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 John Fairfield. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Professor of History
I do believe that religion has a role to play in politics, if only to inject some consideration of ethics and ends into our debates. Religious ideas can serve to elevate our discourse above a mere calculation of interest or the manipulation of voting/identity groups. Religious thinkers should also consider the impact of their principles on social development, and political debate encourages that.
But religious ideas should be given the same status as other sorts of ideas and not be held up as trump cards or a means to end debate or claim certainty. We certainly do not want to have one single, civic religion. Nor do we want a watery, universal religious consensus, bland enough to include everyone. I believe religious thinkers should stand for something but also have respect for other religious traditions and for other religious thinkers. This is what Josiah Royce meant when he spoke of "loyalty to loyalty," a respect for the loyalty that others have to a set of values and principles. We must also, of course, respect the right of others to their own religious ideas or their rejection of religion entirely. Civil liberties and civil rights remain paramount, in my view.
I prefer to live in a secular rather than a religious state. Within those parameters, I do believe religion can enrich and even elevate the level of our political debate (it wouldn’t take much to do that). Religion in politics today, however, appears largely in the form of self-righteousness and debate-killing certainty. I have a great deal of trouble understanding this. The last thing my religion (I am a practicing Catholic, active in my parish) gives me is a sense of self-righteousness. Instead it continually holds up to me my failure to live up to my own stated values. Religion does not provide me with easy answers or certain knowledge, but rather a nagging sense of my own limitations, my own mistakes and errors. It therefore serves as a much-needed (but, alas, insufficient) guard against self-righteousness, a continual reminder that I have been wrong and selfishly motivated in the past, and that I might be yet again. In that form, I believe religion has a great deal to offer in our political debate.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J.