Religion's role in politics

The controversy surrounding the Helms-Hyde antiabortion bill raises, yet again, the issue of religion and politics. Is it legitimate for theological considerations to infiltrate the political process, for clerics to use the pulpit as a stump, for religious organizations to lend their stamp of moral approval or disapprobation to candidates and policies?

These are difficult questions. For those who would condemn the political activism of, say, the Moral Majority and the Roman Catholic Church are, on the whole, those who would also commend the political activism of a Martin Luther King, the liberation theologists of Latin America, and the like. And indeed, who could expect or want religious authorities to remain silent in the face of the moral outrages perpetrated, from time to time, by political authorities?

Is there, then, some principle on the basis of which we can distinguish between the legitimate and illegitimate intrusion of organized religion into the sphere of politics? I think there is, and I believe some reflections on the Helms-Hyde bill can be helpful in showing just what that principle might be.

Helms-Hyde contains essentially two elements. There is, to begin with, an underlying conviction that murder is immoral. The bill, that is, is based upon a broad ethical premise, essentially embodied in the Fifth Commandment. I take this premise to be utterly uncontroversial. I am unaware of any "pro- choice" leader who finds murder ethically acceptable; certainly no one of importance in American public life would espouse such a view.

But Helms-Hyde also includes an effort to definem murder, that is, to take the moral premise and applym it to particular circumstances. Of course, such a task is a difficult one, inherently disputatious.

Is it "murder" if the perpetrator happens to be a child, a lunatic, a soldier in battle? Or if the victim is an assailant, a Nazi, a fetus? And indeed, what is a "child," a "lunatic," a "fetus," etc.?

Questions such as these are, I would suggest, inherently unanswerable. Or, rather, the answers we give are inevitably time-bound, chnging as customs and theories of human behavior change; and, since the latter change only haphazardly and unevenly, disputes are inevitable. Yet throughout these changes and disputes, the basic moral premises -- e.g. thou shalt not kill -- remain essentially unaffected, unquestioned.

What we have, then, is a species of "casuistry." Though typically used to refer to the scholastic disputes of the Middle Ages, casuistry also has a wider usage, one which refers to any practical dispute concerning the application of a general principle to particular and specific cases. The value of the Commandments, for example, is not the subject matter of casuistry; but the application of those Commandments to particular cases is.

Now casuistry, even in this wider sense, has earned an unflattering reputation through the centuries as a symbol of pedantry, sophistry, and deceit. Yet casuistry is also absolutely necessary; for general principles, especially ethical principles, must be coherently applied if they are to have any force; and someone has to decide how to apply them. The question then becomes who should perform this task?

It is here, in my judgment, that we can more clearly identify abuses of the political system by religious authorities. In brief, the church-state relationship is undermined when religious leaders and organizations seek to influence questions of application, casuistical questions, by treating them as though they were not merely casuistical questions at all but, rather, questions of basic moral doctrine. This is, I would argue, a perversion. For its effect is to forestall discussion and undermine the free deliberation of politics while , at the same time, diluting and cheapening the very notion of basic moral principles.

In this sense, then, the proper politicalm role of the church is essentially to assert and defend the core values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, relying on example and allegory in protraying the worth of those values and inspiring, thereby, those who choose to listen. In other words, its role is to protect those core values, to remain vigilant in their defense, to keep their spirit alive. Its role, in short, is to defend peace on earth, but not the MX system; to preach community, rather than the doctrine of neighborhood schools; indeed, to defend the sanctity of life, but also to remain silent on the Helms-Hyde bill.

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