Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry from Monday, August 6th, 2012.
Welcome to Point of inquiry.
I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. This week, my guest is Peter Montgomery. He’s a senior fellow with People for the American Way, and he’s author of their new report entitled 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics. This report was released last week with a new introduction by Bill Moyers. And it is the third edition of the document. The first one came out in 1984. I wanted to have Montgomery on not only to discuss these very useful rules of the road, but also to ask what I see as the key question, why on earth would the religious right, which is busy throwing its weight around, ever stoop to following them? Peter Montgomery oversees People for the American Way Foundations, research and writing on the religious right before joining the group in 1994. He was associate director of Grassroots Lobbying for Common Cause. He also wrote and edited for Common Cause magazine, which is an award winning journal featuring investigative reporting about the federal government.
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Peter Montgomery welcomed the point of inquiry.
Thanks, Chris, I’m very happy to be here. We’re glad to have you. You’ve authored the 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics Report by People for the American Way, a group that we very much respect.
It’s in its third edition. I understand. And I read that the earlier ones were in 1984. In 1994.
So my first question is what was missing in earlier ones? What is change that required saying something new?
Well, some of it is the legal climate. There is always changes happening in church state cases that that come before the court. And so some of it was starting to include that.
And some of it was also just the change in the political scene.
You know, we have very different political climate in the last couple of years, particularly since President Obama was elected. And the religious right’s response to that, the kind of war on Islam and Obama’s faith. It feels like there’s a lot more going on right now. And in addition, you have Catholic bishops and their political allies ramping up really extreme hyperbolic rhetoric about the supposed war on religious liberty in this country. So we had been talking about updating rules for mixing religion and politics for about a dozen years.
And we just you know, things started heating up so much the last couple of years. We’ve finally got around to doing it.
The paradox, of course, is that as this is happening, things are heating up. You also mentioned that you have a more religiously diverse, even slash, more irreligious America. Maybe that’s why things are heating up.
Well, I think so, too. I think, you know, I was someone who who really sees as a core of my own personal belief in religious liberty, as well as that being a core constitutional principle.
And I think that some of the people who are upset really see religious pluralism as a threat. And they really think somehow that the increasing diversity in the country, both in the number of religions and in the number of people who claim no religion is somehow a threat to the American way as opposed to an embodiment of it or a reflection of what we have to be thankful for, that we have freedom of religion that allows that kind of vibrant diversity. So I think you’re right. I think there is a backlash generated by people who see that as threatening and as they see that as something to fear.
The title of this report sort of presumes by its very nature that there will be some mixing of religion and politics or that there has to be or that it’s OK. So are you rebuking people who say there should be no mixing, period? Because I think a lot of our listeners would actually be taking that stance.
Would you you disagree with that one?
Well, I think it is it is a way of it’s a little bit of attention getting because people might expect us as people for the American way, who are strong advocates for separation of church and state, to be saying that, you know, some mixing of religion and politics is inevitable. And I think the reason for that is that, you know, religion plays a huge role in the lives of millions of Americans, have the majority of Americans. Religion is very important in their lives. Religion and religious people have played a huge role in American history for good and bad. The leaders of many social justice movements have often been motivated by their interpretation of their faith. And so I think for people to say there should absolutely be no real mixing of religion or politics, it’s kind of hard to see how that actually works in the real world. So while we’re recognizing is that people do bring them home their whole selves into public life, if they’re religious people, they bring that with them. They bring the judgments and values that that that their religious beliefs, you know, are part of a part of creating for them. But what we want to say is it’s OK to do that. It’s OK to even talk about it. If you do it in a constructive and not a divisive way, as long as you don’t cross lines into using the power of your political office to try to force your beliefs on others or to try to use the power of your office to proselytize or propagate your beliefs. So. So that’s where I come down. I think the idea that I know that there’s it’s kind of a handy shorthand to say there should be no mixing of religion and politics. And we certainly don’t think there should be no destructive and divisive mixing of religion and politics. And part of what we’re trying to do with this is make that distinction clear.
And I want to get into some of the rules, of course. But when you say rules illegally, of course, there are already rules. So just to be clear, you want to go beyond that.
You’re providing kind of guidance on how to carry yourself in public debate.
Yeah. Some of these are these are judgment calls. I mean, this is not the legal handbook that says here’s everything that the courts say about separation of church and state and exactly what governments can and cannot do. And we talk a little bit about that. We say, you know, what’s the appropriate relationship between, you know, governments, citizens and religious institutions? But we we do go past that because we think there are some things that are illegal, that are unwise and destructive. And we want to talk about that. But, you know, for example, when Rick Perry decided to add to the presidential race with this big Christians only prayer rally that was brought together by some of the most extreme and divisive people and the religious right. We thought that was a terrible idea. Now, some groups actually there was a group that actually argue that it was unconstitutional and tried to challenge it legally. But we think, you know, Governor Perry has a First Amendment right to say irresponsible and silly things and he has a risk. But that that was a bad call for someone who wants to be president for all the people. And so we sort of make those distinctions. Some things that are legal are are still unwise and and are really divisive and destructive. And so we’re making the distinction there.
OK. So Perry is a rule breaker, but not actually doing something on unconstitutional there?
That’s right. That’s right. And the flipside of that is that the religious right. Constantly plays this focus. Religious persecution card, part of how they generate interest and enthusiasm and money from their followers. It is to equate criticism of them with efforts to silence them, that somehow by, you know what, they come into the public arena and make their case that somehow, if we criticize what we’re trying to do is silence them rather than engage them. And we definitely come down on the on engaging them and calling them on their bogus claims that we’re out the silence. One of the rules is that, you know, we shouldn’t cry wolf about religious persecution. And that’s something that happens every day in this country as people on the religious right cry wolf that somehow criticizing them is the equivalent of going after their freedom.
Yeah, I know. I noticed that one and maybe will jump ahead and talk about. I mean, it’s it’s so crazy as if, you know, they live in an upside down world where they the majority are oppressed by the minority. It’s so odd. But you you write that it actually makes politics more dangerous, that they view the world in that way.
Now, I think it’s extremely toxic that there are millions of Americans who are told every day by people they trust, you know, people who are watching their religious broadcasters or getting the e-mail from groups like the Family Research Council to be told over and over again that that liberals, that the Obama administration, that gay rights advocates are actively out to destroy their religious freedom and to shut down their churches. And, of course, if you really believe that, if you really believe that, if you know, then you’re going to respond by supporting discrimination against gay people. You’re going to respond by not wanting your politicians to reach any compromise with people.
So there you know, when you when you create this world in which every issue is a religious issue, every disagreement then becomes not only disagreement over policy, but who’s, you know, with or against God, who’s with or against religious freedom, who really make it much harder to have conversations that that reach compromise, that reach common ground and that that move the country forward and you end up creating a lot more divided communities.
This gets to a point that, you know, I agree with the principles of the report. I don’t know that I agree that fundamentalists are ever going to agree. And so this gets to kind of the point. I mean, if you’re a fundamentalist, isn’t it always the case that you’re sort of on a wartime footing? I mean, isn’t that what being a fundamentalist is?
Well, I think I think for a lot of fundamentalists that that is the case. But I think, you know, I think that even there are people who I would have much more, those that say they have a fundamentalist view of the Bible.
But I think some people, for example, on on gay rights issues can draw the distinction in a pluralistic country between their religious beliefs that they might strongly oppose homosexuality, but still see that, you know, they would not support legal discrimination on the job or other things because that’s a civil and civil issue. It’s a constitutional rights issue. It’s not a religious issue. And so I think there are some some people who we might classify as fundamentalists from a theological point of view who nonetheless are able to do that in a way that still engages constructively in a pluralist country where we ground are our rules for living together in the Constitution, not in anybody’s religious scripture.
Well, let me let our listeners know that people at the American Way’s new report, 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, is available on their Web site, PFA w Tawergha P4 dot org. Let’s let’s get into the rules some more. You have a three tripartite breakdown.
You know, you talk about rules for how religion can and can’t influence policy rules for church state separation. Our listeners will know those are the best. And then rules for media and public debate. You know what kind of dialog you want to have. And so maybe let’s take one from the first category. You know how religion should influence policy. And I’ll ask you to just discuss this. When you say you must never have a solely religious reason for a policy. You have to have a secular purpose. So your example is John Schmeichel saying that global warming is no big deal because God would never destroy the planet. Period.
Right. I mean, there’s just there’s no way to have a policy conversation if the basis of that conversation is one person’s interpretation of what scripture says or what God says, because where do you go from there?
You know, so here’s a member of Congress say, well, you know, my interpretation of Genesis said God gave us a rainbow promise that he’s not going to flood the earth again. So I don’t even have to worry about the science of rising sea levels.
How do you engage with that? You know, it’s really.
There’s just no way to get out of that and and without, you know, accusing him of having a wrong understanding of God and religion as opposed to wrong understanding of science, what makes wise policy? So again and again, no, this doesn’t mean that people cannot ever talk about their religious values when it comes to public policy. We know there was this bents, very active engagement by a group of Catholic nuns, recently had a nuns on the bus tour where they were sort of challenging Congressman Ryan’s claims that his budget represented Catholic values. And they wanted to say, we don’t think it does. You know, we have a very different interpretation of Catholic values. And so they sort of engaged him around that. And that’s OK. What’s not OK is sort of taking the next step and saying that, you know, your interpretation of of of scripture or your interpretation of your faith is somehow the deciding factor that you don’t also have to find ways to talk about it to people who don’t share those religious traditions. You know, you have to know Martin Luther King used biblical language, but he really crafted his campaign and the promises that the American fathers made with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So he used religious language that could inspire a lot of people, even even some people who didn’t share his specific faith. But he really crowded his case for legal equality and, you know, these much broader values and constitutional principles. And we think that’s that’s what has to be done.
The only problem I see with this and I guess is a little bit of a devil’s advocate position, is this essentially you’re encouraging people to use a lot of fig leafs amines, a bit of a don’t ask, don’t tell, because they totally are driven by religion. It dominates their whole view of the world. And you’re just saying, oh, but add a secular reason on top of that.
And then, oh, yeah, lots of people will come up with the secular reason that they’re really rationalizing what is deep down their religiosity.
Well, I mean, that certainly can happen. But, you know, what’s the alternative? You can’t you know, you can’t tell religious people that they can’t use their faith to help them evaluate issues or that you can’t sort of have a blanket rule. I don’t think that would be workable, that people in public life could never could never mentioned their faith.
So I think that, you know, the First Amendment applies across the board, but we have to find ways that apply it that makes sense and that can be constructive in a you know, in a situation where we want to uphold respectful pluralism as the context.
Right. The only problem is that, you know, as someone I wrote a book called The Republican War in Science and had all this section on the religious right messing with science. And so what turns out is that if you take away their God inspired moralistic language about, you know, sex, abortion, whatever, then they make up phony scientific arguments that are secular. So suddenly, you know, adult stem cells are better than embryonic stem cells and they got phony science on that or condoms don’t actually work. And they got phony science on that or abstinence education does. Phony science here comes or, you know, when one or the other wins, it goes on and on. Abortion causes breast cancer. Abortion causes mental illness is are making all this stuff up. But really, it’s the religion driving the policy view.
Well, that’s right. But see that that’s the thing about the fact that they feel compelled to make up phony science. I think it’s a good thing because that science can be exposed and challenged as bogus and a phony as it has no real basis for policy. And that’s what our side has to do better. If you if it was really just about disputing their theology, then you kind of get stuck on who’s got God right. And there’s really no way to know who’s got God right. But it is a lot easier to know who’s got science right. And it should be, you know, even though they have, you know, a tremendous propaganda machine that backs a lot of these bogus scientific claims.
Those are things that we can engage on. We can challenge them and we can marshal, you know, the the consensus support of the scientific community to to challenge those claims.
No, fair enough. I know their minds won’t change, though. But anyhow, so let’s let’s go on do to church and state. Our listeners know these better, but I think two are quite important and we can’t talk about all of them, I’m afraid. So when you say that government can contract with religion if the religion is serving his secular purpose, but religion has to follow all the rules like no discrimination if as it fills out the purpose. And then you say that President Obama sort of caved on this one in his faith based programs to talk about that one a little.
Yeah. There’s there’s a long tradition in this country that worked very well for a number of years where the government, with both federal government and local state governments, would contract with groups like Catholic Charities to.
Help run, you know, poverty reduction programs or, you know, feeding hungry people or distributing some some kind of social services.
And you know that that worked pretty well when we had very good regulations in place. That said, you can’t fund directly to houses of worship. You know, if if somebody wants to participate in this, they have to set up a separate nonprofit organization with a legal structure that can be held accountable for how the money is spent, can be held accountable to things like nondiscrimination laws, which, you know, things that keeps the government from getting too intermingled with actual operations of a house of worship.
The Bush administration came along and we can some of those rules and including said that, you know, religious organizations getting money could hot, could make discriminate based on who they hire and can hire only people who share their faith, even if it’s a sort of a secular program with tax dollars.
And we think that is is definitely wrong. And and the Obama administration campaigned with an explicit promise to change that. And they have not. They’ve not followed through with that.
And the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination is a group in Washington that people for the American way are a part of. And a lot of other advocates for religious liberty and church state separation have been working with and and criticizing the Obama ministration for not having come through with that change. So that’s, you know, that’s one. Protection for taxpayers and for religious liberty that has that has been weakened, so one could argue, well, that’s what you get.
I mean, when you could track with religion, you’re just sort of you’re allowing the temptation to occur. And so what the Obama administration’s failure may be kind of proves the point that maybe you should just keep the line brighter than that.
Well, that’s interesting. In Washington, D.C., we went through we went through this when the city council in Washington was contemplating allowing same sex couples to get married and the Catholic Church and Catholic Charities, they just pulled out all the stops against this and basically said that if, you know, the D.C. government was going to require people to treat same sex couples the same way that they treated heterosexual couples, that, you know, they they might have to stop serving the poor and the District of Columbia and that there’s a huge backlash against them from the public at large. And from Catholics who thought that was ridiculous. And so they backed out. But, you know, Catholic Charities basically stopped for new employees offering health care benefits to spouses or partners just so they wouldn’t have to offer them. You know, I mean, there’s a pretty simple rule, I think, which is if you’re taking taking taxpayer dollars to do something, you have to abide by anti-discrimination laws and and other things. And if you don’t want to abide by those, don’t take the tax dollars. I think that’s very simple. And I think that the public could very easily be made to understand and support that.
But even then, you know, it’s not like we’re gonna be contracting with as many Satanist social services or Wiccan social services as we’re gonna be contracting with Christian ones. Right. So it’s going to end up unequal anyway.
Yeah, but that’s that’s that’s partly know, that’s that’s probably just a reflection of of, you know, in this country where most people are and where some of these kind of infrastructures are on the ground. I mean, I think one of the reasons governments have found it valuable to work with people like Catholic Charities is that they have a lot of infrastructure on the ground to have a lot of things going.
But but again, that’s it. That’s when the rules are. If the rules are enforced properly, none of that money can be used for proselytizing. None of that money can be used for sort of actively promoting religious education or religious beliefs. Yeah. You know, just going down the road makes things tricky. There’s no question about it.
So another one of the rules under this heading. And I’d never thought about this before this and thought about it much. You say no public official who’s religious can cite beliefs as a defense for failing to fulfill the public office. And so the example here is civil servants. Some kind of faith won’t give out a marriage license to a gay couple. I mean, is there a lot of that kind of thing going on?
I don’t know if there’s a lot of it going on, but there is some of it going on.
There probably will be more of it going on as legal equality, as marriage equality goes forward. The one case that that I was was most familiar with, there was a town clerk in New York State. And after after that, the New York legislature signed, you know, passed and the governor signed marriage equality in New York. Those attack clerks who refused to give a marriage license to a lesbian couple who showed up to get a license. And the clerk sort of cited her religious freedom to not give this couple a license. And I think that’s utterly illegitimate. I think if that is her job as a as a as a clerk, then if she really believes that she cannot provide a service like that, then she should resign her job. And I guess there have been some folks who have resigned because they felt so strongly that their religious religion dictated one thing that they couldn’t comply. And, you know, that’s a decision you have to make. But I don’t think you can have it both ways.
You can’t keep a job and then, you know, not you can’t keep a job and then claim the right to discriminate against people who you’re supposed to serve based on your religious beliefs. So it’s possible that we’ll see more of that kind of conflict if if as marriage equality hopefully continues to expand.
Yeah, I, I do see that. And I agree with you fully. So do we know what happened in this particular case?
Well, it’s interesting. In that particular case, she was actually that clerk was up for reelection with an it’s an elected office, which is interesting. There is a civil service and she was reelected. And I but I think, you know, she has worked out some.
Kind of somewhat of an accommodation. I believe that her she has a deputy who handles those and so that people who come in that town to get married can’t get married. She has sort of reassigned her responsibility for doing marriage licenses to someone else.
Oh, okay. Well, I guess that’s not quite as completely horrible as the initial.
You know, the initial behavior was definitely wrong. And I think that she that she got a huge backlash on that. And I think she and other town officials tried to come up with some kind of a workaround.
Let me let listeners know again that people for the American Way’s new report, 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, is available at their Web site, P4P. We’re also going to link to it from point of inquiry dot org. Let’s go on the rules for sort of governing public discourse. You have a rule for media and you call it.
Don’t confuse orthodoxy with authenticity. Tell us about that one.
Yeah, I think that this is something that affects media.
And I even think it sometimes affects subconsciously maybe even more progressive minded religious people, that there is a sense that somehow the people who claim that they’re most strictly, most liberally following the Bible somehow have a more authentic take on Christianity than people who apply a modern understanding of scriptural interpretation or who don’t claim to be biblical literalists, that somehow they have less right to to, you know. Express their faith as a Christian at the public arena. And the fact is that it’s a huge gift to the fundamentalists. If public officials are if the media sort of buy into that even in a, you know, even in a backhanded way. So we just know it’s really worth asserting that, you know, Jerry Falwell has no stronger claim on speaking about the Bible and Christianity than someone from a very liberal Christian denomination like the United Church of Christ. And the media should not in any way portray while as more legitimate force for Christianity in the public arena. So I think that’s it’s an important one. It’s sort of maybe seems a little more esoteric. But I think it has a big impact. I can’t have a big impact if if Peter, certainly the religious right makes that claim over and over again, that liberal Christians aren’t real Christians and that somehow if you don’t share their one interpretation of the Bible, then your faith is illegitimate. I mean, this Obama has attacked all the time as not being a real Christian, even forget the people who say he’s a stealth Muslim, but they say, oh, you can’t be a real Christian if you don’t hold certain political beliefs. And it was that kind of rhetoric from televangelist back in 1980 that he couldn’t be a real American if you weren’t the right kind of Christian and you couldn’t be the right kind of Christian if you didn’t share, you know, Jerry Falwell list of political beliefs that so agitated and upset producer Norman Lear that he started talking to colleagues and eventually led to the creation of people for the American way, specifically to stand up against that kind of rhetoric.
Well, I mean, I agree with you on this, too. And I think that religious moderates are kind of crucial to, you know, helping battle the religious right. But when it comes to this principle, I just wonder, is Orthodoxy being confused with to authenticity? Partly because the moderates don’t stand up enough. In other words, you know. Again, this is fundamentalists are fundamentalists. They’re on a wartime footing. They’re out there pushing really, really hard for what they want. And they keep it seems like they keep getting more and more, organize a more and more energized America. And I always I mean, I know moderates are doing a lot of things, but are they really standing up for their own beliefs against fundamentalists?
Well, I think they’re doing it more now than they did several years ago. And I think you’re right. I think one of the reasons that the religious right has managed to sort of build up such a head of steam. You know, politically, is that for a while, you know, when when Jerry Falwell sort of burst on the scene and he and his colleagues and they sort of started, you know, taking over faith and politics and sort of claiming for themselves what it meant to be a Christian and what it means to be patriotic. Now, I think about my parents in some ways who are you know, my father, who’s a very patriotic guy, was almost, you know, stopped flying the flag because he didn’t want people to interpret him flying the flag as meaning that he was a right wing Republican. And I think there were a lot of Christians who, when the religious right started dominating the airwaves, were afraid to call themselves Christian in public because they didn’t want people to think that that meant that they believed like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And so I do think it has taken a while for some more religious liberals or religious moderates to, you know, assert themselves more aggressively in the public arena. I think we saw there was quite a bit of that in 2008 around the Obama campaign.
And so I think there’s a real effort to bring those voices more into that arena. And we just want to make sure that, you know, that the media recognizes that and treats them as having equal legitimacy.
Well, you know, I think that this is a great set of rules and I think it’s a great project to do.
My fundamental concern maybe is that, you know, this is exactly the kind of thing that atheists and secularists are going to like. And any more religious minority, by definition, you’d be like, yeah, this is great Muslims, you know, like in Hindus, you know, like Jews, you know, like it. These rules make perfect sense to them because they’re not in the majority. But, you know, the majoritarian faith is going to flaunt the rules. I mean, and if you gave a different group power, which is the case in other countries, then they’re going to flaunt the rules.
So that gets the argument that a lot of new atheists believe in a lot of the Muslim to show that the problem really is religion. Well, the problem really is fundamentalism. And, yeah, it just happens to be majority Christian in America. But, you know, put it in some other, you know, place in the same problem will emerge.
Well, I think there’s no question that religious fundamentalism is a it’s a problematic. A lot of ways and how how fundamentalists apply their religious vandalism to other things, like, you know, I think there’s sort of a free market fundamentalism that’s going on in our country right now where people are trying to assert that the Bible endorses, you know, right wing economics.
And there’s a lot of that going out there to Jesus and Ayn Rand that, you know, happily ever after.
But you know that there’s a you can’t sort of wish that away. And you can’t say that. I mean, there’s there’s a lot of, you know, institutions and there’s a huge infrastructure in this country that has been built by the religious right over the last few decades. And that is not going to go away. Whether, you know, no matter how much you dislike it. And so I think what we all need to do is figure out the most productive ways to engage that. And I think that it involves secularists and humanists and atheists figuring out the best, most effective ways to work with progressive and moderate religious people.
And even even, you know, people whose personal theology might tend toward the conservative, but who are willing to draw the distinctions between their faith and their understanding of the Constitution and the legal principle of equality for all in a pluralist, democratic society.
Well, I get called a, quote, accommodationists, because within the secular community, I support that as well. Let’s table the fact that some some have problems with it. But I mean, what do you think? I mean, there is one piece of advice you would give. I mean, do you think that these principles, the 12 rules, are the way for secular people to work with religious moderates against fundamentalists? Is that, you know, that the ground they should stand on?
I do think they’re a good way to engage people. I think that, you know, secular and religious moderates could could team up together in their communities, you know, to call out public officials or religious officials who are violating these rules, who are, you know, asserting in their communities that, you know, God does this or God says this is on a matter of policy or who are you know, we have this huge resurgence of rhetoric about, you know, this being a Christian nation and founded explicitly as a Christian nation. Well, I think we have to have seculars and know reasonable religious people teaming up to publicly challenge that kind of thing and to say, hey, it’s wrong. And it’s not only wrong, but it’s bad for our community. It’s divisive and destructive to make those kind of assertions. And I think that there’s a lot of you know, the goal here is not to change the mind, as you say, of the fundamentalists. We’re really not going to do that. But there’s a lot of people in the middle who we want to encourage to stand with us and we want them to. So this is a way, I think, of of of reaching out to them, of, you know, showing who is the reasonable folks here and who are trying to promulgate a way of behavior that is good for the entire community. And that doesn’t sort of create, you know, bitter divisions.
Well, and I think you’re doing that. So I think that’s a great place to end. Peter Montgomery, thank you so much for being with us on Point of Inquiry.
Thank you very much for having me.
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Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney.