Since its 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education (with an opinion written by Justice Hugo Black), the Supreme Court has further considered and limited the active role that religion or religious institutions can play in the public sphere” that is, on government property. This paper presents an argument for the position that “faith groups and institutions should not be allowed to form political parties and they should not attempt to gain influence in the workings of government for their views and values by entering the realm of political discourse and attempting to elect their own politicians.”
The recent past has seen the Supreme Court allow for labor unions and corporations to support political parties and candidates, which has led to concerns among leaders in some religious organizations involving the current federal restrictions from their taking an active role in politics (Audi and Wolterstorff, 1997). This is an issue that has continued to generate debates and controversy, with some in support of the current position and others suggesting that the church, like those other organizations should also be involved in partisan politics and in the general political life, as policy issues affecting the society affect them too. This paper takes position, with evidence, as to the reasons why the current position should remain, the current separation between church and state (Dreisbach, 2006).
Whenever politics is at play, there will always be abuse of power; this has been and will continue to be a major characteristic of politics. It is more likely for the church to be corrupted by the politics rather than to positively influence politics. This is especially the case in the event that the church enters into active politics. Conventionally, the Constitution separates the church from the state. Dreisbach, (2006) argues that this is because of the spheres of action and institutions which are suitable for the church from the state. Thus, the idea of separation between the two institutions remains valid.
The election of church leaders is not done by the government of political leaders. Religious organizations, the church, in the same way, are not involved in the appointing of presidents, governors, or judges. There is no religion that is superior to others in the country and none is supported by taxes. Defining of the rules that govern religious organizations is not the mandate of the state. There is freedom of worship guaranteed by the Constitution; “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Jefferson, 1802). These are boundaries that have always mediated the relationship between the church and the state, and allowing the church to engage in active politics is going against these ideals. It is plausible to note that while the society is a blessing in every state, government, which represents politics within a society, is a necessary evil. The government is associated with suffering of the people, which means that within the same system, the church would have the same impact.
According to Winthrop (19883), it would be beneficial for the political sphere to have in it the rule of justice that would be possible with the involvement of spiritual leaders. This means that the politics of the country would benefit from the counsel provided by the religious organizations. According to Plato, there is the particular role that should be played by the church. There is no doubt that the church has a role in promoting morality within the state, but this does not have to occur within a system that is already morality corrupt. The church can still play an important role as the overseer of the operations of the government, but from the outside. After all, this would be more effective if the church is neutral and does not assume any side in the governing of the state (Madison).
There is already a dilemma when dealing with the question of politics and religion. Even if it is clear in the Constitution that there is separation of state and church is necessary in maintaining an effective nation, religious has a significant role in the political life. Regardless there being measures to maintain matters of religion within the church, the fact that there is an important role played by religion within the political life of the people cannot be ignored. This also brings forth the pointlessness of ideas that would eliminate the influence of the church in public matters. Another reality is in the number of individuals who identify with one religion or another. These people have suggested the importance of religion in society. Evidently, religious sentiment is such an important part of the society that it cannot be avoided in the political sphere.
The influence of the church has always been felt in the political sphere without having to engage in active politics. Organized religious organizations have always influenced politics. As Plato reveals, due their concern with sacred and divine, historically, religions organizations and groups have played a key role within the state, both in secular as well as pragmatic politics. They have always been involved in shaping public morality, legitimating monarchs, applying control over the welfare state and education, or by just ensuring favorable legal status. This is the same in the modern era, although it happens without the church having an active role in politics. Audi and Wolterstorff (1997) add that it is still possible for the influence of the church to be felt within the state without necessarily having to form political parties and engaging in electoral politics.
Aristotle brings to fore a very interesting argument, that whichever body is created by nature should be subjected to some sort of control. This means that the various forms of government should have some form of control imposed. The church can be argued to be among those bodies that can exert that kind of control over the government to ensure that it is in check. This has effectively happened in the past, with the church taking a critical role in overseeing the working of the government. The church has also played an important role in preventing the abuse of human rights by the government, especially in democracies (Aristotle). The church, in some way, can be viewed as ensuring that no man is subject to any other power, but only that which results from the law of nature (Locke). The state has the power to limit the freedom of the people, but with such role as should be played by the church, this becomes somewhat hard, especially within democracies.
Locke presents an argument that political power can be abused such that the people are hindered from enjoying their rights. Surrendering their power to the sovereign does not mean that the people should be subjected to torture or slavery. The political power should also not be used in any forceful manner preventing the public to enjoy their rights and freedoms. This suggests some means of controlling the possibility of the executive from abusing the power. This has informed the role played by interests groups, including faith or religious organizations.
There are various ways through which this role is played, among them being education, as suggested by Plato. The church, rather than engaging in active politics, has a role to play in educating the public about what to expect from their leaders as well as in inculcating good morals in those being governed. The question would be: is it possible for the religious organizations to play this role effectively if engaged in active politics and taking sides in the politics of the state? The answer would be NO, and the rest of the paper engages in proving why this cannot happen.
In politics, there is always abuse of power; “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Most of the political scientists who have studied politics and power will agree that political power describes politics as the pursuit for political power and competition for power. Clegg (1989) defines politics as “the process by which political power is acquired and exercised.” This means that whenever politics is at play, there is always the question of acquisition and use of power.
Audi and Wolterstorff (1997)appears to suggest that involvement of religious organization and leaders will play a role in curtailing the power in the hands of politicians; as a way of providing the checks and balances to avoid abuse of power. On the contrary as long as the church enters into the political arena, it will play according to the rules of the game. The definition of politics will not change, which means that the religious organizations will be corrupted by the political power.
Power intoxicates leaders, and this would be the same case even if the leaders hold some religious standards. Political leaders are capable of engaging in ethical governance, but this is not always the case. The Founders of the nation were well aware of the possibility of power to corrupt and over the years, the church and state have remained separate entities, with none interfering with the operations of the other. Those in political power tend to act unethically simply because they are in power and can get away with such actions. The subjects are expected to rationalize as well as make exceptions for the leaders; “It's ok because he/she is the leader.” This means that it is necessary for the religious leaders not to engage in politics (Audi and Wolterstorff, 1997).
Engagement in politics means that the relationship to God and ultimate loyalties may be considered minor and forgotten for lesser values. This is because not many tend to take politics seriously due to the unethical actions. Also, by taking part in one party over another, it is possible for religious organizations to support and sponsor things that re dogmatic, heinous, culpable, or even trivial (Audi and Wolterstorff, 1997).
It would not be possible to protect religious liberty as an important right or evade destructive, misguided, immoral, and detestable manifestations. It is also possible that in taking part in party politics, the religious freedoms with become victim as there will be no longer any separation between what is spiritual and what is political. The engagement will be opening up the church to attacks in the name of political interests.
Religious organizations would not be effective in playing their role in society if they took active part in the politics of the country. After all, in the United States, the church is an organization which is categorized as “tax-exempt.” This is under Section 501(c)(3) of the Constitution. These are organizations that have other roles in society and are expected to devote their resources to these roles including religious, educational, or other charitable activities. Such roles should leave no room for taking part in active political activities. The church has also accepted to fulfill some important public purposes and operate as per the rules under 501(c)(3)s. from the argument of the evils involved in politics and the roles of religious organizations, they should not take active part in electoral politics (Madison)
However, this does not mean that the church should not engage in any political intervention in society. There are major actions that the organizations can engage in without being partisan. Among them is the role of influencing legislation or lobbying, for the benefit of the nation. Being at the center of politics and taking sides through formation of political parties and engaging in electoral politics would greatly hinder their performance of this role. Under 501(c)(3) organizations such as the church has the freedom to take part in “insubstantial” lobbying. While the definition of “insubstantial” is not clear, the idea is that the organizations should be in a position to act in a manner that is beneficial to society (Madison)
Whatever is beneficial and in the interest of the people is defined differently from the religious and political perspectives. Thus, the church should not place the society in a position where there conflict between religious beliefs and practices and the selfish political interests. While the religious institutions are required to understand what is beneficial and important for the wellbeing of citizens, politics might not do the same as political interests are always at the fore. The church is therefore, necessary, and should remain neutral for continued protection of human and civil rights. In a situation where the religious organizations are political, there is the possibility of serious violations of religious freedom in the name of making secular laws appropriate to all. Taking partisan positions means that the church will be allowed to take positions depending on political interests and not the morals and standards of religion (Audi and Wolterstorff, 1997).
In conclusion, it is necessary that the traditional separation between the church and state be maintained for the sake of continued observance of fundamental freedoms and to prevent the undue abuse of power by political leaders. Politics is necessary for the society to function effectively, but it is a necessary evil, that the church should not be party to. The Constitution is clear about the freedom of religion being an important and fundamental right, and thus, should not be jeopardized in the name of the church engaging in partisan politics. The church should continue to play the neutral role in society, serving the interests of the people and ensuring that the government is accountable to the citizens. This cannot be effective with active role in politics.
Aristotle (1981). Politics, Book IV, Penguin Classics
Audi, R. and Wolterstorff, N. (1997). Religion in the Public Square: The place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Dreisbach, D.L. (2006). The Mythical "Wall of Separation": How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church–State Law, Policy, and Discourse, First Principles Series Report, #6, The Heritage Foundation
Jefferson, T. (1802). Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, First Principles Series
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