Religion and Politics: Robert Benne getting it wrong

I occasionally peruse the local online news and commentary sites to see if there is anything interesting being said about religion in the Philadelphia area.  Most of the time there is little to nothing, and when there is it is not very interesting.  Today I found this article by Robert Benne, who is a lecturer at Roanoke College and who is the Director of the Center for Religion and Society there.  I have little doubt that Dr. Benne knows a lot about religion and society.  I have no doubt that I could learn many things from him about those topics and others.  But what is clear is that Dr. Benne has little to no understanding of the opinions and goals of the vast majority of the atheist community.  His claims in the article are based on a prevailing ignorance that I find from many people, even within religious departments of colleges and universities.  They should know better, but they so often disappoint.

Here is some of what he says in the beginning of his article:

Could you ever imagine that an American government would order the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not to use Christian rhetoric to fuel the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s?

That is precisely what some militant atheists, secularists, and even some religious leaders want to have happen today. These folks are what I call “separationists,” those who believe that religiously based moral values ought to have no place in public discourse or policy-making. While most of them merely disapprove of such an interaction of religion and politics, others are so hostile to religion – especially conservative Christianity – that they would formally prohibit it.

Separationists come in different varieties, all of which provide examples of how not to think about the relation of Christianity to the political sphere.

There are the militant atheists – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris – who find religion so dangerous they seem to want it banished legally from public life.

[emphasis mine]

I cannot imagine any atheist leader asking Dr. King to do any such thing.  And if one did, they would receive a lot of flack from the atheist community, as they would deserve.  Dr. King is an inspiration to me growing up, despite his religious rhetoric, as was Malcolm X.  The US government would have no legal basis to ask Dr. King or any like him to stop using religious rhetoric for any reason, at all.

The term “separationist” seems to be a reference to the separation of church and state, the idea promoted by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, coined in a letter by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut, and implied in the first amendment to the constitution (especially in how it has been interpreted in  judicial precedent since).  But there is a drastic misunderstanding on the part of Benne concerning the goals of people such as Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.  But perhaps even more drastic is his misunderstanding of the greater community fighting for the separation of church and state to be maintained, such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, led by the Christian Barry Lynn.

Despite the assertion, I see no evidence in anything that Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris (or other atheist leaders) has said or written which would imply that we “militant” atheists are people  “who find religion so dangerous they seem to want it banished legally from public life.”  We do not want religion banished from public.  What many of us ask for is that there be no official, that is government led, religious activities such as the National Day of Prayer, public school-led prayer (which is essentially the same thing), or to have specific religious doctrines act as the basis for discriminatory laws (whether they be about gay marriage or otherwise).  We are not trying to deny religion to the public sphere, we are trying to prevent it’s unconstitutional inter-mingling with a secular government.  The distinction is important, Benne’s mistake common, and this type of correction tiring.

Benne continues:

Others – not so militant – want religious people to drop their religiously based moral values when they enter the political sphere. They want only secular, rational, and purportedly universal values to enter the public square. They consider religion so parochial and irrational that it will likely lead to some form of theocracy if it has its way in the public sphere. For example, they are appalled that religious people have effectively supported policies that limit abortion and wrongly say such actions are a violation of the separation of church and state.

This is more slippery, but still wrong-headed.  It’s not that we want people to drop their beliefs when they enter the political sphere, it’s that we want them to remember that their religious beliefs are not necessarily shared by their fellow representatives, their constituents, or their society in general.  Their personal religious opinions, no matter how devout they are, may not reflect the culture effected by their legislation.  And yes, many of us, including myself, ask that secular and rational consideration is given to political and legislative decisions.  Why? Because that is the appropriate constitutional attitude to take in such a position.

I realize that a person’s convictions are going to inform their opinions, but they don’t have to compel their acts as representatives.  I, as an atheist, would not try to legislate atheism into law (whatever that could mean), even if I did believe it would be the better thing to do for society.  Why? Because that would be the legal thing to do as a representative!  I will continue to try and convince people that atheism is the more rational position while I am within the public sphere, as is the constitutional right of people of all beliefs.  But I cannot do so when acting as an elected representative of American citizens.  Individuals have rights that the government does not, and people’s religious beliefs need to be checked when making legislative decisions.  That is the ideal, even if it has logistical obstacles which often make it hard to draw exactly where that line is.

Benne continues:

The First Amendment does indeed prohibit the establishment of a specific institutional form of religion (separation of church and state), but it guarantees the free exercise of religion, which historically has led to the lively involvement of Christian individuals and organizations in political life. Separation of church and state is quite a different matter than interaction of religion and politics.

Moreover, limiting Christian activity to the private sphere violates serious Christian belief, which affirms that God is active in all facets of life and that Christians are obligated to follow his will in them. Separationism goes counter to the Constitution, American history, and serious Christian conviction.

If the separation of church and state does interfere with “serious Christian conviction,” then I’m sorry for Christians because their laws are not superior to the Constitution when we are talking about American law and rights.   I think that what is going on here is a failure to understand the distinction between the public sphere and government action.  Yes, in private life–within homes, churches, retreats, etc–religious people can make what rules they want.  If they are acting in the public, that is out in the streets of towns, on the internet, in publications, etc, they have all sorts of protected rights concerning actions and speech.  They can preach, damn people  to hell, or praise all they want so long as they remember that people with different religious views can do the same.  But this, so far, is not the issue of separation between church and state.  The public sphere is not the state.  I think this distinction is part of the cause of confusion here.

Benne’s discussion about “fusion” is interesting, and he makes some points.  However, I disagree that

there are some policies – for example, racist ones – that so obviously violate core values that they have to be ruled out as permissible policies for Christians to support.

While explicit racism, as we understand the word today, is not particularly common in the Bible (while a form of nationalism is), a thorough reading of the Old Testament might create some dissonance here;  Genocide, support for slavery, and misogyny are common in the Bible and this will create lots of tension between modern sensibilities and Biblical tradition.  But I don’t want to dig into that right now., as it is not the purpose of this post.  Instead, let’s get back to the narrative:

I argue that three concerns move with a relatively straight line from core to policy: protection of nascent life, decent support for those among us who cannot participate in the economy, and religious freedom. Most Christians ought to be able to support policies aligned with those concerns, but even then policy-making is ambiguous.

Obviously, Dr. Benne’s view of Christianity is idealistic, because even if he is trying to throw a bone to both anti-abortionists and liberal, socialist Christians, he is trying to build an ecumenical bridge that has way too many logistical hurdles to overcome.  But what I want to focus on here is the third concern; religious freedom.  I seem to remember the first commandment saying something about having no other gods before that one god, you know, YHWH (not Baal!).  It is a rule that exists within Jewish and Christian history, and it is directly incompatible with the concept of separation of church and state.  Anyone who claims this is a Christian nation needs to look no further than the first commandment and the first amendment to find their error.

Above, Benne talked about ” limiting Christian activity to the private sphere violates serious Christian belief.”  Yes, it does, but again nobody is doing that.  The constitutional requirement of keeping religious doctrines away from law-making, as understood by the precedent of American judicial history, is best exemplified by not allowing this first commandment (and many Christians love to hold up the 10 Commandments, even on state property!) to be a direct influence on American law.  But in general, so long as religious beliefs, doctrines, or worldviews are not being legislated without some rational explanation to why it should be is simply absurd.  The fact that most Americans might agree with some religious opinion is not the point.  There needs to be reasons why legislation is passed that are based upon good skeptical, rational, and yes secular criteria.  I can’t imagine that being a bad thing, because if the religious opinion is true, then the skeptical, rational, and secular criteria will illuminate that.  ‘Secular’ does not mean anti-religious, it means without respect for a particular religious view.  It means that it has to pass mustard on some criteria besides mere  tradition or scriptural assertion.

By all means, Christians, have no other gods before you.  But the rest of us, represented by those elected officials, can have all the gods we want.  Personally, I need none, but I wouldn’t mind Bacchus if I had a choice.  I will not take your gods away, I have no desire to make your public religiosity illegal, so long as you don’t try and legislate your parochial doctrines as an act of government.  By all means put up billboards, write books, and even knock on my door if you like.  I simply think you are delusional, and will tell you so if you do come to my door.

So, the religious factor in politics ought generally to be indirect yet important. I also propose that for the most part the church should act indirectly in the political sphere, for its own good. If the church really is the church, it will produce well-formed laypeople – as well as lay-led voluntary associations – who will make the journey from core to policy in their lives as individuals, voters, and politicians, and as participants in voluntary associations.

One serious Christian senator is worth a thousand statements by churches. Yet, there are times when churches must speak and act directly, but those should be well-considered and rare. Let them model good ways to involve themselves in political life.

I don’t mind Christian senators per se, but I do mind senators who legislate based upon doctrines that are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist (if there are any atheist doctrines;  I don’t know of any.).  And yes, let them “model good ways to involve themselves in political life,” which to me means legislating based upon rational analysis, evidence, and consideration for their constituents.  If that happens to coincide with their particular religious views, then by all means let it be so.  But those “good ways” cannot be to base their political life on ideas that develop solely on religious criteria.  That’s divisive, illegal, and (perhaps most importantly) unwise.

Dr Benne has little comprehension of the atheist community and its goals, which is sad because he is supposed to be an educator on the subject.  I think he needs more schooling.

Perhaps he now considers himself schooled.