How Much Religion is OK in the State?

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Illustrative picture of a mosque in Egypt. (Photo: © Creative Commons/Arria Belli)

“IN GOD WE TRUST” is inscribed on every banknote in the United States. Rather than being a subtle joke about America’s alleged worship of money, the message anchors religion as part and parcel of the public sphere.

And it’s not just there. Schoolchildren stand every morning to pledge allegiance to “one nation under God,” a congressional chaplain ministers to the spiritual needs of elected representatives and every American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has attended a church service on the morning of their inauguration.

Religious belief strongly influences political debate in the United States, such as whether or not abortion is murder or gay people should be allowed to get married. Much as a small subsection of militant atheists would like to entirely eliminate religion’s role from society, it is highly unlikely that it ever will or even could happen.

The question, then, is not how can we keep religion out of the public sphere, but how much religion do we want in the public sphere? Where is the line of acceptable expression of religious beliefs vs religious coercion? Can religion speak on some issues but not others?

Clarion Project has always defined Islamism as the attempt to impose Islam over others and implement sharia as state law. We are clear in our opposition to theocracy. But what about Muslim politicians with strongly held beliefs supported by a sense of religious ethics? What about the symbolic of inclusion of prayers and faith leaders at political and civic events? What are the acceptable bounds of religious participation in public schools, prisons and hospitals?

It is difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. It can be tempting to try and come up with a blanket rule which would cover all possible situations. But societies are so varied and complex that it would be a Herculean task to come up with such a prescription that would be genuinely just.

A good rule of thumb is “keep it reasonable.” What counts as reasonable?

Good question.

If you have an answer to the question of what constitutes reasonable involvement of religion in the public sphere, please write to [email protected]



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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