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American Government vs. the “mindboggling diversity and complexity” of American Religion

October 13, 2010

Damon Linker recently published in The New Republic the epilogue to his new book, The Religious Test: Why We Should Question the Faith of Our Leaders. It’s a comprehensive and provocative summation of how and why American politics and American religion will always be in tension with each other–for good and for ill, but mostly for good–given our fundamental commitment to protecting the religious beliefs and practices of every single one of our citizens. At the heart of his critique, he argues that the strongly held beliefs of one devout person of faith will inherently come into conflict with our government’s commitment to respecting the beliefs of all manner of believers. Thus, a rigorously religious individual who attains high government office in America will inherently be called upon to compromise his or her religious ideals or to compromise her or his governmental duties.

I wonder about this argument. I, for one, would have a very hard time being a political leader overseeing a police force, a prison system, and/or a military force since I believe strongly in opposing evil through non-violent means. I am not a strict pacifist, but I also do not believe that violent force is as effective a tool for curtailing crime and violent aggression as our governmental systems seem to assume. However, would it be such a bad thing to have someone like me–who believes in non-violent modes of resistance to evil–be in the position of commanding an army or a police force? I think the tension it would produce in me between my faith and my sense of civil responsibility might be a good thing.

Here’s Linker on how we came to be saddled with these sorts of dilemmas in the first place (but you should really read the whole article to get the full sweep of his position):

The first [enlightenment philosophers], writing in the bloody aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, …treated disagreement and discord about the highest good as a given and then proposed that civil peace in a deeply divided society could best be established and maintained by excluding as much as possible the most divisive questions—metaphysical questions—from political life. Citizens would still have strongly held views about the highest good, but they would no longer presume that their neighbors or the political community as a whole would collectively endorse those views…

Perhaps the most famous example of this orientation can be found in the Declaration of Independence and its ringing invocation of a natural right of individuals to pursue happiness. The document’s silence about the content of happiness and about what actions or ways-of-life are conducive to happiness would have been unthinkable in earlier forms of political thinking…

Once individuals and groups are granted the freedom to pursue the good as they wish, unburdened by the threat of political coercion, the political community becomes even more pluralistic than it already was—and in different ways than it already was. Visions of the highest good proliferate, setting individuals and groups off in different directions, pursuing happiness along divergent paths…

It is in the United States, with its large population, vast size, highly dynamic capitalist economy, and ethnically heterogeneous population united by little besides the …creed classically expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that centerlessness has been taken to its greatest extreme, creating a society with no single center and no part that can claim unchallenged supremacy over the country as a whole.

Nowhere is American centerlessness more apparent than in religion. In the nearly four centuries since the first dissenting Protestants arrived in New England seeking the freedom to worship, religion has proliferated far beyond anyone’s conceivable prediction. Thanks in large part to the bargain at the heart of the First Amendment—which requires religious groups to give up their desire to seek the establishment of a particular religion in return for the virtually unlimited free exercise of faith—the Protestant churches brought to American shores from the Old World have splintered countless times, giving birth to multitudes of new sects, and even entirely new religions… Roman Catholicism has taken root and flourished, becoming in the course of the twentieth century the single largest Christian denomination in the country, while Judaism has thrived to such an extent that the Jewish experience in America has raised questions for the Zionist project, showing at long last that it is possible for Jews to live and prosper in peace and safety in a majority-Christian nation. And then there is Unitarianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, sundry New Age faiths, and thousands of smaller groups, each of them worshipping, praying, and preaching in their own ways, with each of their members free to dissent and set out on a new spiritual path, which they often do.

It is an enormous human achievement—allowing people to seek and find religious meaning in their lives without fear of government coercion and in the process creating a centerless society of mindboggling diversity and complexity…

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Murray permalink
    October 13, 2010 3:22 pm

    You claim that you do not believe that violent force is an effective a tool for curtailing crime and violent aggression.

    So, if we disarm the police, the crime rate will get no worse?

  2. jamiemcelroy permalink*
    October 13, 2010 3:40 pm

    Absolutely–assuming we also train police in the use of non-violent modes of resistance (something police are already trained in, but we could give them even more of this sort of training, I think). And if you talk with anyone serving in our military over in Iraq or Afghanistan, those guys are learning a lot about non-violent resistance when it comes to dealing with people who aggressively want them dead. Indeed, they are finding those non-violent modes of engagement to be much more effective ways of defending themselves and bringing peace to those regions than the more violent modes.

  3. Murray permalink
    October 13, 2010 4:11 pm

    So, if the bad guys are armed are the police are armed only with training in ‘non-violent resistance,’ the police will be more likely to prevail and the crime rate will thereby improve or get no worse?

    • jamiemcelroy permalink*
      October 13, 2010 4:39 pm

      Yep, that’s what I think. Have I got your vote?

  4. Murray permalink
    October 13, 2010 4:40 pm

    Yes, as devil’s advocate.

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