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Religion and politics in America

At my suggestion and using my draft as its starting point, two years ago South Mountain Friends Meeting (Quakers) in Ashland adopted a set of principles it regarded as useful for understanding the right relationship of religion to politics. It differs markedly from widespread practice. I share it (with slight abbreviation) in this election year.

We affirm that it is appropriate for religious people to bring their faith values to bear on issues in the public forum. By doing so, we promote the welfare of both the church and the state, even if it means challenging existing political structures to grow beyond their old forms to meet new and emergent needs.

We affirm the wisdom of our nation’s founders when, in the First Amendment to our Constitution, they forbade any effort to establish a state religion, as well as any state interference in the free exercise of religion. It follows that we oppose any effort to declare the United States a “Christian nation” or to conform its laws to interpretations of biblical law, Sharia, or any other legal code based specifically on any single faith tradition’s scripture.

We affirm that the United States may claim to be a nation “under God,” in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, only if all nations are equally recognized as being "under God.” We reject any “American exceptionalism” based on a belief that the United States enjoys a special measure of divine favor. We believe our nation can be exceptional only to the extent that we cherish justice, freedom, and human dignity to an exceptional degree. . . .

We affirm the sufficiency of civil laws to achieve as much good as is possible in a state, and we affirm the origin of such laws in the experience and reason of humanity. We support the right of people of faith to present and champion public policy proposals; however, we do not support the attempt of any religious institution to impose its creed upon the public at large ... We have two further grounds for opposing such appeals. Historically, legislation rooted in human interpretation of the Bible often has abetted unjust purposes, such as the enslavement of African Americans and the legal subjection of women. In addition, such inconsistent application of biblical texts to public issues has served to promote sectarian agendas. A set of writings so diverse as the Bible (and thus subject to selective use) may properly guide religious practice — in which there is ample room for voluntary obedience — but has wreaked great harm when translated into uniform and coercive civil legislation.

Finally, we affirm the urgent need for us to be outspoken advocates of justice and care for each other, which are the forms love must take when projected into civil society. Now that wealth and power are being accumulated in ever fewer hands; now that national security is measured far more in terms of military might than of a healthy, well-educated and economically secure citizenry; now that the percentage of our population living behind prison bars is the largest in our history and among the highest in the world; now that the stranger in our midst is made the scapegoat for our national ills; now that public service is stigmatized and the common good scorned; and now that our planet is endangered by reckless disregard rooted in human consumption and entitlement, we declare that the intrinsic worth of every individual and all life upon the Earth calls us to illuminate civil discourse with the light entrusted to us by the spirit of life.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.