Faiths and Public Affairs

Tibor R. Machan

During the primaries, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum made an impassioned plea for rejecting the famous doctrine of the separation of church and state. He clarified his position on the ABC-TV program This Week on Sunday, February 26: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church should have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical of the objectives and vision of our country.’’

Of course Santorum’s statement is sadly hyperbolic, because no one has ever advocated that churches should have no influence on the operations of state or government. Religion influences the formation of individual opinions, which in a free country play a crucial role in guiding government. As a matter of the faith of the citizenry, religion’s involvement in public affairs is ubiquitous.

The idea behind church-state separation is that public policy or the official edicts of governments are not supposed to be based on church policies or doctrines but on the secular concepts of the country’s constitution—ideas that any person is capable of grasping and criticizing, no matter his or her religion. Let us see what lies behind this sound position.

In discussions of political economy, resting one’s case on faith places one’s ideas on wobbly foundations. “Faith” means the will to accept or commit to a belief, often despite systematic evidence to the contrary or belief not based on supporting evidence of the sort available for systematic, organized, public scrutiny. Indeed, faith is often taken by its champions and adherents to be something extra-rational. Its merit lies, supposedly, in the fact that it is not based on evidence or reason but often contradicts both. Thus it is harder to sustain—and it is this difficulty that is supposed to make it a noble achievement to have and keep a faith. Were faith based on evidence and reason, it would lack this element of nobility—or so some theologians and religious leaders maintain.

The problem with faith is that, especially in matters of public policy but even vis-á-vis personal and social problems, it is hopeless to expect congruence or agreement to arise among people with experiences, traditions, and religious convictions based on different faiths. How, then, can faith be used to achieve common or public convictions?

Faith is a private mental disposition. In many theological systems, it is supposed to be at God’s discretion whether someone will have faith or not. Augustine, for example, saw faith as something that people acquired only by the grace of God. Within this tradition, human beings are in a sense impotent when it comes to gaining faith—they are either graced with it or not.

But in matters of importance to all people—that is, to the citizenry as a whole—it is futile to rely on such a method in order to reach understanding and convictions. Indeed, there is a virtual guarantee of discord when faith is invoked for public purposes. It may be appreciated, in this light, why there are nearly 4,200 different religions in the United States alone; why so many of the public conflicts around the globe find much of their source in differences in religious views; and why religion is something about which many wise people refuse to debate or argue. The globe’s religion-based conflicts rage mostly where religion and the public sphere are thoroughly intertwined.

To be sure, religion has been present for most of history. As George Orwell illustrated in his classic book and indictment of communism, Animal Farm, there is always a priest or minister around no matter what politics happen to dominate (represented by the omnipresence of the raven through his story). Thus, the Roman Catholic and other churches didn’t collapse under the self-proclaimed atheistic system of communism and managed to live peacefully within others.

The presence of religion in nearly all epochs and societies, however, is no argument for the truth of much of what these religions proclaim—after all, in most societies superstitions are widespread, as well as all kinds of dubious practices and institutions that arguably rest on false beliefs about the world and how we all should live. The pervasiveness of such things is not evidence that they are true.

Nonetheless, it is probably because religions encompass a good deal of what is important to human life, such as codes of conduct that resonate with common sense, that they have staying power. And there is also the plain fact that secular philosophies haven’t been sufficiently attentive to ethics or morality—sometimes claiming that these, too, along with the descriptive parts of theologies, are myths. This isn’t a credible view, and religions have thrived by holding that they alone can provide people with guides for their lives.

There have also been heroic acts by religious individuals against various forms of tyranny. But these don’t render the general outlook of these heroes true. For example, Roman Catholic Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary opposed the Stalinist regime in his country, leveling objections that any secular liberal thinker could appreciate. Lord Acton’s liberalism wasn’t especially wedded to religion, though he himself was Catholic. Although the concerns many religious people have about tyrannies and totalitarian regimes needn’t be based on specific religious convictions—unless, of course, everything one believes rests on those—the ethical leadership provided from within religion has been significant in fighting many such systems.

The bottom line is that what makes us human, most of all, is that we use reason—and we need to do so to make headway in our daily lives. Religion can’t be a basis for public policy if a country is to be fit for human survival and thriving. That’s why resting beliefs on the common capacity to reason instead of on faith—and on the need to discuss with others how one should lead one’s life—offers greater promise for achieving peace and justice. This is especially true in organized human communities whose residents are very different from one another.

Therefore, one crucial reason that religion-based public policies have dubious merit is that their justification can’t be examined along lines available to us all by virtue of our humanity alone. A human community, as opposed to a sectarian or religious one, can’t rest its institutions on what arises from faith—especially if those institutions want to be considered fair and open by all citizens, including members of divergent religious denominations as well as by those who lack any such affiliation.

Nonetheless, in a multicultural, highly diverse society such as those in most advanced countries today—especially in the famous melting pot that is the United States of America—the realm of public affairs cannot be approached from a religious viewpoint. Doing that would necessarily result in constant internal conflicts that are in principle unresolvable.

Accordingly, Rick Santorum’s call for what would amount to a substantially theocratic society must be rejected by all reasonable citizens—especially those who hold that religion to be vital to their own lives regardless of how little that religion is shared by their fellow citizens. The best defense of religion and its free exercise is not to allow any particular faith to become dominant in the political system.

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University


During the primaries, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum made an impassioned plea for rejecting the famous doctrine of the separation of church and state. He clarified his position on the ABC-TV program This Week on Sunday, February 26: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea …

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