Religion in politics needs bounds

Sunday, March 19, 2000

James Madison, whose birthday we mark this week, would hardly be surprised by the ugly injection of religion into the current presidential campaign. After all, the First Amendment that he helped draft separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life.

The man who has been called the “Father of the Constitution” and the “master builder of the First Amendment” anticipated a messy, noisy public square in which religious convictions and differences would inevitably play a part in the political process. In fact, he took the pragmatic view that a multiplicity of religious voices in our society would prevent any one voice from dominating and would thereby guard religious liberty.

But accepting the disorderly nature of democratic freedom doesn't preclude concern for freedom's abuse. Playing the “God card” would appall Madison as much today as it did in the campaign of 1800, when his friend Thomas Jefferson was viciously attacked as an “unbeliever” unworthy to be president.

Then, as now, the problem wasn't the presence of religious voices in politics but the manipulation of religion by combatants in the political arena. It may not be unconstitutional to stir the pot of religious emotions and divisions to win votes, but such tactics threaten to break apart the bonds of civility that bind us together as “We the People.”

The recent charges and countercharges about “anti-Catholic bigotry” and “agents of intolerance” are symptomatic of the widespread confusion and conflict surrounding the role of religion in American public life. From abortion to homosexuality to school prayer to the Ten Commandments, incendiary rhetoric and personal attacks frequently transform legitimate public-policy debates into bitter culture-war battles.

The remedy is not, of course, to ban religion from public discourse (as some on the left appear to advocate). But neither should we tolerate efforts to impose religion through the engine of government (as some on the right propose). Both approaches would not only be unconstitutional, but also unfair and unjust.

Under the terms of Mr. Madison's amendment, no religion may be established in America and all citizens are free to argue from religious or non-religious convictions in the public square. The challenge is to agree on “rules of engagement” that treat people of all faiths and none with fairness and respect.

Can we agree to negotiate our disputes without going for the jugular? Can we articulate a shared understanding of the role religion plays in public life and politics? Given the current climate of distrust, answering these questions will not be easy. Nevertheless, for the health of our nation we must try.

One significant attempt to address these issues will begin on March 23, when the American Assembly brings together 70 citizens representing many faiths and a broad range of professions and opinions. For the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the Assembly in 1950 at Columbia University, the focus of the dialogue will be on religion in American public life.

Over a period of four days, this diverse group of Americans will seek consensus on public-policy recommendations that serve the best interests of the country. Following the national session, a series of regional and local Assemblies will be held throughout the United States to give as many citizens as possible an opportunity to participate in the dialogue.

Surely the spirit of James Madison hovers over this and all other efforts by Americans to seek a common vision of the common good across our religious divisions. We are the fortunate heirs of the Madisonian principles of religious liberty, a civic arrangement that enables us to debate our differences, to understand one another, and to forge public policies that serve the common good.

Now that the United States is the most religiously diverse place on earth and — among developed nations — the most religious, it is a matter of growing urgency that we commit ourselves to negotiate our differences with civility and respect. This does not mean ignoring or minimizing differences that are deep and abiding but, rather, reaffirming what we share as American citizens.

Can we sustain history's boldest and most successful experiment in religious liberty and diversity? We must.