Monday, November 07, 2005The Alito nomination has raised old questions about the appropriate relationship between religion and public life. Recently Amy Sullivan has argued that Catholic judges may soon be in the same position as Catholic politicians - forced to apply the Church's official doctrine or risk condemnation from their church. The arguments that judges just apply the law or can recuse themselves doesn't seem to solve the problem. As Andrew Sullivan notes, you could have a case where 5 Supreme Court judges have to recuse themselves! In addition, bishops are going to be in the uncomfortable position of deciding which public officials to condemn on which issues - abortion, the death penalty, unjust war, etc. Pretty soon Catholic voters could be having to get an endorsement pamphlet from the Pope to make up their minds.
What is going on here? Whatever happened to the separation of church and state? Catholic theology used to suggest that there was a difference between public responsibilities and personal convictions. Andrew Sullivan correctly notes that we are seeing
"the Catholic hierarchy's slow collapse into fundamentalism. Once a Catholic is denied the moral capacity to separate her public duties from her private faith - or risk exclusion from the sacraments - then she is in an acute conflict between public duty and private conscience."
What I find most interesting about this debate is its reflection on the problems that liberal Catholic politicians face. Even while we have pundits suggesting that Democrats need to honestly use religious faith as part of their political identity, we have to recognize that this tactic will inevitably enhance the political influence of religious leaders in politics - as we have seen on the political right. And what does this tactic do to the interests of religious minorities, such as Hindus, Muslims, and seculars, who make up a growing portion of the American population?
Amy Sullivan seems to have placed herself on the horns of a dilemma. She has argued in the past that Democrats need to "get religion," but now she has identified some of the very real risks associated with such an approach. Not only are there real moral difficulties with using religious language in politics (as I argued here and here), but it now appears that even the practical benefits (winning elections) come with a very high price.
I am sticking to the hard-line secular position on this issue: religious arguments should never be deployed as public justifications. I can argue that a policy is immoral, but I can never say that it is against God's will, because the the public forum then becomes nothing more than a battleground between competing theologies. Haven't we learned yet what kind of damage this can cause?