Wednesday, May 04, 2005

On Senator Dayton's Church and State Position

Recently, Minnesota's senior senator, Mark Dayton, discussed his attitude towards the relationship between Church and State. I think he started out very shabbily:
Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist recently appeared on a national television program which accused his Democratic colleagues of acting “against people of faith.” During the same broadcast, self-proclaimed evangelist, James Dobson, called the United States Supreme Court “the despotism of an oligarchy” for its supposed “campaign to limit religious liberty.”
Even though I think it is within the limits of decorum to criticize other public figures, I think that this criticism should be tempered with good will. It seems salient to point out that, even in jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King referred to his opponents with respect and restraint:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
Though very few people would succeed, I don't think it would be wholly damaging to public discourse if we all aspired to Rev. King's language and eloquence. Given this, I think it would be appropriate for and courteous of Senator Dayton to acknowledge that James Dobson is not just a self-proclaimed evangelist, since other people probably think he's an evangelist too.

I think Senator Dayton commits an even greater error when he makes an analogy that we all need to be better about avoiding:
Unfortunately, religion can be misused by charlatans to serve their own ambitions. Guess what aspiring politician, in the midst of a national election, stated, “I am convinced that nothing will happen to me, for I know the greatness of the task for which Providence has chosen me.” It was Adolf Hitler, in 1932. While no one in our nation’s politics today compares with Adolph Hitler, his statement shows that there is no limit to the misuse of “Providence.”
There is something weak about having to quickly follow-up an analogy with the statement that the comparison really isn't accurate.

Now, on to Senator Dayton's position regarding the relationship between Church and State:
I know many people of religious faith and serving in public office, including myself, who sincerely pray for God’s wisdom in our personal and professional lives. However, praying for Divine guidance is very different from publicly proclaiming always to have it.
This opinion, I think, is a very powerful one, in as much as it rests on a very redeeming admission of human frailty. Political discussion and decision-making, after all, occurs because we live in an imperfect world inhabited by imperfect people who are forced to compromise and negotiate on complex matters in the legislative halls of our governments. And, to a certain degree, adamant (dare I say, zealous?) comittment to a position rooted in religious faith and belief does not leave much room for compromise. As Richard Neuhaus elegantly puts it in The Naked Public Square:
Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgment that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of knowledge of imperfection. In this view, compromise is not an immoral act, nor is it an amoral act. That is, the one who compromises does not step out of her role as a moral actor. To the contrary, the person who makes a compromise is making a moral judgment about what is to be done when moral judgments are in conflict. (1991, p. 114)
But, the willingness to compromise on an issue does not necessarily mean that one must water down her conviction that a belief is valid and true.

And, just as much as I think that Dayton has become hyperbolic with his assertion that the Right thinks it's always right, I think he hasn't left a enough room for those who do become engaged in public life on public issues because of their religious conviction(s). Certainly, politicians must compromise, that's a particular cross the faithful politician must bear. But, I still expect politicians and public figures to act on their convictions as if they were right, however much they expect things to get watered-down in the end.


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