Does Religion Have An Essential Place in Political Society?

March for Life (by Fr. Peter Preble), Senator Tim Scott, South Carolina, and other Legislators on the podium (by Jeffrey Bruno-March for Life), Sidewalk counseling and prayer.

It is often said that religion should be a private affair. I have been told this while I was still working. It shows a distinct ignorance of the basis of religion itself. Religion is not meant to be private. It never was. Christianity, especially Catholicism, has always been a community-oriented belief system. If we are to follow Christ, we are to be just that, and tend to the homeless, poor, destitute, and sick, whenever and wherever we find them. We are to take up his cross and follow him. Doing such things can hardly be a private proposition. But this is not the only direction in which the committed Christian must go. He is also part of a larger community made up of unbelievers and believers alike. Thus, there is more to religion than just saying one’s prayers at home where no one might actually observe us doing so.

More is expected of us than hiding our prayer books. Interaction with those who disagree with our views is necessary. We are expected to be much more active in the community in which we live. Put in a general summary of what is expected, in thinking nearer to our time:

It is not the province of religion to exert any immediate influence on political institutions. Its object is not to prepare man for this world, but for the world to come; to free him, not from temporal bondage, but from the servitude of sin. It addresses itself immediately to the mind and heart of men, striving to enlighten and to purify them, and, by making the individual himself good, to make him, at the same time, a good son, a good father, a good citizen, or a good king. Without, therefore, acting directly on any institution, civil or social, or any state of life, it is evident that religion must act indirectly on them all; for the stamp which it impresses on a man will accompany him everywhere, and will be seen more or less in everything he undertakes.1

In the human realm of living from one day to the next, and having to deal with other people, it is necessary to have some sort of regimen that deals with the inevitable disagreements that arise. We also have something that is called a government that is meant to discern what is necessary for the common good. The basic aim of government is to attain justice amongst men. This has been a common theme since Aristotle.

George Will puts it another way: “Actually, there is only one ‘first question’ of government, and it is ‘How should we live?’ or (this is the same question) ‘What kind of people do we want our citizens to be?’ ”2 The answer to this question depends entirely on our world view. Is it Christian by nature, or is it some form of a secularist view? So we are on a quest for some sort of coherent set of principles for our social experience. To do justice to this quest, we must consider whether we are advancing to the truth or not. If we aren’t, we can’t know if we have a coherent system of thought. We are attempting to condition the thoughts and actions of men. This effort is what Will calls “soulcraft.” Laws and regulations without a heart and a soul are rather dehumanizing. They can also be rather arbitrary inasmuch as they may be made to suit the fancies and fads of the times in which they are made.

Perhaps, this is the effort taken up by the likes of Karl Marx, who would put the state in the position of regulating everything—literally. Take the human element out of the equation, and then one does away with the vagaries of what Marx saw when we wrote the Communist Manifesto. No one is taken advantage of, from the children in a family to the father of that family, who has to work to provide for the necessities of living. Marx did away with the structure of society, as we know it, to replace that structure with a government structure that regulated everything.

The quote at the beginning of the paper suggests that direct action on the government is not the idea but rather an indirect one. This indirect action will have to do with religion not being private inasmuch as we are about seeking truth, and convincing others of our views. This suggests that we will have some effect on the people who we elect to make our laws by trying to convince them of some particular view. By doing this, we are trying to help regulate moral approaches to events and ideas that are current in today’s world.

But we must understand that “some methods to achieve a good end are wrong in themselves. We can never choose them without coarsening the society we inhabit.”3 Our effort must be to help public officials sort these things out. The health of our public life requires that men and women of strong moral character are the ones we elect to political service.4 Bishop Chaput also admonishes us with “Whatever the signs of the times teach us, it can’t be complacency.”5 We can’t just sit back and hope that these kinds of people get elected to public office. What’s more, those who do run for office need to be educated accordingly. We have to be active.

We seem to have a basic problem here though. The society we live in has taken a turn toward a “rights” oriented society. Our political discussions have become more and more about what my rights are at any given moment. We have redefined the notion of natural law for what modernity now wants it to be: something about regularity rather than the perfection that natural law points toward. It does not refer to how men ought to aspire to live, or to an ideal approached by those who merit the most emulation. Rather, it now refers to how men act most of the time. Duty no longer provides the ground for political philosophy. The idea of rights has taken over this role, and it is based in men’s personal equipment.6 This idea of rights has made America one of the most law-ridden societies in the world. Political figures now talk in the mode of legal ideas of traditions when they try to persuade us of anything.7 We seem to be so busy protecting our rights from destruction by others, that we have forgotten that there is an obligation to pay for having a right—it is the responsibility that goes with having a right at all. We don’t seem to be able to remember that we live in communities of other people who have the same approach to rights as we do. The common approach to this whole issue seems to be “Do no harm to others” and all will be well. But how does one “do no harm to others” when we live, elbow-to-elbow, in a society instead of in caves that are isolated from each other? If nothing else, we have to clean up the mess left behind by others when they do die.

With this approach, we are also trapped in relativism. We can then ask “Who are you to judge?” when discussing what is right or wrong about what we do or don’t do within our sphere of rights. The meaning is that there is no standard of excellence that exists, and that “all judgmental arbitration is by definition purely subjective. In other words, relativism.”8 I have had this excuse used on me by a co-worker while I was still working. “Whatever floats your boat” seems to be the proper response. How then can we have an ordered, coherent society when there are so many boats that need floating? What are they floating on anyway? Surely not a common set of principles that we can all use as a basis for determining the common good. That would then be a case of “forcing” my morals on you. The reverse must also be true but that is usually not mentioned. It can’t be true if we are “tolerant” (another buzz word today).

“By abandoning both divine and natural teleology, modernity radically reoriented politics. The focus of politics shifted away from the question of the most eligible ends of life, to the passional origins of actions. …What once was considered a defect—self-interestedness—became the base on which an edifice of rights was erected.”9 We no longer have a passion for virtue, but rather we have a political virtue of “the most prosaic passions.” But this is where religion and politics will meet—an effort to instill virtue into the citizenship.

As George Will puts it: “Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passions.”10 As Bishop Chaput says: “Character matters. Principals matter.”11 This is where the two, politics and religion, have a mutual interest. Both religion and politics tell us something about how to live in our own community and the bigger world. They always influence each other. Isn’t this as it should be?

But it seems that this is the very issue that so many are trying to avoid—I have rights and don’t you forget it. Religion, at least, is to be relegated to the private sphere where it can have little or no effect, and laws are to be made that allow for and condone these rights. Tolerance at work again?

This negative definition of politics, as a line drawn around an individual’s self-interested action, has made public concerns, by definition, distinct from, and secondary to, private concerns. We no longer can depend on government to regulate actions taken by individuals. But “it is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot, legislate morality. But in fact it does so…” It does so by enacting laws and policies that somehow proscribe, mandate, regulate, or subsidize behavior that is to have some predictable effects on habits and values on a broad scale.12 Consider such things as traffic laws. But this legislation also includes such things as the bodily or financial harm we do to others. We are trying to regulate such operations like we regulate how banks lend money to home buyers (a recent experience with dramatic consequences to people and the economy in general). Actions have consequences!

So what have we established by allowing religion to be relegated to the private sphere, and have government justify our own ideas of rights and privileges? The society has taken a step to secularism that relegates all religiously based morals to the background. Our society has proposed that “moral precepts can be known without any particular revelation by God.”13 Natural law has been discouraged as a replacement for this deficiency, if it has not been discarded outright. We are to be our own best judges as long as what we do “works.” Again, “do no harm to others” seems to be the applicable rule.

Today’s secularist assumes, at best, that religion is not of this world. At worst, it is considered irrational, and a dangerous superstition to be expunged. This, of course, ignores the religious—particularly Christianity—formative role in the establishment of this country, and our Constitution. Were it truly secularized, the United States would lack a soul—something George Will seems to think is the case right now.

So far, much that has been said is negative in an effort to describe the situation to be rectified somehow. We want legislators and citizens who have a determinable basis on which to justify their laws, and the compliance with those laws. It seems that there is only “what works,” and my personal rights, that are used to justify law. The law-makers have succumbed to the whims of the voters in an effort to stay in office (read “power”). And those whims change with the times and fads. What then are we to do?

Bishop Chaput has given us the basic answer: “If we really believe that the Gospel is true, we need to embody it in our private lives, and our public choices” and again: “Our problems can only be solved by people of character who actively, and without apology, take their beliefs into public debate.” Faith has social, as well as personal, implications. The social implications include the civil dimensions of our community lives together—in short, our politics. It has already been pointed out that justice is the aim of government. (Pope Benedict XVI referred to it as the central responsibility of politics.) Working for this aim is an obligation of Christian freedom, if we are not to be governed by a gang of thieves.14 But freedom here is not defined as being able to do whatever we please. It is defined as knowing what the right thing to do is, and being able to do the right thing, at the right time, and place.

So our efforts are to be aimed at forming the public conscience. This is no more a coercive effort “than teaching the difference between poison and a steak is a form of bullying.” Actively promoting what we believe to be true about key moral issues in public life is being just plain honest about what we believe. There is no coercion here, but rather an attempt to convince others that what we say has merit. If those others are allowed to have their say on what is right or wrong, why is it that we cannot have the same allowance? The idea of coercion is a double-edged sword. It does cut both ways.

The Christians are here to change the world. We have been charged to go and preach to all nations. “And the idea that we can accomplish this without engaging in a hands-on way the laws, the structure, the public policies, the habits of mind, and the root causes that sustain injustice in our country, is a delusion.”15 It means that we are to live our faith in ways that are a credit to what we believe, and can be seen to be so by those who watch us. “We’re always bound to treat other people with charity, justice, and prudence. But that can never be an excuse for our own inaction or silence.”16 Prudence does not allow us to be quiet; it only allows us to be competent in all (or most) cases, and generous in our discussions with others.

Despite the messiness and, often-times, outright nastiness, of politics, we are obligated to take a stand if we really believe what we say we do. We are trying to build a consensus about the laws and policies we wish to live by. Whether that consensus is good or bad depends entirely on the content of either. The truth of the matter is not determined by the consensus itself. We want it to be more than a general agreement on “what works,” or what is popular at the moment. We are trying to arrive at something called the “common good.” This is the “best source of justice and happiness for a community, and its members, in the light of truth.”17

We have made the decision that the Gospel is the truth on which we will base our efforts. It must show in the work we do. James tells us that our faith is meaningless without good works. Thus, we are to be actively involved in the decision-making process that takes place in the public forum. “But, the church has no special claim to policy competence. Her task is offering basic principles for her people to apply to daily life.”18 This is what we are about—providing the basic principles for daily life. We articulate them for public use, but do not, in charity, “jam down anybody’s throat.”

So our basic chore is that of education. We are to educate the politicians and the voters to what is just. And what are the basics of justice? We could answer this question with the Decalogue; the first three tell us how to relate to God, and the last seven tell us how to relate to each other. Here is a set of basics that can be built on to encourage others in justice. It seems that much of what is said in the last seven commandments have already been incorporated in many of the laws that are already on the books—“thou shalt not kill” (murder) for instance. We legislate against works that would cheat others of their hard earned money as well.

But it is true enough that the Church is not in the business of running political campaigns. But it is very much the business of the Church to help Catholics think and act in accordance with what they say they believe. It doesn’t mean that civil authorities are exempt from moral engagements; they can and should be criticized, when and if appropriate, either by the voters themselves, or by the Church as an organization.19

But understand that actions have consequences. There will be those who will disagree with us—some violently. That is part of the price to be paid for taking a stand. We have been warned by Christ himself that such is the case. But Christ will see to it that we are rewarded appropriately in due course.

So it comes down to this: Will we be part of the solution by publically advocating what we believe, or will we be part of the problem by allowing the secular society to cow us into inactivity, and force religion into what society wants religion to be: private and unobtrusive? If we take no stand at all, we will pay the price of that inactivity, and the society we live in will fail its members miserably. But we may make it better by fulfilling our goal and taking that stand.

  1. Orestes Brownson, “Catholicity and Political Liberty,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April, 1848.
  2. George W. Will, Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does, A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983, p. 17.
  3. Charles J. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Doubleday, New York, 2008, p. 2.
  4. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 2.
  5. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 23.
  6. George W. Will, Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does, A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983, pp. 41-42.
  7. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, The Free Press, New York, 1991, pp. 2-3.
  8. Art Livingston, “An Arbiter of Taste,” Gilbert, Vol 17, No 6-7, May/June 2014, p. 26
  9. Will, Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does, p. 43.
  10. Will, Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does, p. 27.
  11. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 4.
  12. Will, Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does, pp. 19-20.
  13. Remi Brague, “The Impossibility of Secular Society,” First Things, October 2013, pp. 27-31, p. 28.
  14. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 33.
  15. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 46.
  16. Charles J. Caput, “Opinions: We Can’t Be Silent,” First Things, May 2014, pp. 17-19, p. 17.
  17. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 147.
  18. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar, p. 209.
  19. Charles J. Caput, “Opinions: We Can’t Be Silent,” First Things, May 2014, pp. 17-19, p. 18.
Raymond F. Hain III About Raymond F. Hain III

Ray Hain is a retired engineer which keeps him reading about science and engineering topics; and he is a retired Air Force officer. He has developed, over the years, an interest in the philosophy of science and, thus, has finished an MA in philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He lectures at the University of Delaware's Osher Life-Long Learning Center on the History of Medieval Science and Technology, and on the Shroud of Turin, as well as several other topics.