E.J. Dionne: The Great Religious Divide

In this morning’s Washington Post, Dionne addresses the difference between “no religious tests” and “the exclusion of religion from politics.”  Here is a taste:

In the United States, we have no religious tests for office. It’s true that this constitutional provision does not prevent a voter from casting a ballot on any basis he or she wishes to use. Nonetheless, it’s the right assumption for citizens in a pluralistic democracy.

All Americans ought to empathize with religious minorities because each of us is part of one. If Mormonism can be held against Romney and Huntsman, then everyone else’s tradition — and, for nonbelievers, their lack of religious affiliation — can be held against them, too. We have gone down this road before. Recall the ugly controversy over Catholicism when Al Smith and John F. Kennedy sought the presidency. We shouldn’t want to repeat the experiences of 1928 or 1960.

But to say this is not the same as saying that religion should be excluded from politics. The test should be: To what extent would a candidate’s religious views affect what he or she might do in office?

Many beliefs rooted in a tradition (the Virgin Birth, how an individual keeps kosher laws, precisely how someone conceives the afterlife) are not relevant in any direct way to how a candidate would govern. In the case of Mormonism, those who disagree with its religious tenets are free to do so but they should argue about them outside the confines of a political campaign.

Yet there are many questions — and not just concerning abortion — on which the ethical and moral commitments that arise from faith would have a direct impact on what candidates might do in office. Those should be argued about. My own views on poverty, equality and social justice, for example, have been strongly influenced by Catholic social thought, the Old Testament prophets and the civil rights preachers. Religious conservatives have arrived at convictions quite different in many cases from mine, after reflection on their own faith and their traditions.

Neither they nor I have a right to use the state to impose such views on religious grounds. That’s the essence of the pluralist bargain. But we can make a religious case for them if we wish.

This leads to a conclusion that the philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain reached some years ago: “Separation of church and state is one thing. Separation of religion and politics is something else altogether. Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time — always have, always will.”

That is entirely true. It’s also not as simple as it sounds. For if religious people fairly claim that faith has a legitimate place in public life, they must accept that the public (including journalists) is fully justified in probing how that faith might influence what they would do with political power.