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26 November 2003: Before the public conversation about religion in America boils over, I'd like to suggest some clarifications. It has been clear to me, since the election, that some important words are being bandied about without much sense of precision. I suggest that the following clarifications articulate the wellsprings of American political virtue.

Faith. Everything that we do is prompted by faith of some kind. We trust the bank where we cash our paychecks. Our faith in an airliner may not be total, but it's strong enough to get us on board. We believe in concepts, such as truth and justice, that we have neither seen nor felt. Perhaps the majority of human beings alive at this moment believe in a reality that lies beyond mortal life, whether it is a blissful paradise, a fiery hell, or something more neutral. I myself have faith in the meaning of the universe, but I am quite sure that I will never know anything about it, and so many people would say that I have no faith at all. I certainly do not profess a faith.

Religion. The root of this word is the same as that of ligament; religions tie people together. There is no such thing as a private or personal religion - all religions are public. As a matter of convention, it is silly to speak of a religion whose focus is neither a creator of the universe nor the nature of an afterlife. Religion is the bond uniting people with the same focus of this kind; religion articulates the bond by prescribing the creeds and rules of conduct that constitute orthodoxy. It is possible to be a person of faith who subscribes to no religion, and it is also possible to be a religious person without faith. The barrier that conceals an individual's faith from public view can be breached only by the faith of another, as when someone claims to know by divine guidance (an object of faith) that someone else's religious observances are insincere. It is correct to speak of the combination of religious acts and religious witness as a profession of faith.

Politics. Political activity is a cooperation of different groups that is founded upon the understanding - I avoid the word 'belief' here - that the virtue of individuals and the groups that they constitute is not determined by religious profession. Theocratic and ideological regimes, which reject the possibility that goodness can coexist with heterodoxy, are by definition incapable of supporting overt political activity. It is possible and permissible for people engaging in politics to believe that those with other religious views are certain to be judged evil by God and damned to eternal torment. What is neither possible nor permissible is for people to refuse to engage in political activity with those whose religious differences may damn them. Such refusal signals the end of politics and the beginning of tyranny.

Democracy. Modern democracy is political self-government that refuses to privilege any constituent individuals or groups. Laws and procedures apply in the same way and with the same force to all, and are not tempered to the alleged superiority - even that of numbers - of anyone. The influence of privilege signals the end of democracy and the beginning of oligarchy.


As for faith you might also look profitably at Who is John Stott? by David Brooks.

Published: November 30, 2004, The New York Times

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