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How Conservatives Silence Critics of Religion

We're right to worry about a candidate's religious beliefs when they threaten our liberties.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Matt Hintsa

 

 The GOP candidates’ struggle to outdo each other in appealing to Christian fundamentalists continues. Rick Santorum, the current favorite of this constituency, topped his previous plays with his remark that John F. Kennedy’s famed 1960 speech on the importance of a separation between religion and government “makes me throw up.”

The separation of church and state is not some abstract notion, nor is it a means of oppressing people. It very reasonably keeps people from imposing their religious beliefs on other people. These are not beliefs that can be objectively measured or empirically tested—like, say, the hypothesis that public spending can affect employment levels. Religious beliefs may be comforting or helpful to some people, but no matter how deeply felt, they can have no place in a rational, shared system of managing outcomes for all Americans.

Yet because of the current political climate in this country, we’re not supposed to talk about any of that. The other day, the New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow got in a little trouble. He  tweeted an admittedly rude and rather inappropriate remark about an eccentric element of Mitt Romney’s faith—the belief that wearing special underwear literally protects the person from harm.

Blow was hit with a barrage of criticism, and quickly apologized—which makes sense given the contextual irrelevancy and vulgarity of the comment. As a proud single parent, he was responding to a remark of Romney’s implying that single-parenting is per se bad for kids, and he should have stuck to that point in his rejoinder.

But that doesn’t mean that Romney’s avowed Mormon faith is incidental to his view on single-parenting or that a candidate’s religion is always out of bounds in political discourse.  There are a number of valid questions that can be asked about practices of the Mormon Church, and their potential impact on policy decisions of a political leader of that persuasion.

One question would be about the effect of Mormon missionary work around the world, at a time when people of other faiths may strongly resent the presence of people trying to convert their children to a faith so clearly identified with American interests.

Another would concern the repeated, pernicious practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims—obviously without their permission and presumably against what would be their wishes. Stephen Colbert made this point when he  tweeted: If Mormons Posthumously Baptize Holocaust Victims, I’ll Posthumously Circumcise Mormons

There’s no reason we can’t talk about these things. And plenty of good reasons we should talk about them.

Making fun of religious beliefs is intellectually pointless since such beliefs by definition are beyond rational argument. (“Faith” is what you proclaim when you have no objective evidence for a particular belief.) Yet there’s an inherent double standard in the way we chuckle about Scientologists and “Xenu” or various cults that bubble up before quickly disappearing, when one could argue that, empirically, all beliefs about miracles, supernatural interventions in the natural course of events, etc. are delusions designed to comfort us in times of trouble—or distract us from the recognition that if we act in concert we can make life better by and for ourselves.

At the same time, questioning religious belief systems in terms of how they affect other people is certainly legitimate—a lot more legitimate than the subtly racist rhetoric aimed at Barack Obama. Clearly, we don’t choose what race we are born into, or what nationality, or even what religion. However, we certainly do decide, as adults, the values and beliefs we live by—whether or not they match what we were taught as children.

 
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