Is Religion Losing Its Voice in the Public Square?

The never-ending tug-o’-war between secularists and the religious right over religious freedom has heated up over the past six months as a result of certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Under the ACA, religious institutions such as hospitals and universities—but not churches—would be required to include contraception in health insurance plans offered to employees and students. The Catholic Church has been particularly outraged over this requirement and is trying to mobilize the faithful in a propaganda campaign that would depict the church as a victim of government oppression. The two principal claims circulating on Catholic websites are that (1) the ACA’s contraception provisions are an assault on religious freedom, and (2) religion is being systematically pushed out of the public square. We are told that the U.S. is, under the Obama administration, drifting perilously close to a totalitarianism of the left.

Pope Benedict XVI, the ultimate authority on all such matters (NOT!), has been quoted in an effort to bolster these claims:

Denying the right to profess one’s religion in public and the right to bring the truths of faith to bear on public life has negative consequences for true development. The exclusion of religion from the public square—and, at the other extreme, religious fundamentalism—hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity. Public life is sapped of its motivation, and politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character. Human rights risk being ignored either because they are robbed of their transcendent foundation or because personal freedom is not acknowledged. Secularism and fundamentalism exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and faith.
—Pope Benedict XVI, from his encyclical, “Charity in Truth” (Caritas in Veritate)

The ability to avoid specifics is probably an unavoidable part of a pope’s job description. Nevertheless, inquiring minds like to inquire.

Where Pope Benedict refers to the “exclusion of religion from the public square,” I assume he is thinking of secular totalitarian regimes like that of Stalinist Russia. And by “religious fundamentalism,” he is probably thinking of their opposite–Islamic theocracies of the Middle East.

Strong currents are in fact pulling the U.S. toward theocratic totalitarianism. Christian Dominionism and Reconstructionism have become a potent influence in virtually all Christian fundamentalist churches. The First Amendment’s establishment clause is under constant attack from the right.

There is no danger that religion will be forced out of the public square in this country. Only one congressperson (out of 535) does not profess religious belief, and the others profess it loudly and often. Thousands upon thousands of religious radio stations, TV programs, blog sites, websites, and periodicals promulgate religious views. Even non-sectarian daily newspapers regularly  feature a “religion” column. (When was the last time you saw a “secularism” column?) The GOP presidential candidates would not shut up about God, some of them even claiming that He had personally “called” them to seek the presidency. G.W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, expanded under President Obama, funnels millions of dollars of public funds into religious institutions.

Religion should never be excluded from the public square, but neither should religious beliefs be offered as the sole justification for public policy. Competing justifications—those based on reason and a careful balancing of costs and benefits—need to be heard as well.

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