Monday, September 12, 2011

The Privatization of Religion

I’m taking a class at Drew this semester called “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” The name obviously caught my attention, and I decided to take it, even though I know nothing of the professor or class. I’m one class in, and I suppose I have a favorable opinion so far. But there was something the professor said in his opening lecture that nearly got me raising my hand. I restrained, but mainly because, since there’s only seven of us in the class and it’ll be run seminar-style, I know I’ll have time to bring it up sometime soon.

This is a bad paraphrase, but Dr. Golden (yes, that’s his name) said something to this extent: “I’m not with those who point to all of this religious crisis and think the answer is a religion-less world. That Lennon song annoys me. In fact, I think a lot of the answers to these conflicts lie in religion. But what does annoy me about certain religions – or really just certain religious people – is when they impress their beliefs on others. If they just kept their religion to themselves and their religious groups, and didn't take their religious ideas into politics, then I think we’d be pretty OK.”

I’m not the first to point out that what Mr. Golden is doing here is assigning religion to a private sphere, and disallowing it any public power. What I wanted to say (and hopefully will sometime later) is this: “But what if it is intrinsic to a religion – and I think most major religions fall into this category – to be public? What if a religion teaches a way of life that includes how we are to act politically? Aren’t we selling this religion short by limiting it? Aren’t we actually not really talking about that religion if we want it to act against its own tenets?”

Dr. Golden works a lot with religion and religious conflict. He was just awarded a $300,000 Carnegie Grant to jumpstart some inter-religious program to work with religious leaders all around the world. I don’t doubt he does a lot good. But my problem with his approach (as much as I could gauge from one lesson) is that is incorrectly defines religion. He wants to solve the problem by making religions “safe,” assigning them to the comfortably benign realm of the private or small communities.

But this misrepresents religion. Take Catholicism, for example. It is not enough for me to say I won’t perform or be involved in abortion. It’s not enough for me say I won’t engage in homosexual marriage. As a Catholic, I need to take these beliefs into the voting booth and the public sphere. And while this may annoy the heck out of Golden and the like, there’s a sincerely logical reason why: As a Catholic, I believe that the truths taught by the Magisterium are in fact Truths; as such, I believe that all people benefit by a society that lives by them. I don’t simply vote for pro-life or anti-gay-marriage politicians because I’m Catholic; I do it because I abortion is murder, and because I think a society is better for all when children grow up in heterosexual marriages – as well as for other reasons.

Of course, there are “private” Catholic matters. I’m not about to lobby for a national law that forces everyone to go to Mass every Sunday. But there are religious beliefs that lie outside of these strictly religious bounds, beliefs about human dignity that, if you believe them will necessarily change how you vote or approach public policy. We’re not upset when someone’s belief against slavery affected his or hers public actions; and people can’t be upset when we do the same thing. Golden et. al. wants to make all religious beliefs like the Sunday Mass rule.

I can see why Golden wants to do this, though – it’s tempting. It seems a nice approach. However, since at its heart it incorrectly defines religion, it is impossibly naïve. It will never work, since any person with real faith will never accept it. I agree that the reality here is a lot more problematic than Dr. Golden’s theories. Once we throw out these theories, we’re left with some complicated questions. Example: I’m fine taking my religious beliefs against abortion and gay-marriage into the voting both; but am I willing to grant the same right to a Muslim who supports Sharia Law? I understand that I’d be as naïve as Golden if I said, “Hey Muslim, you can bring into the voting booth the things already correspond with our “American” ideas; but the ones that don’t, keep those private.”

Although I don’t suppose the class will directly answer these types of questions, I do hope that the lectures, conversations, and readings will help lead me (privately) to some beginning answers.

1 comment:

  1. I am impressed by your line of thought, You often bring to words some of the thoughts that have been mulling around in my brain.

    Can a person with integrity separate their private beliefs with public action? I believe they are one and the same we stick up for those things we believe are truth. As you point out there is a difference between religious belief and religious practice. You will not legislate nor even try to legislate the Catholic practice of attending Sunday Mass.

    Unlike decades ago, the idea seems to be prevalent today that moral behavior is not right/wrong or absolute truth, but moral behavior is relevant or changes depending on an individual's circumstances and beliefs. If this were true then abortion is not a right/wrong issue, but only relevant to your current belief and circumstances and the belief that we should "live and let live" should be the rule of the day. Thus, a religious person or any person who believes in moral absolutes (religious or not) has no say in today's politics. I suppose this is where a lot of today's conflict seem to play out. If this attitude were in place two-hundred years ago we would probably still have slavery and women might not be able to vote. Individuals had personal belief (religious and non-religious) and worked to bring about laws that reflected those beliefs.

    Ironically, the belief of non-absolute morals is a belief in of itself.

    A question to think on... if a religious individual believes that certain legislation would greatly limit or hurt that individual's religious freedom, does that individual have a right/ responsibility to do all that they could (legally and appropriately) to protect their rights by working against that harmful legislation and working to pass laws that protect their freedom of religion?

    Another question... does it justify non-legal or drastic measures if they believe those freedoms to be in jeopardy?

    I hope you are able to continue writing how things go in your class and the discussions/thoughts that abound there and your take on it.