“We shouldn’t impose our beliefs on other people!”

Halfway on the drive between Columbia and Kansas City our argument reached a pitch. My girlfriend (now wife) and I were debating a hot-button issue in the 2008 election. She argued that we should vote in line with our Christian beliefs. I, however, took the opposite perspective. While personally opposed to the issues like abortion, it felt like a violation of the separation of church and state to legislate my Christian morals. In the heat of it all I burst out, “We shouldn’t impose our beliefs on other people!” My frustrated interjection put our debate to death. But during the ensuing years I experienced a slow conversion of perspective.

It turns out (who’s surprised) that my wife was right all along.

That conversion began when I read Hunter S. Baker’s The End of Secularism. For the first time, I realized that there’s no such thing as a “neutral secular ground.” All legislating includes a moral element, which people bring to the law based on their own beliefs, ideas, feelings, and experiences. To exclude someone’s perspective because it is in line with their faith is a violation of the separation of church and state – the state cannot invalidate someone’s views because they’re religious, philosophic, scientific or otherwise.

In fact, the Christian perspective on many modern issues, like abortion, does not require a direct appeal to divine revelation. Instead we may appeal to the very ideals on which our nation was founded, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Pro-lifers can appeal to the unalienable human rights of fetuses and human embryos, which are violated when we kill them in the womb. We appeal that all humans share the right to life, no matter their age, sex, class, race, or stage of development.

Ironically, disqualifying people’s ideas as “religious” and therefore invalid or private, would cause great social evils. Consider the case of two Catholic bishops one modern and one older: abortion and segregation. Robert S. George tells the story in Consience and its Enemies:

In the run up to the 2004 presidential election, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis … declared that public officials who support abortion and other unjust attacks against innocent human life may not be admitted to Holy Communion…. Critics, however, were quick to condemn Archbishop Burke. They denounced him for “crossing the line” separating church and state…  

John Smith, the Bishop of Trenton, did not go as far as Raymond Burke had gone in forbidding pro-abortion Catholic politicians from receiving communion. Bishop Smith did, however, in the words of the Bergen Record, “publicly lash” Governor James McGreevey, a pro-abortion Catholic, for his support of abortion and embryo-destructive research. In an editorial, the Record accused the bishop of jeopardizing the delicate “balance” of our constitutional structure…

Since the Record had seen fit to take us back to the 1960 for guidance, I thought I would invite its editors to consider a case that had arisen only a few years earlier than that. In a letter to the editor, I proposed a question that would enable readers to determine immediately whether the editors of the Bergen Record were persons of strict principle or mere hypocrites. 

I reminded readers that in the 1950s, in the midst of the political conflict over segregation, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans publicly informed Catholics that support for racial segregation was incompatible with Catholic teaching on the inherent dignity and equal rights of all human beings. Archbishop Rummel said that “racial segregation is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve.” He warned Catholic public officials that support for segregation placed their souls in peril. Indeed, Rummel took the step of publicly excommunicating Leander Perez, one of the most powerful political bosses in Louisiana, and two others who promoted legislation designed to impede desegregation of diocesan schools. So I asked the Begen Record: Was Archbishop Rummel wrong? Or do Catholic bishops “cross the line” and jeopardize the delicate constitutional balance only when their rebukes to politicians contradict the views of the editors of the Record? … 

The Bergen Record was hardly alone in expressing anger. … The editors of the New York Times, for example, also scolded the [Bishop Smith], insisting that “separation of church and state” means no religious leader may presume to tell public officials what their positions may and may not be on matters of public policy. But when Archbishop Rummel excommunicated the segregationist politicians in the 1950s, far from condemning the archbishop, the editors of the New York Times praised him. They were right then; they are wrong now. 

This story illustrates the immense danger of invalidating any moral perspective. Where would our country be if we invalidated Martin Luther King’s (often explicitly religious) defense of desegregation? Where would we be without the devout abolitionists in the UK and US, who stood on Biblical grounds for the freedom of all men?

We ought to bring our unique moral perspectives to the table and argue each view by its own merits. We ought not to invalidate others with the groundless quibble that a view is “religious.” Our debates will be complex, because we all value different ideas of the good life, the role of government, and the hierarchy of values (for instance is protecting life or personal autonomy more important?)

What we cannot do is invalidate a perspective before we listen. Unfortunately, that’s what I did five years ago on the way to Kansas City. The separation of church and state does not mean that religious perspectives are invalid or merely personal. It means that the state can’t control the church (by forcing religious persons to violate their consciences or worship a particular God), and that the church will not control the state (as in a theocracy).

When one argues that one must keep his religious views relegated to his private life, one has made an inherently religious statement. One has defined a new religion where the dogma is “don’t ask don’t ask don’t tell” on spiritual topics. Thankfully our religious liberties protect us from being forced to participate in this religion.

It is unnatural and harmful to force religious people to divide their lives into spiritual and non-spiritual sectors. No one tells a philosopher or a scientist or sexual liberationist that he must keep his most treasured beliefs private. Freedom is a two-way street; like it or not we’re all imposing our beliefs on one another. May the view with the highest merit stand.

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