Religion and politics

America in 1984 did not just discover the tension in human affairs between the free individual exercise of religion and the collective power of government. Mankind's history has continually recorded the conflict that arises out of confusing religious and state authority. Babylonia's King Nebuchadnezzar tried to suppress the captive Hebrews' faith in their God, subjecting them to the ''fiery furnace'' for refusing to bow down to his idol; their survival from the ordeal was but one triumph of inspired religious conscience over the attempted tyranny of the state. Crusades, inquisitions, and wars have shown the potency of religious fervor in secular affairs.

Martin Luther's ''Here I stand; I can do no other'' expressed the assertion of the individual's right to worship in a fellowship of belief. Out of this conviction came the Reformation and the precedent for Christian denominational pluralism.

The very settling of America by the Pilgrims grew out of the pursuit of religious freedom. The First Amendment of the Constitution, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states, clearly prohibited government intrusion upon religious practice and protected the expression of nonreligious conviction. The entire brief amendment reads: ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.''

This is not to suggest that America is an irreligious nation. Far from it. The sense of purpose that Americans have felt since the nation's founding and still feel today - that the United States has a special mission to fulfill in mankind's progress toward more democratic and enlightened government - is akin to religious conviction.

It is not to say, either, that religion has ''no place'' in government. Religious values should inspire the public and its elected and appointed officials to the most moral, compassionate, and wise decisions possible. Again, history shows, as in the case of Joseph in Egypt, when he was taken from prison to the palace, and his interpretation of the king's dream and administration of the kingdom saved the entire region from famine, that individual spiritual enlightenment can prove the very best preparation for public service.

It is because of the relevance of religion to public life that distinctions between religion and government must be closely drawn.

There is a danger of trivializing religious beliefs in pursuit of partisan ends. In political campaigns, as at present, candidates appeal to public subgroups to suggest the politicians are ''one of them,'' under the guise of promised support on religion-related issues. It works the other way, too. Church leaders use their ecclesiastical status and presumed community authority to influence party platforms and to lean on politicians for support of church positions, as if they can deliver votes.

In this election, two of the obviously courted religious groups are the fundamentalist Christians and Roman Catholic voters; they are regarded as crucial to Republican prospects in the South, the southern portions of the Midwest, and the Northeast. The main issues highlighted by the GOP for political appeal are an abortion amendment, prayer in schools, and tuition tax credits for private and parochial schools. Other issues breaching the church-state line have included the administration's appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican. In response, Democrats have attempted to appeal to these same groups by emphasizing ethnic ''family'' values, the work ethic, patriotism.

Much of this is ironic. The Republican Party's formula for representation in party affairs was devised back in the 1920s, when the GOP feared the influx of European immigrants would give disproportionate strength to the increasingly Catholic Northeast and Midwest industrial states. Then, the religious division between Protestant and Catholic was a most salient political force. The Northeast and South were deliberately underrepresented in the GOP rules formula - a condition still uncorrected at the party's Dallas convention in August. Today on most issues, including those cited above, divisions among American Protestants and Catholics are similar.

It is a temptation of electoral politics to use almost any available issue to partisan ends. That is why politicians show up at the front of almost any public parade.

It is a protection to politics to declare certain grounds off limits. The prohibition against blaming one party or the other for the start of war is one example of the agreement that partisanship in foreign affairs should stop at the water's edge. Violation of this precept in a speech at the Dallas convention was rightly rebuked by GOP officials.

Partisanship in religious matters, especially during political campaigns when motives of the courters and courted alike are necessarily suspect, should similarly stop at the church or synagogue or mosque door.

Religion can offer an abundance of guidance for public life. Of course, public officials should consult their conscience and teachings. Decisions about war and peace and the responsibility of the state for the needy are value judgments of the highest order. But the public as citizens and their elected officials must work out progressive positions case by case. Confusing the roles of religion and government can only impede society's progress.

Religion is too important to reduce its relevance to arguments over the motto ''In God We Trust'' on coins or the place of chaplains in the military or public officials' church-attendance records.

Whole peoples have been subjugated and even destroyed for reasons of religious identity. Recognition of the rights of individual conscience and the protection of religious pluralism are too vital to American society to risk tampering with them during the 1984 political campaign. In the long view, upholding the separation of church and state far outweighs any advantage sought by playing to religion-related issues of the moment.

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