Procrastination on Choosing a Costume for a Post-Purim Party

I was recently having a debate with a friend of mine about family values. I basically opined that a politician’s using religious rhetoric to explain policy positions bothered me. My friend countered that whether they use the rhetoric or not, religious politicians will be influenced by their religion’s values. This is a counter to my friend’s counter:

1. There IS a difference between rhetoric and thought: Controlling thought is Big Brother-ish, a la 1984. However, a politician chooses which rhetoric to put in their speech based on the image they want to project as a candidate. If they want to project the image of someone who uses religion to make political/policy decision, that is my business. What they think – but do not say – about those decisions, is not.

2.  I am allright with a politician saying, “My religious belief is A, which happens to be in accordance with American values D, so I support Y.’ For example, “My religious tradition supports truth, which is in accordance with the values of freedom of the press that are an inherent part of American culture, so I support this bill which will give the press the ability to further pursue the truth”. It is when politicians say “My religious tradition supports Y, so I support measure X”, skipping that crucial middle step, that I am disturbed. I am also disturbed when one says, “America was built on Judeo-Christian values”. Leaving aside that I believe the entire concept of Judeo-Christian values to be false, since Judaism and Christianity have different values, I think that saying that America was built on a certain religious tradition, implies that other ones are somehow un-American, and for a politician to say that, when freedom of religion is enshrined in the first ammendment, is something I can not condone. Yes, you can say that in this case, your religious tradition is in accordance with certain American values, but you must make it clear a) that other religious traditions may be equally in accordance with American values b) that you are doing what you are doing precisely because it is in accordance with American values – that if your religion was in discord with those values, you would go with American values when voting for or proposing legislation. Furthermore, while one may claim that certain Jewish and Christian holy texts influenced the intellectual world of the founding fathers and their thought, in fact, they were equally influenced by European Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke and Montesquieu (universal rights for life, liberty, property, got turned into life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. Montesquieu came up with the idea for separate branches of government). Our country was founded on the constitution, and on freedom of religion, not on a cetain religious tradition.

3. Separation of Church and State does not mean one can not be influenced by religion at all: One will always be influenced by one’s life story, by the community on was raised in, and the beliefs – religious or not – that one was raised with or that one might have come to believe in. Religion is, in addition to many other things, also a cultural institution, and one is entitled to be influenced by one’s culture, whether it is a religious culture, an ethnic culture, etc. That is part of why we like to know our candidate’s stories: We want to know where they are coming from, and how that will influence their decision-making process while in office.

4. I wonder if it is ever possible to have true separation of Church and State: As long as there is freedom of thought, religion will influence the decision-making processes of both voters and politicians. Yet I like that our Constitution, while protecting religion from dominating the public sphere or overtly inserting itself into the legislative process, also protects freedom of (religious) thought. It leaves room for religion and for religious people, while also protecting the domain of the secular.

To my mind, this is a great improvement over France, whose religious freedom laws often wind up discriminating against religion or religious traditions – perhaps because they did start, in part as an anti-religious movement, meant to fight the power of the Catholic Church. While French laws were meant to fight one religious group, and now wind up negatively affecting other religious groups as well, American laws were meant to protect all religious groups – and that is something to be proud of.

I will close with a scene from the West Wing, otherwise known as one of my favorite TV shows: There is a death penalty case. President Bartlett calls the Pope, but at the end of the day, does not go with the Catholic anti-death penalty position, and issue a pardon. Instead, he does what he believes is correct according to American law: Despite his personal opposition to the death penalty, since the courts ruled, they ruled – the person must be executed. I guess, at the end of the day, I am OK with having a president who calls the Pope or asks for advice from a rabbi, and takes those words into account, the same way he would any trusted advisor – as long as at the end of the day, like President Bartlett, he does what he beleives American law mandates – even if that law violates his won religious principles.

Do I demmand too much separation, or too little? What are your thoughts on this issue?

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