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Believers in All Faiths Have Duty

By Rev. Al Bloom, January 2005

Rev. Al Bloom of Hawai'i writes of the duty of all religious believers to express the social, affirming implications of their religious beliefs when engaged in social discourse, as well as the need to understand the meaning and fact of "separation of church and state."

The role of religious faith and politics is one of the pressing issues of our day. How are we to express our faith freely in the arena of public debate and choice? Religious faith is an important facet of personal identity, defining who we are. It is, therefore, inevitable and appropriate that religious faith and values influence our social views and participation.

However, we live in a religiously pluralistic, multicultural, democratic and free society. All of us have the right to be who we are and to speak out for what we believe. Living in such a complex society places a responsibility on all of us to bring our views to the table in an informative and respectful manner.

There are sharp differences of opinion on numerous social issues that have a religious foundation, such as abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, women's rights, capital punishment, war, and separation of church and state. In the context of free discussion, each person can advocate one's view.

The assumption in any democratic process is that all participants work to achieve the common good, which includes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. Consequently, it is the responsibility of advocates to demonstrate how their views are conducive to the public welfare. An advocate must show that, regardless of one's sacred scriptures and personal beliefs, each individual's views contribute to the social good for all.

The importance of the principle of separation of church and state is not merely the issue of the intrusion of one institution into the sphere of another. It means that no person or institution can coerce a citizen's conscience or limit personal choices that do not undermine or injure society simply by politically legislating behavior based on religious belief, even if it is the majority belief. There must be a compelling reason to prohibit a behavior. Secular societies prohibit murder, not because it is part of a divine moral code, but because such acts create disorder and violate a society's peace and security.

There are, therefore, two principles that must be observed as we involve religious faith in social decisions. One is to demonstrate contribution of a belief in the social good that also affirms respect for all people. The second is to understand that the separation of church and state strictly prevents religious bodies from using the power of the state to legislate and enforce their beliefs in a manner that denies democratic process and the diversity of a free society. Courts are necessary to clarify the boundaries.

Religious discussions can be maintained and spiritual values recognized through a commitment to human dignity and adherence to the democratic process. The best minds on all sides can work mutually for the common good, motivated by their spiritual traditions, while maintaining diversity. Dialogue means to "talk it through." We can have discussion rather than argument and differences in the context of commonality. The spiritual health of the community and the vitality of religious faith will be strengthened for all.

The Rev. Al Bloom, Ph.D., is a University of Hawai'i professor emeritus of religion. He attends Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist temple. Reprinted by permission from the January 29, 2005 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser.

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