Even a corner-of-the-eye glance at US politics this past year and the conclusion is obvious: Religion has played a polarizing role.
Abortion, stem-cell research, the war in Iraq, gay marriage, prayer in schools were and still are just some of the 2004 election campaign issues that brought out religious voices. Church activists played leading roles in making sure bans on same-sex marriages passed in 13 states. A Candidate's attendance or non-attendance at church in some cases became an issue. Even driving an SUV became a question to ask - "What would Jesus drive?" - for left-leaning churches.
When an electorate becomes as evenly divided as the US has been in the past two presidential elections, it can seem expedient for both major parties to look for sympathetic churches to boost their appeal - and vote count. Republicans targeted largely white evangelical churches, and Democrats appealed to black churches.
To counter this trend, more than 40 US denominations took part in a Convocation on Hunger last week. Members from the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, and other evangelical churches prayed alongside Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, mainline Protestants and Jews. They had found an issue they could agree on and which could be raised publicly. For a number of years, many denominations led the call for debt forgiveness in Africa recently agreed to by the developed nations.
Such unity shows that religious beliefs need not be captive to one partisan view. Yes, different religious beliefs may have different social implications. And yes, a civil democracy can often serve as a win-lose contest of opposing beliefs.
But democracies work best long-term only with a spirit of respect and compromise, and protection for minority views and interests. Reasoned argument and compassionate listening offer ample opportunity for religious beliefs to play a public role without ruining public discourse and the political equilibrium.
For religions and civil democracy to live together, what must be graciously accepted is that the political expression of one's religious faith does not have secular validity simply because individuals who hold these beliefs think they are divinely endorsed.
Secular government helps protect all religions in their diversity. And religions, by judiciously using their moral authority, as shown in last week's conference, can protect secular government in finding common ground for public action.