and politics were fused, and the condition after the foundation of the U.S., when the political doctrines the Founding Fathers used had to place religion outside of political consideration. So it didn’t matter what religion you practiced, you could still be a citizen, whereas in Europe there were nations where unless you were a member of the official state religion, you couldn’t be a full citizen.
Today, there’s the desire for that kind of spiritual center that Americans long for, but I don’t see that happening politically. I hope eventually people will see you can’t institute a politically sanctioned religion without jeopardizing the democratic principles upon which our government is based. There are forces in American culture, i.e. the Constitution, that would make sure that doesn’t happen, all the way to the Supreme Court, which is probably a very careful protector of the Constitution.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J.