Faith Matters

Religion’s Role in Public Life

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, NOV. 30, 2008 ( We need to resist attempts to exclude religion from public life. This is the central message of a couple of recently published books that reflect on increasing pressures to reject any role for faith in the public square.

The radical secularism that wishes to deny faith any role outside of its private dimension dangerously weakens Western civilization, according to Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

In his book «America’s Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion» (Encounter Books), London says that what secularism offers in replacement of religion is not sufficient in order to safeguard the core values of our civilization. This is particularly concerning at a time when the West is under challenge externally — from radical Islam — and internally — from a spiritual and moral anemia.

London identifies a number of factors that have radically altered the cultural landscape in recent years. The first is multiculturalism, which not only affirms the equality of all cultures, but also often seems to propose the inferiority of Western culture compared to its counterparts.

The weakening of churches, an extreme form of tolerance, and the hope that rationalism and science can solve all our problems, are other changes noted by London. Quoting Benedict XVI, the author warns that the privatization of belief leads to an unjust exclusion of God from society.

Secularists, London comments, often portray themselves as defending a legitimate separation of church and state. In fact, their objective is more radical; they seek the complete exclusion of faith from any public role or expression. The result is that religious observance comes to be seen as something shameful, and best avoided by any intelligent person.

London also criticizes the attitude of the «me generation» that arose in the 1960s. Following what God wanted came to be seen by them as an undue constraint on personal freedom: «Why live to fulfill ‘God’s plan’ when one has plenty of plans of his own?»

Such a self-centered approach quickly degenerated, however, into a belief that our search for meaning can be satisfied through following our feelings.

Relativism is another powerful force undermining religion. Relativists, London explains, hold that each person makes his own truth according to the dictates of conscience. Consequently morality is situational.


This privatization of conscience and belief is strongly criticized by Austin Dacey in his book «The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life» (Prometheus Books). Interestingly, Dacey, like London, cites Benedict XVI in the opening pages of his book.

Dacey quotes from the homily given by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the College of Cardinals on April 18, 2005, just prior to the start of the conclave in which he would be elected Pope. The homily warned against the dangers of relativism in contemporary culture.

The relativism that poses such a danger today, explained Cardinal Ratzinger, has arisen due to secularism and a de-Christianization of society. Dacey comments that at the time many of Europe’s leading secular intellectuals agreed with the points raised by Cardinal Ratzinger.

Observers from across the political spectrum, notes Dacey, also agree that the rise in relativism has brought with it a dramatic increase in crime and social dysfunction.

Dacey is no apologist for religion. In fact, what he advocates is a return to secular liberalism, but not in the form it has adopted in recent times. Secular liberalism went off the tracks, he maintains, in insisting so much on the idea that religion, ethics and values are only private matters.

This has come about because secularism equated the private conscience with the concepts of personal and subjective, thus placing them out of bounds of a serious evaluation. If conscience is thus beyond criticism it cannot be subject to public scrutiny.

This contemporary version of liberalism is not in accordance with the secular liberal tradition that was formed in the 17th and 18th century. That tradition, according to Dacey, envisaged a moral foundation for society that could transcend religious differences and also conceived of natural rights evident to a universal moral sense.

The first chapter of Dacey’s book is dedicated to a historical overview that traces how liberalism evolved to embrace the total privatization of conscience and religion. One of the consequences of this distorted view of liberalism was the series of decisions by the United States Supreme Court that allowed abortion under the justification of a right of privacy.

Religion is a private affair in the sense that the state should not be placed under clerical control or used to favor any one religion, notes Dacey. But it would be best to conceive of this as religion being a nongovernmental affair, rather than seeking to make religion a purely private matter that has no public relevance.


Benedict XVI has addressed the issue of religion and public life with frequency. In his Nov. 15 speech to participants in the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity he said that the lay faithful have a vocation and mission in their social life.

«Every milieu, circumstance and activity in which we engage that can become resplendent with the unity of faith and life is entrusted to the responsibility of lay faithful, moved by the desire to communicate the gift of encounter with Christ and the certainty of the human person’s dignity,» the Pontiff declared.

In his Oct. 27 address to the new ambassador of the Philippines to the Holy See, the Pope explained, «The Holy See seeks to engage the world in dialogue so as to promote the universal values that flow from human dignity and advance mankind on the road to communion with God and one another.»

The Church, he continued, recognizes the respective autonomy of both Church and state:
«Indeed, we may say that the distinction between religion and politics is a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions.»

This distinction, however, does not mean opposition, he added. In fact, the Holy Father argued that the state and religion should support each other, «as they together serve the personal and social well-being of all.»

«By cultivating a spirit of honesty and impartiality, and by keeping justice their aim, civil and ecclesial leaders earn the trust of the people and enhance a sense of the shared responsibility of all citizens to promote a civilization of love,» he explained.

Many people have reflected on the relations between Church and state, Benedict XVI observed in a speech he gave Sept. 12 at the Elysée Palace on meeting with authorities of France.

It is fundamental, he said, to insist on the distinction between the realms of politics and religion. It is equally important «to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to — among other things — the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society.»

A glance at the world around us leaves no doubt that this task of forming consciences is clearly a daunting one. A task, however, that is increasingly urgent and one in which religion has a vital role to play.

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