The dangerous mix of politics and religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I am not one who reveres the ‘founding fathers’ of America, the architects of its independence. They were all-too-human and had their faults, such as their tolerance of slavery, their denial of equal rights to women, and their desire to preserve the privileges and property rights of the well-to-do landowning classes. But even with those caveats, one has to gratefully acknowledge that the constitution they created, despite its serious flaws, was way ahead of its time in its incorporation of ideas that address the question of how to create a functioning republican democracy and balance the needs of free people with an orderly government. And the Bill of Rights surely must rank as the jewel in that crown.

What is remarkable is their recognition of the importance of keeping government and religion separate. This has nothing to do with what they themselves believed about god and the many discussions and debates about whether they were personally Christians or deists or atheists seem to me to be missing the point because that fact does not prove anything. There was undoubtedly a wide diversity of religious views among them, but despite that they seemed to have little difficulty in deciding that they wanted to create an explicitly godless constitution. (See The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore (1996) for a history of the debates on what to do about religion in the constitution.) The only mention of religion in the original document is a negative one (Article VI: [N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.) and the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights cemented this idea of keeping god out of government actions by including the Establishment Clause that says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The wisdom of this sentiment can be seen in the mess that inevitably ensues when governments are either explicitly based on religion or pander to them. The worst examples of these are the Islamic countries where the application of Islamic laws result in the denial of many of the personal freedoms that we take for granted. The treatment of women in Islam is particularly appalling and Islamists have also interpreted the Koran to say that any apostate must be put to death. Those two items alone should be enough to demonstrate why Islam should never be given any legal or political authority in any country, and countries that enforce such practices should be vigorously condemned.

Other countries which are ostensibly secular but where the majority religious groups have become militant in demanding that their sensibilities take precedence over secular policies have resulted in religious tensions and bad policies. The strong influence of Christianity in the US, Hinduism in India, the Buddhism in Sri Lanka are examples of where pandering to religion has been bad for the countries concerned.

Israel is another country in which the influence of religion has been pernicious and seems to be getting even worse. Just as the tea-partiers are taking over the Republican party and driving American politics into a form of quasi-theocracy, the Israeli Haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) are pushing Israel to becoming even more of a theocracy than it currently is. In an article titled A hostile takeover of Zionism: Israel is teetering toward theocracy, Patrick Martin in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Saturday, September 26, 2009, describes the rise of the Haredim.

They seek strict adherence to Biblical rules governing the Sabbath, to Halachic rules concerning food, to age-old traditions of separating men from women, and to the strict observance of Orthodoxy in all aspects of people’s lives, from birth, through education, marriage and death to burial.

They also want their rules to be followed in deciding just who is a Jew and who therefore can enjoy the privileges of a Jewish state.

They also do not shrink from violence.

Prof. Ben Yehuda’s research found that violence is the number-one criminal infraction among Haredim. He also found that most of that violence is for political purposes.

This past summer witnessed many vivid examples. Thousands of Haredim rioted on several successive Saturdays to protest the opening on the Sabbath of a privately owned parking garage near the Old City of Jerusalem; thousands more rioted when social-services personnel arrested a Haredi woman in Jerusalem who was starving her child.

This week, a young woman was beaten for not being dressed modestly enough in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemish. The town, where many Sephardi refugees settled in the 1950s, recently has had an influx of Haredim. Earlier this month, a man and woman were beaten by Haredi youth when the two sat next to each other on a bus bound for the town.

Naturally this is causing tension with the more modernistic segments of Israeli society. For example, some women, even among the Haredi, are refusing the Haredim’s demand that they sit at the back of the bus.

People have the right to tie themselves up into all the knots they want to in order to please their god. Most of the time such extreme forms of religious devotion serve merely to make religious people look silly to outsiders. The problem is that these people think that everyone else should also follow their religious rules, and use laws and threats and violence to get others to comply. For example, in yesterday’s post about orthodox Jews spitting on a reporter for using a tape recorder on the Sabbath, the reporter herself was not Jewish, but these religious people felt that everyone should follow the absurd rules that they think their god has encoded in their religious texts.

This is why if we cannot persuade people to abandon religion, we should at least make sure that religion does not have any influence in the policies that governments adopt. The Establishment Clause in the US is a good model for all countries to follow.

POST SCRIPT: Islam on women and children and apostasy

Richard Dawkins nails an Islamic cleric on the apostasy question. Note the cleric’s attitude that parents can do what they like with their children.

However Muslim apologists might try to evade the issue, the indisputable fact is that Islam’s attitude towards women and children and apostasy is simply awful.


  1. Eric says

    Mano --

    You actually failed to mention the single biggest power difference between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular (overwhelming) majority in Israel: they are the only Israelis who are exempt from the draft.

    One thing that probably should be kept in mind is that about 1/2 of the entire population of Israel lives in or around Tel Aviv, which is as secular as it gets. Up until relatively recently, most of the country was satisfied to just leave the Haredim to their own business in their own communities.

    The problem is that more keep coming in by the truckload. It’s the largest growing segment of the Israeli population by a wide margin (in fact, I think it might be the only growing segment).

  2. Anonymous says

    Interesting post.

    You are very right that the beliefs of the founding fathers should be irrelevant to the discussion of religion’s involvement (or non-involvement) in government, but unfortunately they seem to be key debate points in popular discourse. It shows up nearly every time I am involved in a discussion on the topic.

    Some conservative believers so “revere” the founding fathers that they see their original words and intentions as a timeless guide above criticism or debate. (Seemingly not unlike how they treat their religious texts) Not surprisingly, these same folks seem to place much importance on efforts to frame the public interpretations of the founding documents to their liking. One might argue the recent Texas textbook changes were a move toward that goal. I’m worried their efforts will be effective in helping sneak religion further into the policy debate.

  3. Marie says

    Wait… isn’t rioting an awful lot of work for them to be doing on the sabbath??


  4. Richard says

    “There was undoubtedly a wide diversity of religious views among them, but despite that they seemed to have little difficulty in deciding that they wanted to create an explicitly godless constitution”.

    I beleive you are the one missing the point. You and other deniers conviently overlook the fact that religion and daily life of true participants cannot be seperated. For one, just look at the modern concept hospitals which dates from AD 331 when Constantine, having been converted to Christianity, abolished all pagan hospitals and thus created the opportunity for a new start. Until that time disease had isolated the sufferer from the community. Just look at the origin of hospitals. It took the Christian tradition of emphasizing the close relationship of the sufferer to his fellow man, upon whom rested the obligation for care. Illness thus became a matter for the Christian church. Prior to that the sick were segregated and shunned from the community.

    Natural law and Christian ideals were built in to England’s heritage starting with the Magna Carta and following America’s settlers. So when people talk about seperation of church and state it is really trying to sweep a fact of American history under the rug and bury the truth.

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