I like what Stanley Fish had to say today in the New York Times, about Rick Santorum’s understanding of religion in American politics: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/rick-santorum-isnt-crazy/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20120306.

I tried to say as much myself a few months ago, but as I am no Stanley Fish, my piece only made it as far as the Alma College magazine, Accents: http://www.alma.edu/alumni/accents/archives. Here’s what it said:

BELIEFS ARE ALWAYS POLITICAL

When American pastors burn Qurans or politicians denounce the presence of Islam inU.S.politics, they appeal superficially to our tradition of separating church (or mosque) and state. But scratching the surface of their rhetoric exposes a hypocritical double standard. Beliefs, especially “Judeo-Christianity” and secular humanism, have always shaped and continue to shape our nation’s politics.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, while prohibiting the establishment of any particular religion, does not exclude belief from public debate. Americans sometimes balk when religion is “used for political purposes,” but such complaints assume that belief is essentially inward, belonging only in the private sphere. They may also assume that the “true essence” of religion is some abstract belief in love, peace, and harmony, all of which are taken to be utterly irrelevant to the real world. By this logic, acts of violent extremism or nonviolent protest can only wrongly be called “religious.”

But such an understanding does not hold up in light ofU.S.history, where religious worldviews have always intersected public interests. Belief, namely deism, factored into the colonies’ decision to part fromEngland. Christians fought the Civil War over religious beliefs about the personhood of slaves. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a political movement for civil rights that was unabashedly faith-based. American troops were sent toVietnamto fight atheist communism. In none of these cases was religion wrongly “politicized”; rather, each case demonstrates that beliefs always have political corollaries. (Indeed, one wonders whether belief with no concrete effects can properly be called “belief.”)

Even when theological understandings about the way the world works are not made explicit, they can be found by reading between the lines of policy recommendations. Does my god want humans to care for one another? Then we should raise taxes to pay for things like public education and health care. Does my god want individuals to exercise free will and take care of themselves? Then we should do away with all public safety nets. Is there no god at all? Then science will show us the way.

This should not surprise us. Humans are highly social beings who carry our beliefs wherever we go – the board room as well as the bedroom; the PTO meeting as well as the family dinner table; the voting booth as well as the couch from which we shout at the TV. Since both religion and politics deal with people, both religion and politics cut across every aspect of human life – where we live; how we earn, spend, or donate money; whether we recycle; what we eat and with whom; whether and how we marry and rear children; how we treat our aging parents; and so on. Americans should not pretend that some of us are able to cordon off our “private” beliefs from politics while others of us cannot. Nor should we take our own beliefs to be politically “neutral” and therefore acceptable in politics, while seeing others’ beliefs as wrongly applied to the public sphere.

Our debates would undoubtedly make more sense if we openly addressed the elephant in the room (or the Ganesha, as the case may be). If personal belief is an inevitable piece of all policy debate, then we cannot exclude the beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Mormons, atheists, or for that matter Scientologists, simply because they are “religious.” But by the same token, Christian belief does not deserve special privileges simply because it is dominant. Americans can enthusiastically affirm the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment while still acknowledging that private belief and public practice are two sides of the same coin.

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