How should religious beliefs and organizations figure in our political life? At no time in recent memory has this question aroused the passion it does now, thanks to a president who reiterates the importance of his evangelical Christian beliefs and to the Supreme Court’s recent far-reaching changes in the interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee—in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses—that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In truth, we face not one crucial question about religion and government, but four related ones. The first question is what accommodations government should make to the exercise of religion. Should it exempt religious pacifists from military duty, permit Amish parents to withdraw their children from school after the eighth grade, or allow the Native American Church to use peyote during worship? Should any such exemptions from ordinary legal requirements be extended to people with strong nonreligious claims to the same privileges? How far should legislators decide these matters; to what extent should courts do so as part of enforcing the Constitution?
The second question concerns the government’s sponsoring or endorsing particular understandings of religious truth. Should public school teachers lead prayers, or complement the teaching of evolution with ideas of intelligent design? Should winter holiday displays on public property include crèches? Should the Pledge of Allegiance contain the words “under God?” Do these practices amount to forbidden establishments of religion? Related questions arise about the discourse of high officials. Should they, like George W. Bush, keep referring to their own religious convictions and employ rhetorical expressions that appeal to cobelievers?
The third question involves financial assistance. Religious groups offer a wide range of social services, including hospitals, adoption agencies, food kitchens, drug rehabilitation programs, and schools. Should public money assist these endeavors, so long as the state does not favor any particular religion or favor religious efforts over nonreligious ones? If the government can, consistent with the Establishment Clause, pay for these services, should it? If so, what conditions should it set regarding those who receive and provide the services? More particularly, when it pays the bill, should it also bar religious discrimination? Finally, to what degree should religious organizations and those who contribute to them receive relief from property, sales, and income taxes?
The fourth question, although a staple of political philosophy during the last quarter-century, is the least understood. It concerns the explanations citizens and officials offer for their political positions. Should everyone rely on “public reasons,” not private faith, when they take part in the political processes of liberal democracies, or may people rely on whatever premises they find most convincing? The initial thought, that people relying on religious principles necessarily promote their religion, is mistaken. Consider the impoverished lives of animals subjected to factory farming. Suppose someone supports a law to assure a more tolerable existence for animals raised for human consumption because she believes God made other animals not purely for human benefit but as independently valuable…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.