Religious beliefs and public policy


Barbara Rossing is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is a faculty member at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is an evangelical who feels that the rapturists have, in trying to take the Bible literally, totally distorted its message. Her book The Rapture Exposed is her attempt to reclaim the message of the Bible. In the process, she argues that although this is a religious dispute between segments of Christianity, we should all, whatever our beliefs, take it seriously because it has public policy implications for all of us.

In a comment to a previous posting about the rapture, Professor Madigan spoke about her former sister-in-law who back in the 1980s was convinced that the rapture was imminent and that the day had been specified and that she would be one of the chosen. She then proceeded to run up her credit card bills, thinking that she would not have to pay it back. Of course, she had to deal with all the bills when the rapture did not happen. Dave’s comment in the previous entry seems to indicate that this kind of credit-card behavior is quite widespread. (Here is an interesting conundrum: Is it unethical to run up bills that you have no intention of paying if you think that the end of the world is about to occur?)

I would imagine that this kind of extreme behavior is somewhat rare and that most believers in the rapture hedge their bets and continue to make their mortgage, credit card, and insurance payments.

But even if some people are tempted to act recklessly, such actions by private individuals do not do too much damage to the community at large. But not all rapture-influenced actions are that innocuous. Rossing’s book reveals some startling information about rapture-influenced political appointees that I was not aware of (since I was not in the US at that time) but whose actions can affect all of us. One such person is James Watt who was appointed to the post of Secretary of the Interior after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Rossing says:

Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U.S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” (p. 7)

One might wonder how such a person as James Watt could ever have been confirmed to the post that is entrusted to protect the environment. One would think that the job description for the position of Secretary of the Interior requires someone who takes a very long-term view, and that anyone who cannot envisage the need to take care of the environment beyond the next few generations would be eliminated. And perhaps there was a time when such people would not be nominated to high positions but that seems to be no longer the case. Nowadays, politicians seem to feel obliged to wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim how it influences everything they do.

Of course, most people are religious in some way and there is no doubt that their religious beliefs will have an effect on what they do and what policies they support. We should protect people’s right to believe whatever they want. But should that protection also extend to public policies that they wish to implement that are based on their religious beliefs? Can we draw a line between policies based on religion that are acceptable and those that are not? Or is it better to simply say that any public policy that has religion as its only basis is not acceptable.

These questions become more apparent with issues such as global warming. If global temperatures are rising at about one degree per century as experts suggest, then in a few centuries the melting of the polar ice gaps, the loss of glaciers, and the consequent rise in sea levels would have catastrophic consequences, causing massive flooding of coastal areas and huge climatic changes. Suppose the Secretary of the Interior says that since the end of the world is going to occur long before then, we should not worry about it, should that person be removed from office? Is it religious discrimination to say that we should not be basing public policy on religious beliefs?

If James Watt had been rejected as a nominee because of the feeling that his religion-based short-term views were dangerous for the environment, could it have been alleged that he was the subject of religious discrimination?

This is a very tricky question because while we do not want to impinge on people’s right to religious beliefs, we do have a responsibility to base policies on empirical evidence. The public policy implications of religion becomes even more alarming when applied to issues of war and peace as we will see in the next posting.

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