U.S. Shows How in Public and Private
The Question: In his speech to U.S. bishops last week, Pope Benedict XVI said: "Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted . . . To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul." Do you agree or disagree? Why?
The Pope’s comments reflect the growing anxiety amongst religious Europeans that religion is being viewed with suspicion and even ire. This is nothing unprecedented, but the waves of Muslim immigrants have perhaps given the question a new dimension.
Here in the United States, on the other hand, the religion-state relationship generally reflects a healthier balance than in the European context. While Americans have resolutely rejected any formal role for the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, people of faith in this country generally feel comfortable expressing their religion, even in the public sector.
Of course, our situation is unique, and each country should treat religion in a manner most appropriate to its own distinct political, social, and religious contexts. In doing so, it must consider such factors as the politico-religious culture of its citizenry, the level of religious diversity in society, and the extent to which it has or has not succeeded in creating mature democratic and freedom-protecting political institutions.
In some societies, religion is divisive and potentially inflammatory. Therefore, its public expression is associated with the enforcement of religious beliefs and precepts, inter-faith conflict, or the corruption of the religion itself. Citizens of these countries – for example, in many European countries – have decided that religion must remain a fundamentally private matter, protected by the law and government, but separate from it. Within these countries, the privatization of religion must be considered appropriate.
However, the liberal notion that religion must always be treated as private is mistaken. This attitude reflects a naïve and unfair assumption that all people want to – or should want to – distance their religion from public society. In societies where religion has retained a central place in all spheres of life, to severe it from the public space is simply unrealistic and inappropriate. This strict separation alienates religious people, who often react defensively and retract towards their religious identity. While individual freedoms must be protected in these societies, we should respect others’ granting religion both a public and private role.
The religion-state relationship is complex everywhere, even messy, and no perfect model exists simply because no two countries are identical. When I look around the world, I see innumerable examples of healthy societies: some diminish the public role of religion, others celebrate it. We cannot impose our own feelings towards this delicate balance upon others.
Having said all that, as a woman of faith, I envision a society that can simultaneously protect private religion, embrace people of all religions into the fabric of public life (including those who reject religion), and draw upon our religions’ rich history and wisdom to inform both private ethics and public discourse.
For an exemplar, I look to the United States, where religion continues to flourish and be relevant, yet firmly removed from formal public structures. Historically, religious conviction has stimulated some of our country’s most remarkable activism, including the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, and most Americans appreciate its ability to fuel positive societal change. While religions are allowed to thrive in this country, no one religious belief – or disbelief – is promoted at the expense of another. In short, we have recognized that while religion must remain separate from the state, it can still play an important and positive role in public society.
Posted by: Roy | April 27, 2008 6:02 PM
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Posted by: Ben Abbott | April 27, 2008 5:55 PM
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