Think of the excitement of it: a debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on tax code revision. A conservative from Alabama urges the adoption of a flat tax – the same rate for every American at every income level. He cites the commandment against theft and asserts, “To take from the rich is a sin. The Bible never says it is wrong to be rich.”
A liberal from Connecticut counters that the progressive income tax is the only approach consistent with holy Judeo-Christian scripture, citing the prophet Ezekiel’s argument that Sodom was destroyed because it was filled with people who had “excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy.” He argues that any nation that doesn’t help the poor will be destroyed by God. A congresswoman weighs in by insisting that the problem in Sodom was homosexuality, not failing to share food.
Truth be told, warring scriptural citations are not the coin of the realm for congressional debate – yet. There is, however, a disturbing trend that has been growing since the Religious Right claimed victory in the 2004 presidential race, fueled by the “values voters” of America. Instead of acknowledging that it is important to promote “values,” in the sense of principled expressions of concern for the public good, some politicians have decided to go one step beyond and try to prove that their values emanate from the Bible.
They are not just under pressure to do this from the likes of Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, but from evangelicals sometimes associated with more liberal policies, such as Jim Wallis of Call for Renewal. Wallis’ new best-selling book God’s Politics has generated so much media interest that he showed up as a guest on The Comedy Channel’s “Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Moreover, Wallis has been invited by the Democratic Party leadership to meetings to help them craft a values message.
Wallis’ book is critical of Americans United (along with the Anti-Defamation League and a few others) for creating “a cry of alarm [that] has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public.”
I am not aware we did that. Ironically, this attack comes just one paragraph after Wallis tells an unctuous story about how someone had baited him with a “straw man” argument after a lecture in Boston. This time it is Wallis who is creating a convenient, easy-to-burn “straw man.”
Now, it is true that when the president of the United States uses oratory steeped in theology, or when Congress passes a piece of legislation that explicitly decides what religion or religious viewpoint will be enshrined in law, AU complains about it mightily. We properly point out that decisions in the political arena must be made on the basis of the public good, not private religious belief.
There is plenty of religious dialogue – and some screaming – in the public square now, and I certainly don’t want to squelch it. But laws made by legislators must be rooted in constitutional values and reasoned analysis, not someone’s personal take on scripture. Put bluntly, if your representative in Congress can’t explain a vote on abortion or the environment without “proof-texting” it to the Bible, he or she has failed to do the work of a legislator in America.
Jim Wallis and I agree on many policy issues. I disagree with him on some, especially his opposition to same-gender marriage and his crabbed view of women’s reproductive rights. However, I am most troubled by his long-standing disinterest in, even hostility to, the overlay of constitutional values that must undergird legislating in this country.
In an op-ed in The New York Times in 2001, Wallis wrote of his support for the Bush “faith-based” initiative, writing, “I don’t believe such an office threatens the principle of church-state separation…. We must not be sidetracked by this debate and forget about our poorest children.” (Even Wallis has had to concede that the poor got sidetracked off the Bush radar screen except where they intersected with his “faith-based” initiative.)
Church-state separation is not a “side track” – it is the railroad line running right through town. It is the principle that carries the promise that whatever preachers say, or fail to say, about justice for all (with or without religious affiliation), the Constitution will protect it. The very vigor of the debate in religious circles and between believers and non-believers is a testament to the flexibility and freedom the First Amendment offers to all of us.
Nevertheless, I think the Framers of our Constitution knew that a line had to be drawn. There was to be no “religious test” for public office and indeed no “law respecting an establishment of religion” – about as broad a prohibition as one could craft.
As a practical and principled matter I think religious people – left, right and center – must recognize what my colleague Dr. Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists has written: “No faith group’s sacred scriptures, or interpretation of a sacred scripture, holds special or uncontested authority in the public square when public policies are being debated.”
Today’s religious majorities, or majority wannabees, need to understand that personal religious conviction and analysis is not a substitute for policy that seeks a common good that could be recognized as such by people throughout the 2,000 faith groups and diverse array of freethinking and non-believer communities in the nation.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.