Faith and public life: Religion should not be relegated only to the private sphere Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's View by Mary C. Uhler

During the holiday season, we were subjected again to  “Christmas wars” about public displays of Nativity scenes and controversies over calling a Christmas tree by its real name.

These squabbles are really part of a deeper effort to relegate religious practice to the private sphere. There are those who say, “It’s okay for you to practice your faith, but do it behind closed doors.”

Founders wanted freedom of religion

This reluctance — and even fear — of any public manifestation of religious faith is not what the founders of our country wanted. They were fleeing from places where they were not allowed to practice their faith.

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of our Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The founders of our country thought that religion played a crucial role in protecting legitimate pluralism, points out Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in his book, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World (2011, Doubleday Religion). Cardinal George gave a  copy of his book to the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at a meeting of the order in September.

I would recommend this book for its excellent insights into the intersection of faith and the public sphere. As it says on the book’s jacket, “Finding both challenges and reasons for hope, he lays out a vision for national life that respect natural law, human dignity, and the essential ways religion uniquely contributes to the common good.”

Shutting voices of faith out of public square

Cardinal  George himself has been dealing with thorny issues in the state of Illinois, where state actions on same-sex marriage have resulted in Catholic Charities agencies being driven out of the adoption and foster care business. In his book, the cardinal calls for resistance to “creeping ideas” that seek to deny religious organizations the freedom to act on their convictions and shut the voices of faith out of the public square.

Back to the founders of our country. Cardinal George points to George Washington’s Farewell Address which says, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Washington evidently was arguing against Thomas Jefferson, who advocated a strict separation of church and state. Cardinal George himself emphasizes the importance of religion in public life, “I would go even further and say that human life and public order cannot flourish without the strong presence of some religious features.”

As we begin a new year, it might be helpful for all of us to reflect on the importance of religious faith in our country. Especially in this coming election year, we should not shy away from expressing our religious values in public life.  Cardinal George’s book gives us a good starting point to understand how we can better integrate faith in the public conversation.