Sunday, June 05, 2005

Column on Religion, Politics & Society

Religion, Politics and Society

Tibor R. Machan

During the Q&A following a recent presentation I made to a Rotary Club
about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, I was asked whether
I believe what the Pledge of Allegiance states about ?under God.? I do not
usually answer this question because I share the view that when it comes
to religion, that?s just too personal to bandy about in public, especially
when the topic didn?t have much to do with it. But there is an aspect of
this issue that is worth reflecting about.

Of course, a voluntary organization such as Rotary has every right?and
may most reasonably be expected?to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the
start of its meetings. In a culture in which most citizens are monotheists
of one or another type, something like the pledge, with its line about
?One nation, under God,? will be widely and significantly recited. The
interesting issue is whether public institutions, involving the various
levels and branches of government, ought to be making use of the Pledge
with this line figuring so prominently in it.

A government of a country like the United States of America is supposed
to have as its central purposes ?to secure our rights.? And that means the
rights of everyone, not only its monotheistic, atheist, agnostic, or
pantheist citizens. Thus in an important respect the prohibition of the
coupling of any faith or philosophical viewpoint and the government must
apply, and most sensibly so. Government may not champion agnosticism,
pantheism, atheism, or any other form of commitment?or non-commitment?to
religion. The government must only be concerned with something that
pertains to everyone, which happens to be just what the Founders
believed?to secure everyone?s basic individual rights.

However, when government becomes entangled in as many aspects of the
society as ours?and that of most other society?s?has, it is impossible to
insist that it remain divorced from people?s religious or non-religious
convictions. Remember the high school football team whose captain wanted
to say a prayer before a game, with the full consent of his team mates?
Surely that makes perfectly good sense. Or supposed some elementary or
high school in Kansas or New Hampshire has a policy of saying a prayer
before classes commence? That, too, is perfectly understandable?religion
and school are intricate elements of people?s lives and to expect the two
to be kept separate by law is absurd.

Trouble is that with all these aspects of society being treated as if
they were a matter of public policy?namely, something that governments are
involved with?the separation between religious or non-religious
convictions and government is impossible to uphold. In consequence, those
in the various minorities will see their views squelched by those in the
majority, simply because of the nature of public institutions. This would
not occur if the government kept to its proper task, the protection of our
rights. Apart from some pro-forma involvement with religion?such as a
prayer at the opening of Congress?there would be no incursion of
government sponsored religion?or non-religion?in our social lives. Those
who are members of Rotary would be perfectly free to proclaim whatever
their allegiance happens to be for no one would be forced to be part of
the organization. And those going to private schools would be free to
adhere and proclaim whatever beliefs they took to their hearts.

But with government?and government schools?everyone is involved, simply
by being a citizen. That?s precisely one of the reasons government must be
strictly limited to its essential function, to serve us all in the one
capacity this can happen, namely, as the protector of our universal,
unalienable rights. It should not be involved in sports, education,
entertainment, science, and the other myriad aspects of society wherein
folks often wish to give some expression to their deeply held convictions.
Government should not be in the position of having to speak for us all
when, in fact, it can only speak for some of us, as do various
organizations like Rotary.

In the USA religion is part of most people?s lives yet governments are
supposed to be kept separate from it precisely because there are so many
people with widely different religions?or non-religions. And this has
worked quite nicely for the most part?there are no overt religious battles
on US soil, not like in many societies around the globe and throughout
history. But the more the government encroaches on various parts of our
society that?s not any of its proper business, the more difficult it will
be to keep the peace among all those who take their religion?or its
absence?seriously in life.

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