The separation between religious institutions and governance has undoubtedly contributed to the West’s ascent in the world. While religion has always played a role in public life, it was basing decision making on reason as opposed to the scriptural dogma that has allowed successful governance. To preface, this article by no means is making the claim that religion ought to be abolished, but rather its existence in public life should be separate from public policy. Evidence has shown that religion has a handful of positive traits in society, but using scripture written thousands of years ago to inform policy being written today does more harm than good. From global life expectancy to good governance, reason has always been the strongest force behind human advancement. Basing our policies on empirical evidence has been successful, and history has proven this for thousands of years.
In the Middle Ages, religion was the staple of governance (although it was often used to justify personal motives). Feudal lords often made the largest contributions to the church and typically held influence within papal circles. The symbiotic relationship between religious authority and the elite was often used to exist unequal or oppressive social structures. The Renaissance, however, saw the emergence of Civic Humanism – the belief that decisions ought to be grounded in secular logic, often drawing from the classicism of Ancient Greece. This was reflected in the relative prosperity brought about within Italian city-states. The Catholic Church traditionally eschewed economic growth in favor of a more pious status quo. However, the emergence of a strong banking system (based on new theories) defied much of the older order, raising the quality of life for many (although still relatively isolated). Although religion was very much prevalent, it was more of a shadow in political life as opposed to its main driver. It was the enlightenment, however, that drove the wedge between church and politics. Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke helped create interpretations of the world that were independent of scripture. Although not necessarily anti-religious, it realized that practical considerations such as individual rights were of greater importance. Much of the enlightenment’s gift to the world is shown in Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. The belief that we can structure the world on reason is responsible for providing the high quality of life that many enjoy today, and contribute to improving the quality of life for those less fortunate.
Religion and Politics in the Modern World
The US has recently seen a number of laws passed on a state level seeking to restrict abortion. It is speculated that the intent is to threaten Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that upheld abortion rights under the 14th amendment. It isn’t the many anti-abortion claims that are shocking, but rather the types of arguments that are being used to defend such positions. Political figures such as Ted Cruz are relying on their positions on scriptural claims as to what counts as life, rather than scientific evidence surrounding abortion. The problem posed is, how does a policymaker balance his/her religious beliefs with laws that will impact millions of Americans. While figures like Ted Cruz are entitled to their beliefs, imposing them on people who do not subscribe to those same values undermines basic human freedoms. If anything, policies around abortion ought to be deferred to healthcare experts and those that have dedicated their lives to studying the subject. But when people begin to but scripture over evidence and dogma over reason – that’s when the problems begin.
When using religious arguments, the line is always arbitrary. For example, the bible claims that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding day, she ought to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). For all of the religious right’s moralizing, there are very few who are eager to take this position up. So it begs the question, what is the threshold at which we interpret the bible literally and figuratively? As there is no universal authority to determine this, reason should come first and foremost as the determinant of our moral codes/laws.
In essence, the relationship between scripture and policy is a messy one, especially considering the personal affiliations many politicians/voters have with their faith. But placing one’s head over heart is a necessary sacrifice to make. The case for secular governance isn’t simply theory – there is a large body of history testament to why reason-based governance has been far more effective at improving people’s lives. Religion and politics is just a marriage not meant to be.