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 Robert Rethy. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Professor of Philosophy; Chair, Department of Philosophy
Religion is going to have a role insofar as people came here because of their religious beliefs. They wanted to exercise them, and that’s in the public sphere. It’s a good thing. It’s part of what makes us the U.S.
The question of the establishment of religion is another thing. The Constitution says we’re to have free exercise of religion but no establishment of religion, which is absolutely proper. But to say there shouldn’t be an influence of religion on politics would be incorrect. Many of the things characteristic of the U.S.—abolition, civil rights—bore much of their strength from religious beliefs.
Obviously, if we had a president saying this was a Christian country, and I’m a Jew, I would get alarmed. But you can also get alarmed if there is a denial of the role of Christianity or the Judeo-Christian tradition. The exercise of religion is extremely important, and in those countries where there is a loss of religious observance, I think those nations are in a state of spiritual, intellectual and cultural decline. I worry about the marginalization of religion from public life. We’ve become so secular that any discussion of religion is seen as a threat. So there’s a danger of impoverishing our intellectual life by denying the historical role of religion, and it’s the same thing in our political life. The idea that we are all equal goes back to the scriptures, and that is the basis for democracy and the assumption that all humans deserve to be free. What happens when we get rid of that is tyranny. The two greatest tyrannies of the 20th century are Communism and Nazism.
I also think if very religious people feel they’re being abused, that will tend to make them more vocal and more forceful. To a certain degree we are seeing it now. The answer here is to remind secularists they need to be tolerant. And religious people need to be tolerant, too. It is a kind of intolerance of a certain way of thinking. We do need to calm down a bit.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J.