Religious Belief and Public Policy

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Recently, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a bill passed by the Arizona legislature which made it legal for the proprietor of a public business establishment, like a restaurant, to deny service to another person based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  A proprietor who believed that homosexuality; for example, was immoral would have been able to deny service to homosexual people based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  If it had become law, this Arizona statue would have legalized discrimination.

Fortunately, Gov. Brewer acted wisely and the law will not be implementedjan brewer.  This instance, among others, does, however, raise an interesting set of questions about grounding public statues on religious belief.  Those who favored the law argued that not to allow proprietors to decline to serve those they found morally reprehensible on religious grounds was interfering with the Constitutional guarantee of “freedom of religion.”  Proponents argued essentially that free Americans had the right to practice their religious beliefs in the public sphere without interference from the State.

Opponents argued such a statute would violate the principle of the equality of all citizens by denying them access to services on discriminatory grounds.  Framed this way, the situation seems to be one in which we are confronted with two sets of rights that are in conflict with another:  religious freedom, on the one hand and the equal rights of all citizens, on the other.

The question I would like to pose in this brief essay is easy to ask and a good deal harder to answer.  Is religious belief a suitable grounds for public debate on matters of public policy? Typically people belief something to be true or false based on evidence from their experience or other authoritative source; for example, a scientific study or trusted news source.  We believe the source.  We accept what the source says whether that source be our own reason or the testimony of others.

Religious belief has a unique place in the pantheon of belief sources.  Religious belief claims as its source something that cannot be proved to actually exist.  Religious belief is grounded, in one way or another, on the existence of a deity (at least in the Western tradition).  For religious belief to stand shoulder to shoulder with other beliefs, it demands that the existence of the deity (God/Goddess) be accepted.  If God does not exist, than the guidance for human behavior provided by this source, can not have the same weight as other beliefs which are rooted in scientific study and secular philosophical/political reflection on the well-being of all, including the environment.

Without setting out on a discussion of the existence of God, almost all who argue this point would agree that the existence of God can not be proven.  Some may argue that it is reasonable to believe in a supreme being while others argue that it is unreasonable.  Both groups concede that proof for God’s existence does not and will not exist while clothed in “this mortal flesh.”

Thus, to believe in God is to believe something not in evidence.  It is to trust that there is a God. We call this “the gift of faith.” It is making as Kierkegaard said “a kierkegaardleap.”

No leap is required for me to believe or trust in the observation that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or that the earth orbits the sun or that the moon is not made of green cheese.  These things I can believe without leaping–because there is tangible evidence.  Others can observe similar facts about the physical world and from these facts even reason to additional conclusions that also require no leaping. Outside of the realm of faith, evidence and reason rule.  Inside the realm of faith, both evidence and reason are subsumed and made handmaidens of the divine.

For public debate to proceed, all voices need to be heard but not all voices are equally credible.  Religious voices have no special claim in the forum of public debate at least not in the United States where we have a separation of church and state.

There are many who believe that the founding principle of religious belief (the existence of God) is false and not even amenable to empirical study.  Thus, for them, God and his/her principles, however revealed or made know, do not exist and have no authority in the public sphere. How can the non-existent have authority?

If public policy debate is to be meaningful, the interlocutors need to debate in terms that are meaningful to all.  Reason, rational argument and data must of necessity ground these discussions. There are a vast variety of religious systems of belief and, in the US, all are free to worship as they prefer and debate among themselves any topic with reference to any authority existent or not.

Once we enter the theater of public affairs, however, conversation and debate must be rooted in public, secular and not sectarian religious terms.  We must reason together using authority we agree upon in order to accept things like why lying is bad and charity is good, why mercy is preferable to vengeance and why openness of heart is superior to closed mindedness.

Evangelicals will perhaps bridle at this position.  They need not.  They remain free to seek to convert others.  But, when it comes to public debate and the passage of secular law, reason and the common good trumps belief.  Some will protest that the God in whom they believe and reason are not antithetical.  Excellent! In that case,  we can reason together without reference to God and armed with the authority of our own best reasoned judgment on each ethical questions which arises. We will not, of course, always be right but we would not have abdicated our moral responsibility to one another.