I have had an inquiry as to whether religious leaders can work to influence politics without undermining pluralism.
My answer is yes.
Religious leaders have a moral responsibility to address the injustices they see in society and a civic responsibility to work to secure justice. When doing so, they are obligated to be strictly nonpartisan. Faith should be identified with justice – not with specific individuals, political parties or political platforms.
Religious leaders have a right to speak out on issues of both morality and public policy. They have a right to encourage and assist their adherents in becoming informed about issues of public policy and politics. Again, they have an obligation to be strictly nonpartisan. Faith should be identified with the common good – not with specific individuals, political parties or political platforms.
When addressing issues of injustice and public policy, they should speak freely in the language of their own faith and tradition within their faith groups. When speaking to the larger public, appeals to the doctrines of particular faiths should not be expected to hold much weight.
We live in a pluralistic democracy. People of all faiths and no faith have equal rights in our society. In a pluralistic society, appeals to the public at large are best made on the basis of reason and in terms that could be persuasive to people of different beliefs and convictions.
Both religious and political leaders have a responsibility to observe the limits of their authority and to educate the public about those limits. The Constitution prohibits passing laws that establish any religion. It also prohibits passing laws that infringe on the free exercise of religion.
Separation of church and state means that the state maintains a benevolent neutrality in regard to religion. The government preserves a public square where no religion holds a monopoly and the truth can shift for itself in a free marketplace of ideas.
The free marketplace of ideas in a pluralistic democracy ensures that religious truth is free to compete for the minds and hearts of the citizenry – but it has to compete. It has no privileged standing in the public square.
Separation of church and state means that the church (religion) relinquishes any desire to dominate the state, use its power to elevate itself over other faith traditions and oppress other religions. All religious leaders have a responsibility to see that no religion seeks to establish itself within the government and that the public square remains a free marketplace of ideas for people of all faiths and convictions.
Pluralistic democracy is threatened whenever some religious leaders determine to use their influence to secure a monopoly for themselves within the government and the public square. This thrust generally springs from a desire to force all of society to conform to the moral dictates of a particular religious perspective.
Pluralistic democracy can only be preserved if the adherents of all religions accept two premises. First, that civil law cannot prohibit everything that faith groups consider immoral. Second, that not everything that is legal is moral.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and host of “Religious Talk” on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.