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In the May 25th Birmingham News article "[Alabama Governor Bob] Riley's faith guides him on tough state issues" the issue of separation of church and state is implied to hinge on whether the governor's faith is just personal or whether he uses somehow too much in his official public capacities. There are better ways to examine this matter, because how private or public one's expressions of faith are when one serves in public office are irrelevant and misleading. Like most of the people Greg Garrison quoted in his article, I do not believe Gov. Riley runs afoul of the separation clause of the Constitution, but it is not because his faith is personal. And even if it were as public as one dissenter in the article alleged it to be, it would still not be problematic.
Not all ethical views are necessarily religious views, even when they are the same as the pronouncements made by religious people. If you do not think theft or murder or adultery are right, that does not necessarily make you a Christian or a Jew. Nor does it even mean you are advocating Christian or Jewish beliefs as such. It is the grounds one has for one's ethical beliefs that determine whether they are religious beliefs or not. If, for example, you believe that theft is wrong only because it says so in the Bible, and that if the Bible didn't forbid it there would be nothing wrong with it, than that is a religious belief. But if you think theft is wrong because it unfairly deprives people of something they have earned through their hard work and gives it instead to a common thief who has done nothing to reasonably deserve it, then your opposition to theft is not a religious belief as such. Therefore, you cannot tell from the mere content or expression of a belief whether it is religious or not -- even if it is a belief common to one or more particular religions.
In the same manner, different people often develop similar beliefs about the spiritual nature of the universe in different ways. Even Saint Thomas Aquinas thought there were five non-Biblical ways of coming to know there is a creator by reasoning about what we can observe in the universe. Many people have personal spiritual revelations and beliefs without thereby belonging to any particular religion or religious denomination, even when their views coincide. If your beliefs do not only stem from, and are not only grounded, in a particular religion, they are not then religious views, even if they are the same as someone's religious views.
Moreover, even when one quotes a religious source, such as the Bible or the Koran, that does not make one's position a religious one, because one could be quoting the passage as being the most powerful or eloquent articulation of a moral point. Quoting the Bible on some particular issue does not necessarily make one religious any more than quoting Shakespeare makes one English. It is not where one finds their most eloquent expression, but how one really justifies one's beliefs, that determines whether the beliefs are religious or not.
Unfortunately the waters are muddied about this aspect of religion and ethics because many people mistakenly believe their own ethical beliefs are based on their religion. Quite commonly, people base an action on a Biblical passage they do believe while ignoring the passages they do not believe about other issues. But your convictions are not religious in nature if you only pick and choose religious pronouncements you agree with, for you are then basing your beliefs on moral reasoning and insight, not on religion.
One way to help you decide whether something you hold is religious or not would be to ask yourself whether you would still think it were true even if it were not stated in the Bible, or before God gave it to people. One might consider whether it was obligatory or not to help those in distress in your path even before Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan. Or one might consider whether Cain should have known it was wrong to kill his brother even though God would not give man the Ten Commandments for many generations. Or one might ask whether segregation based on color is wrong in a private country club where elite members discuss business plans among themselves that affect the economics of an entire community, even if there is no Biblical injunction against it.
But even when people disagree about the nature of morality and spirituality, ethics and spirituality are important. It would be a travesty and a serious mistake to expect someone in public office to have to put his most important beliefs in the intellectual equivalent of a blind escrow account, never to mention them or rely upon them or let them guide him until the moment his term of office ends.
What is important is that one not use one's office to impose one's beliefs on others, particularly when that imposition is counter to stated law. A judge, for example, cannot rightfully ignore the law in order to impose his own ethical views, whether they are religious or personal. A President or governor cannot ignore laws or court orders just because they do not agree with his own ethical views, whether personal or religious.
What is equally important, but not illegal, is that one not be an ideologue -- a blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology -- whether religious or not. What makes one a religious fanatic instead of just being a pious person is that one is blindly partisan to a particular doctrine and cannot reasonably entertain or recognize evidence to the contrary.
But there are ideologues who are not religious in nature. There are overzealous liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, socialists, capitalists, racists, male or female chauvinists, sports fans, nationalists, university alumni, individualists, "team players", country club members, educational faddists, witch hunters, communists, McCarthy-ites, and people of all sorts of affiliations and philosophies who judge everyone and everything, not by whether what is advocated is fair or reasonable or actually does any good, but merely by whether it meets their particular ideology or is espoused by someone who belongs to their group. While ideologues in the same groups tend to appreciate each other, they infuriate everyone else, and, in the far too numerous worst cases, often cause catastrophic harm instead of simply being pompous, self-righteous snobs.
Because religious persecution was particularly known to cause so much harm historically, the founding fathers wanted to make sure it did not occur here. And though it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between righteous piety, and harmful zealotry, we do not need to try to extinguish the former in order to guard against the latter. We certainly do not need to fear the quotation of religious passages by elected officials when they are merely an articulation of, or evidence for, a moral or political viewpoint.
Religious understanding and religious faith are not harmful in themselves
unless they usurp the law. It is blind religious ideology devoid of sensitivity
and reason that leads to harm. But since religious ideology is not the
only kind of ideology that can go beyond the bounds of reason and decency,
what we need are the rational, respectful discussion of ethical matters,
and the seeking of common ground for our common human, moral, and spiritual
needs in all areas of life. We do not need blind passion, simplistic polarization,
and smug self-righteousness. Religion certainly has something valuable,
sometimes imperative, to contribute to the discussion, and it would impoverish
government indeed if it could not learn from the best the Bible or religion
has to offer. Religion just should not be used to dominate, intimidate,
or manipulate. It would only be wrong for Gov. Riley to use his religion
as a sledgehammer to impose mistaken policies on Alabama; it is neither
wrong nor unconstitutional for him to use his religious background to share
with us his ethical, spiritual, and political vision for the state -- as
long as he, and those who share his views, are also receptive to hearing
and discussing and trying to mutually accommodate other visions that may
be at least equally as wise and valid.