Religion is at war with the state in America. Zealously, sectarian organizations have breached our historic separation between church and state, upsetting the delicate balance that is a founding, constitutional principle of the nation.
And, for too long, we have allowed religion — or what some people do and say in the name of religion — to poison public discussion and cynically divide us for crass financial or political gain. It is time to exorcise religion from politics and public policy and restore religion to its proper place: a matter of individual conscience between believers and to whom or what they pray.
Here are six key issues and positions upon which we need to agree:
1. Recognize that there is no Biblical authority on key social issues: Religiously, political strategists use hot-button social issues to fire up conservatives and get them to vote for Republican candidates. But in "Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics," Jonathan Dudley contends that "popular evangelical thought" on key issues is fundamentally flawed: "most Christian theologians throughout history, including Augustine, Aquinas, and even American evangelicals up until the 1980s, have believed life does not begin at conception;" "opposition to gay marriage has more to do with allegiance to socially conservative cultural values than with allegiance to the Bible;" "traditional Christian valuations of science . . . should lead evangelicals to accept evolution." He shows how "evangelicals are changing their minds on environmentalism," and how this "supports a new way of thinking about the Bible."
2. Enforce the constitutional prohibition of any religious test for public office: Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution specifically states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." But candidates and public officials are routinely questioned about and feel compelled to declare their religious beliefs and promise that, if elected, they will uphold faith-based positions on social issues. Atheists or agnostics commit political suicide if they profess their beliefs.
3. End public prayer anytime, anywhere: Some insist upon forcing everyone to pray before public events when they can do so privately without offending others. Here's proof a secular state is the best way to keep religious peace: Recently, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that allows school districts to create policies allowing students to deliver "inspirational messages" (aka prayer) at public events. Now, Florida members of The Satanic Temple have been quoted saying they are thrilled Scott "has reaffirmed our American freedom to practice our faith openly, allowing our Satanic children the freedom to pray in school."
4. End tax exemptions for religious leaders who play politics: Religious organizations whose leaders endorse candidates and policy positions directly or indirectly should lose their tax exemptions.
5. Deny exemptions from secular rules and regulations: Religious organizations that receive tax dollars — schools, hospitals, social service agencies, etc.— and businesses that serve the public and/or employ people of different faiths or no faith should not be able to deny them services or claim exemptions from licensure requirements based upon their religious convictions. Once they enter the public arena, they should have to play by the rules. If they don't want to, organizations that receive tax dollars should no longer get them. They can't have it both ways.
6. Prohibit the use of tax dollars for religion: In November 2012, Florida voters showed laudable wisdom by voting down proposed state Constitutional Amendment 8, which would have allowed tax dollars to be used for any religious purpose. Now, the state needs to challenge tax dollars already funding religion—like faith-based prisons.
People of good faith can honor the Constitution by practicing their faith the old fashioned way: privately. That will defeat opportunistic political operatives who want to divide and conquer us. But it will reaffirm our first secular commandment: "Live and let live."
Contact Stephen L. Goldstein on Twitter at @drslgoldstein or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.