In my last post, I described why religious sentiments can help democracy produce public goods and beneficial reforms. Of course, religious sentiments are not the only kind of attitude toward the world that can rally citizens for the public good. The environmental movement has tapped into the sense of wonder about nature and propelled needed regulations against pollution. The human rights movement has battled entrenched dictatorships across the world.
But to mention these other social repositories of public regarding sentiments shows how foolish, arbitrary, and even bigoted it is single out organized religion as an inappropriate influence on politics. An environmental movement which sets a transcendental value to preserving species and other wonders of the world is not different in kind from religion. Those with knowledge of ancient religions in fact can see it as a form of pantheism in modern garb. Historians chart the human rights movement to Christianity’s insistence that we are all children of God. Democracies need all the help they can get, including religion, to muster the better angels of ourselves for the sacrifice that sustains a politics focused on common goods.
And these other public regarding movements remind us that it is not a sound argument against the use of religious sentiments that some people abuse them for evil. There are environmental terrorists. Some environmentalists also harm the interests of people in the developing world by disregarding the importance of economic growth. It is true that religion sentiments may not be wholly rational and therefore not easily refutable by reason alone but neither is the awe at sublimity of nature at the heart of environmentalism or the conviction that men are endowed with inalienable rights.
To be sure, if unchecked, religious groups may try to use the state for their own benefit. That is why it is wholly consistent to welcome religion in the public square and yet favor constitutional structures, like the Establishment Clause, that prevent the state from providing aid for particular religions. This constitutional provision has the added benefit of redirecting the energies of organized religions from seeking benefits for themselves to reinforcing the sense of self-sacrifice so often absent in politics. Would we be able to frame constitutional provisions to prevent other groups pursuing noble ends from transforming themselves into government rent seekers! Because of the Establishment Clause, under the current conditions of American democracy religious organizations pose less of a threat to sound governance than many of these other groups.
The key to creating a successful politics is not to eradicate deep human impulses from political life, but to harness them for the public good. We should prevent religion from receiving special privileges from the state but then welcome religion back into public square as catalyst of a politics that is more than the sum of individual calculation. Whatever the ultimate validity of its claims about heaven, religion can help us transcend self-interest in ways that are necessary for citizens to flourish on earth.