Religion in the Public Square

Over the last few days, I’ve been mulling over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent speech regarding his Mormon faith. Though one of Romney’s main goals was obviously to address the relationship of his beliefs to the way in which he would potentially govern as president, the speech also serves as a broader commentary on the place of religion in the public square. And since it probably amounts to the most prominent address on this topic by a front-line candidate in quite some time, I think it’s worth our careful reflection as Christians (read the full speech here).

After closely reading the text of the speech more than once, my own estimation of its contents is somewhat mixed. At times, I thought Romney was particularly cogent, offering insight that certainly advances the national discussion. In other instances, his stated views struck me as in need of further articulation or nuance at best, and incoherent or suspect at worst.

As an example of the positive, consider this excerpt:

We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It’s as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

Here Romney correctly alludes to a fact that atheists/secularists often fail either to understand or acknowledge. Despite their incredulity toward religious belief, unbelieving individuals and institutions often become as creedal or dogmatic as those they oppose. In effect they become adherents of their own atheistic religion, replacing God with everything from a blind and mechanistic universe to humanity itself and doggedly affirming various points of “doctrine.” These range from the idea that humanity is inevitably progressing toward some kind of Utopian perfection to the belief that the scientific method is our only reliable means to access truth.

This in turn raises an important question: why should these particular belief systems be considered inherently better than more traditional religious beliefs at contributing to the public good? After all, there is ample evidence that governments and/or societies that marginalize or even attempt to eradicate religious belief are by no means more likely to promote genuine human flourishing—witness the atrocities of several atheistic totalitarian regimes arising in the last century. No, those that discount or oppose religion are just as susceptible to prejudice and oppression as their believing counterparts.

For this reason and a host of others, religious truth claims are not to be limited to private discussions of beliefs and values, but vigorously examined and discussed in the public square and for the public good.

My next post on this subject will discuss a portion of Romney’s speech that is—in my judgment at least—less laudable.

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