Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and the State

Tolerance is a watchword of our republic. In particular, religious tolerance matters enough to us that the Framers put it first among the Bill of Rights. Here in this new place, people are free to believe in any God or no god and are free to engage in religious practices that can be accommodated without infringing the rights of others. To help ensure freedom of religion, the Framers included in the same First Amendment the injunction that there shall be no establishment of religion here — the state will embrace no particular religion as its own.

The Catholic Church, a large fraction of its members, and many evangelical Protestants embrace dogma that runs squarely contrary to my fundamental commitments on enormously important matters. Should contraception be widely available without stigma? Should the so-called “morning after pill” be widely available without stigma? Should a woman generally have sovereignty over her own body in deciding whether to continue a pregnancy? Should same-sex relationships be treated with the same respect as heterosexual relationships? On all these matters, many Catholics and evangelical Protestants, citing church doctrine or scripture or both, condemn as sin what I regard as precious or sensible or both. And I’m not alone. My views on these matters, according to the polls, are shared by a majority of Americans.

What, then, is my responsibility as a citizen of the republic in treating the beliefs, words, and actions of these fellow Americans who are across a gulf from me on these matters?

Again, the watchword is tolerance. I’m under no civic duty to respect the views. But I am obliged to tolerate them. And I do, wholeheartedly. I say to my conservative Catholic and evangelical co-citizens that I’ll defend the republic to the death, and that means defending your right to believe any of these things that I most assuredly do not believe.

If my co-citizens across the gulf were content to believe certain things are sins and to preach that they are sins and to live their own lives consistently with these beliefs, I’d be content to contend with them on the merits, but to recognize that they are who they are and I am who I am and in America we embrace “live and let live.”

But too many religious conservatives, motivated by sincere concern or something else, have mounted a relentless crusade over the past few decades to enlist the State (meaning the federal and state governments taken together) to enforce their minority dogma as law. And not just law: criminal law — the apparatus that includes district attorneys and indictments and trials and prison. This is intolerable. It amounts to an effort to establish a religion — their particular religion — in the statute books. They should stop.

If they stopped, we could resume something like a normal politics. We could heal the confirmation process for judicial appointments and so much more. We could turn the national agenda somewhat away from “wedge issues” to constructive initiatives to address the challenges of the new century.

I am not “anti-Catholic.” I am not “anti-evangelical.” I am resolutely opposed to the incorporation of a minority conception of “sin” into our laws at the expense of what I and a majority of my co-citizens regard as our own rights and as sound government policy.