Crises in religion and politics intertwined
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:
All-Access Digital Subscription
$1.50 for 150 days*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.
IN a very western democratic tradition, although religion and politics are joined at the hip, they have always experienced an uneasy, sometimes tenuous, coexistence. Both are seen as necessary to human flourishing but, left unchecked internally within their own realms, they tend to creep into each other’s spaces in ways which jeopardize, or do harm to, both. While this is not a new tension, some of today’s religion-politics interactions are particularly disturbing. By way of examples, I note the protestations against COVID-19 mandates and the renewed abortion debate in the U.S.
To a large extent the current perplexities arise from the ongoing, sometimes contentious, debate about the separation of church and state. That principle of separation is built upon the premise that religion and politics need to be protected from the overreach of the other, meaning that over the years various court rulings and constitutional changes have reaffirmed freedom of religion and non-interference of government.
Protecting government from some religious interference has proven less successful. Religious freedom was among the justifications provided for a so-called truckers’ blockade in Ottawa, or the more recent motorcycle convoy, some of whom declared God was coming with them. Opportunistic politicians jumped on their bandwagon.
The false implications in all of this are that government is opposed to religious freedom, that only the protesters have a direct line to God whose will they are carrying out, and that their cause is so noble and righteous that incivility, lawlessness and violence are warranted. Prayer meetings and church services became political rallies; God and religion becoming political weapons.
In contradistinction, freedom-of-religion lawmakers believed that religion provided a type of moral authority, a supernatural check on human frailty, outside and above the realm of human affairs.
Governments can make no claim to moral authority — theirs is legal and political. That constitutes their only defence as inevitable transgressions and failings are made public. On the other hand, when religious groups weaponize God, or embrace conspiracies and deny science, they also lose any claim to moral authority.
Conflating politics with religion creates an impossible political situation. Religion is not about persuasion; it is based on a kind of absolutism as in you either believe or you don’t, you’re either in or you’re not. For some that rigid and distinct certainty is the appeal of religion — little room for even interpretative difference eliminates doubts. However, in human affairs, forgone conclusions are sure killers of political dialogue, compromise and harmony.
Being human among other humans requires continuous judgments and moral disagreements about what is right and good, and a constant desire to seek others’ flourishing at the same time as one is pursuing one’s own — the best of what we call politics.
But being human, as in doubt and error, is just what religious intolerance has little room for. It is hard to defend oneself against accusations of religious intolerance even by those who follow different faiths from the one prevailing at the protests when any attempt at rational dialogue is seen as an attack on the “true believers.” This situation is exactly what the framers of freedom-of-religion legislation were attempting to prevent — the forcing of one religion’s beliefs on others — assuming humans can play God, and some more than others.
Even in the 18th century, political thinkers were worried that not entrenching freedom for all religions would lead to a type of religious tyranny undergirded by politics. That’s where the U.S. is headed today with its moves to criminalize abortion. No matter where one stands on that debate, the ways it is being rejuvenated is cause for real concern.
Deceptively couched in partisan politics, “white replacement theory” fear mongering and constitutional revisionism, Christian evangelicals, apparently successful in stacking legislatures and the courts, are more interested in winning than religious tolerance. These actions are power plays, not acts of faith. They are endangering the very freedom they say they embrace, not only for themselves but for all religions.
Simultaneously, opportunistic politicians, with the duplicitous aid of some religious groups, are exacerbating the current confusions and conflicts creating a threat to both religion and politics. Exercising political rights do not constitute moral authority, just as claiming a right (moral) justification does not necessarily result in good political decisions, as in reasonable and beneficial practices and consequences.
It’s time for religion and politics to revisit the ideals behind the separation of church and state, re-negotiating a mutually appreciative, as opposed to mutually exploitative, relationship.
John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.