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 Bill Madges. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Professor of Theology; Chair, Department of Theology
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as I understand it, permits religious groups not only freely to practice their religion, but also freely to express their judgments on social and political issues. If other “interest groups” have the freedom to speak their minds and even the freedom to “petition” or lobby the government concerning legislation, so, too, does religion. To categorically deny religion a voice in the public sphere, therefore, would violate the rights of religious people and would violate the Constitution.
On the other hand, we must be mindful of the fact that our country is pluralistic and diverse and that we have a duty to respect the conscience and human dignity of others. American citizens practice as many as 1,200 different religions; some American citizens practice no religion. The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for the government to establish laws or set public policy solely on the basis of the religious convictions or arguments of one or more religious groups, especially when such arguments and convictions conflict with those of other citizens concerning the nature of what is true and right.
The challenge facing America’s religions is whether they are able to formulate arguments for their vision of public policy and the social good that can win the support of those who do not share their specific religious motivation or convictions. Religion’s tools for shaping public policy must be reason and persuasion, not coercion or the violation of the rights of others. As the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” declared, the truth “cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Our dignity as human beings, I believe, requires that all of us seek the truth and act responsibly in accord with the truth we have discovered. This search for the truth, however, is aided by open and free dialogue with others, including those who don’t belong to our social or religious group. In the process of freely exercising their religious and civil rights, religious people are morally bound “to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all.” Conversely, religious people are owed that same respect by others. Mutual respect and civility are sorely needed in today’s contemporary debates about the social and moral order.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J.