RELIGION AND THE PUBLIC SQUARE
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Tibor R. Machan
A wonderful aspect of a free, capitalist society is that nearly everything is privately owned. That applies to churches -- they are owned by the order, such as Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Moonies, Muslims, Hindus, and all the some 4200 different religious groups (that's the number of how many different religious groups exist in the USA now [http://www.adherents.com/]) -- or by their congregations. Because a free society has no state religion, various religious groups are not involved in politically squaring off against one another. Sure, there are some political aspects of some religious orders, but in the main their affairs are left to the social and private realms of our lives.
In countries where government and religion are closely linked, efforts to rule the public square are among the ambitions of most religious groups. Just consider Jerusalem, which is constantly being fought over, both politically and physically. Arguably, whenever some religious group wins the political fight in a country, the rights of those who do not belong to this group are seriously jeopardized. Exclusion of those not among the ruling sect from public policy decision-making is routine. Efforts to gain political power by those religious groups which don't enjoy it is often the source of major upheavals.
But it also goes beyond the borders of such countries, as is evident in the current controversy over Pope Benedict's comments in which he quoted certain texts critical of Islam. In a free society -- and even in partially free ones like the USA or Canada -- such remarks may attract critical attention in various forums of disputation such as magazines, newspapers, books, conferences, university seminars and the like. Normally, though, no one is going to take to the streets, and no one is going to offer threats of violent or legal action against those with whom one is debating even very serious issue.
What leads to this substantially peaceful approach to religious disagreement and dispute is the institution of private property rights. One can gather together with one's fellow faithful and keep dissidents away or insist on peaceful terms should they be allowed to enter. Dissidents, heretics, and the like do not have free entry to sacred grounds -- they are privately held and maintained. Although in most cases church entry is not barred to non-believer visitors, it is clear that they are allowed in only if they act in a respectful and civilized manner.
Look at the places around the globe where religion permeates everything, especially the public square -- meaning politics. Everyone has the idea that everything is open to his or her influence. Everyone believes that other people's most private affairs -- their beliefs, faith, religious practices, ornaments, sacred texts -- are fair game for anyone to bother about. No one can be kept out and if one is a member of a minority faith, persecution is nearly certain. If groups are roughly the same size, they often perpetrate continual violence against one another, as in India and Pakistan.
Of course, this is partly due to the tribalism which runs rampant in such societies. Individual rights are ignored; what matters is solidarity and loyalty to some group. The groups craving such loyalty are willing to do nearly anything to stay on top, to rule the realm.
Roman Catholics in the West and elsewhere used to be like this, of course, willing to deploy whatever means would work so as to be dominant in some country, to determine what the laws were, what public policies -- which pretty much means involvement in every social and private matter important to people -- should prevail. Dissidents, heretics, unbelievers would experience vicious reprisals. Other religions would follow suit -- it was very often a matter of them versus us, based on the sacred texts and idols that were to be worshipped.
It is a remarkable achievement of the classical liberal political tradition to have begun to restrain this kind of conduct on the part of religious -- and, indeed, other -- groups. The American founders and framers, especially, established major obstacles to religious groups taking over everyone's life in society. They were to be kept within their own realms and whatever proselytizing they did had to be confined to the peaceful, civilized means of advocacy, sermonizing and preaching.
Sure, there are exceptions in the U.S. today, and various religions try to butt into the lives of everyone with trying to get gay marriages, contraception, abortion and other practices legally banned based on their particular doctrines. (One reason some religions try very hard to pass themselves off as scientifically based or condemn secular views as faith based is that this way the distinction between what is religious and what is not may be obscured.)
In any case, in a fully free society religion would be barred from the public square and that is a very good thing indeed. This doesn't ban religious views, doesn't keep these views from guiding people's personal conduct but it reduces their frequently acrimonious impact on politics.