12 August 2005

Religion as a reason for discrimination

With the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, some of the
rumblings from conservative (mostly) Christians have focused on
Roberts’ religious beliefs

“We are going to be vigilant to make sure that there is not this
religious litmus test imposed,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the
Family Research Council, an evangelical Protestant group that is the
principal organizer of the telecast, which will take place at 7 p.m.
Sunday from a megachurch in Nashville.

” ‘Are you a Catholic? Do
you really believe what the Catholic church teaches?’ These kinds of
things shouldn’t be part of the discussion,” Mr. Perkins said.

As much as they may not like to do
so, it’s to their own advantage not to keep raising this.

Of late, the religious right–especially the Christianists–have
engaged in the political hypocrisy evident in Perkins here.  They
want religious belief to be an accepted logic of political choice, but
they do their best to create a black box around that belief, separating
it from scrutiny.  In other words, they want the nation to accept
the basis for their political action while trying to prevent
questioning of that political action.  The logic is invidious and
circular: “The nominee is a Catholic and so may oppose an
abortion.  But if you ask why he opposes abortions, you
discriminate against him because of his Catholicism.”  Evil genius.

Interjecting religion into the public sphere in this way, simply, turns
it into a category of legitimate political discrimination.  This
is not a religious test, but this insistence on the right to use one’s
religious beliefs in coming to some or all of one’s political
conclusions means that the religious content of one’s beliefs can be
examined with respect to one’s capacity as an official serving the

Let me make this more concrete.  Let’s say that a devout religious
believer receives a nomination for public office (or runs for public
office) of some sort.  In the decision to confirm or elect a
person, the public and its representatives have the right to examine
how s/he thinks.  The way that the potential official thinks about
public problems gives us some sort of predictor for the type of
official s/he will be, and the sorts of decisions that s/he might
make.  We need to know these things if we are to make an informed
decision as to whether we want to place a person in a position of
authority.  The essence of a representative form of government is
that we must be able to examine our officials and accept or reject
them, depending upon whether we like or dislike their beliefs and ways
of thinking.  To do otherwise is to accept some other form of
government, but not a respresentative democracy as we have come to
understand it in the West.

When we insist that people must be allowed to use their religious
beliefs to make their public, political decisions, we turn religion
into another of the many categories by which we may examine and discern
the acceptability of an official.  Our liberal system requires, of
course, that we not discriminate against, for example, John Roberts
because he is a Catholic.  But if his Catholicism leads him to
views about public matters that one finds unacceptable, then one is
obligated to oppose him on those grounds.  This might seem like
splitting hairs–to oppose a public official not because of his
religion but because of what his religion leads him to believe about
public policy–but it’s not.

The difference lies in the distinction between identity and
belief.  We’ve established in our politics (at least until now)
that we seek to not discriminate against a person because of who he or
she might be or see himself to be–the
question of identity.  But it’s perfectly permissible to
discriminate against a person for what she thinks.  We most
certainly do this when we choose someone based upon his party label,
because the party label is a shorthand for what the candidate
thinks.  (Even so, we probe party-identified candidates, to
ascertain to what extent they agree with the core beliefs articulated
by their party.)  Thus, we do not (ideally) vote against someone
because he is a Catholic, but because we do not agree that the
implications of his stated understanding of the public requirements of
Catholicism are acceptable public policy.  We do not vote against
a person who is black or Latina, but we may vote against her if she
notes that her status as a minority leads her to support affirmative
action (insofar as we might be against affirmative action).  In
the case of religion, if it is to be an acceptable characteristic in a
public official, we have to ascertain what the content of that
religious beliefs means for the rest of us.

Let’s say that we had a nominee for public office whose religion
required that it be the official religion of the state, in a polity
where no functioning official religion existed.  Not only would
being official require that the ceremonials and trappings of the state
be interlocked with the religion’s, but the laws, policies, and
officials of the state would all need to conform to the religion’s
dictates.  The citizenry might even be required to conform to the
religion, as a condition of citizenship.  If we could not
discriminate against the implications of belief, simply because those
implications rise out of religious belief, then we undermine the
legitimacy of discriminating against or for a candidate on any other

Furthermore, it cheapens religion, in some sense, to become a political
category in this fashion.  Most polls and case studies of the role
that religion plays in the lives of citizens in our polity indiacte
that it is among the most cherished aspects of the religious person’s
life.  To use religion in the fashion that the religious right
wishes has the great likelihood of making religious identity
ontologically identical to membership in the League of Women Voters or
the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  This is not to say that religion
has no place in our public life, but the use of belief as a tactic and
strategy to gain unquestioned power reduces the religious claim to
offer help in touching the transcedance of ordinary material life.

Tocqueville puts the danger of religion claiming an all-ecompassing
role nicely: “…Religions should be most careful to confine themselves
to their proper sphere, for if they wish to extend their power beyond
spiritual matters they run the risk of not being believed at all. 
They should therefore be at pains to define the sphere in which they
claim to control the human spirit, and outside that sphere it should be
left completely free to follow its own devices.”

This does not mean religion has no role in the public arena.  But
if religious belief overreaches, it can lose its distinctiveness and
power.  And that harms both religion and democracy.

Posted in Politicks on 12 August 2005 at 11:03 am by Nate