Religion and the State

“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

That was Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion, in a nutshell.

So why should Mitt Romney have to give a speech about his religion? Why should we care?

Obviously, some people do care, although in my view, your position on tax cuts is more important to me than your position on religious doctrine.

Religion has moved front and center in the public square, and the deism of a Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln has fallen out of fashion.

I would venture to say that America is more religious now than it was during our nation’s beginning. Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers — in the throes of the Enlightenment – from Madison to Franklin – shared Jefferson’s more skeptical view of religion.

With this speech, Romney defended the role of religion in our political life. “Religion is fundamental to freedom,” Romney said. He also said that freedom requires religion and that religion requires freedom, a questionable assertion. Freedom doesn’t require religion, and many religious leaders of many faiths could do without freedom, thank you very much.

This speech had Kennedy-like moments, but it was no Kennedy speech. Unlike Kennedy, Romney actually believes in his church doctrines, and that came through loud and clear in his words and the passion with which he delivered them.

Religion plays an important role in society. It’s the super-ego, the conscience. Religion tells people when to give to the poor and when to stop acting like a jerk. Along with government and basic ethics, religion helps to bring order out of chaos.

Religion has been under assault, though, from elements that don’t believe in God.

And leaders in every religion have hurt their own cause with a wide variety of tawdry sex-and-money scandals.

The perversion of Islam by various terrorist groups also call into question the rightful place of religion in our world. What good is religion if true believers blow themselves up at crowded markets, taking with them many innocent bystanders?

Not all religions are created equal. For example, religions that worship Satan or worship a pizza box are not on par with the world’s great religions. Satanic cults glorify death and anarchy and breed mayhem, hatred and a breakdown in society.

Worshipping a pizza box undermines the entire notion of religion. Making religion ridiculous is a heresy that no organized religion can countenance. But if wouldn’t surprise me if we have Elvis cults sprout up in 50 years or so. What should we do about that? Well, we shouldn’t give them tax-exempt status, for one thing.

Should the state regulate religion? The Constitution says no, but let’s not kid ourselves. Religion has always been part of the government, from earliest days of the Republic (“From our creator, we are endowed with certain inalienable rights …”) to the current tax-exempt status of many churches.

And that’s where this all gets very tricky. Who decides what is heresy and who decides what is legitimate?

When Jack Kennedy was running for president, many Protestants believed that the Catholic Church was led by the anti-Christ. Those days may be over (or they may not be), but if evangelicals think that the oldest Christian church is illegitimate, just imagine what they think of the Mormon Church.

When Christ said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar and render unto God that which is God’s,” he was answering a question about tax policy.

Competition over religious doctrine is best left to the free market, far away from the hands of the government. Theocracies are as bad for religious development as communism is bad for economic development. Freedom trumps state control every time.

Just ask Elvis.