One of the items in my job description here at Colorado Politics is that I should strive to offend and irritate as many readers as possible (Ed: no, that’s not correct at all). If we stay away from references to each other’s mothers and our favorite sports teams (Go Broncos, still!), we can have interesting and informative discussions on important subjects. We can debate the role of the Fed in determining our monetary policy. We can disagree over, say, the role of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and we can debate the government’s proper role in dealing with vaping. Do you see what all those issues and more have in common? They are all issues with facts and data that can be reviewed and argued. We can quarrel about what we think the various facts are, but for the most part, we accept that there are facts that exist.
Which, of course, brings me to the role of religion in politics and how religious beliefs can really mess up a political discussion.
Recently, Colorado Politics ran a story with the title, “Students take a stand on religious freedom during Bring Your Bible to School Day.” Now, I can almost feel many of you shifting uncomfortably in your chairs as you read this. Good, that’s the point. Few subjects elicit a level of personal passion equal to that created by a discussion of religion. If you read the story cited above, you know that Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based religious organization, promoted its 6th annual “Bring your Bible to School” day, urging students to bring their Bibles and to discuss their faith with their fellow students.
For many of you, dear readers, that idea sounds like a very fine idea. And as the article points out, the students are to engage in their discussions of faith during lunch and other break times, not during class. And that is the same and equal treatment you would get for any such “bring your…” day.
So, when does it get tricky? Well, religion brings a very awkward dynamic to political discussions. In large measure I believe this stems from the certainty that (in my view) far too many have that their religion is the correct one, as proven in their religious text, and the other religions are false. Yet, these same people insist that those other folks cannot use their religious scripture to “prove” otherwise.
I bring this up because the “BYBTSD” event is, in and of itself, just fine. Well, that is to say, it is just fine if other students are also allowed to have a day about their religious beliefs (with the same restrictions about math class and such). The problem is that, given the profoundly personal and intense feelings that one’s faith may create, a great deal of intolerance pops up, and attempts to influence political behaviors and actions.
Back when I was teaching the Constitution at the Air Force Academy, I did a rather bold thing (at least in hindsight it appears so). On the day we were going to discuss the separation of church and state, I told the students that because this was such a contentious subject, ripe with opportunities to be offended or to offend, I thought it might be a good idea to start class with a small prayer for peace, love, and understanding. Typically, given the ratio of liberal to conservative students at a military academy, I’d see my one or two liberal kids look offended, while many of my conservative students readily bowed their heads with an attitude suggesting that finally they were being heard. I then began my “prayer…”
“Oh great lord Satan,” I said.
I never once got farther than that, as was my intention. Instantly, the heads shot up and outrage filled many faces. Oh, are you bothered by that, I’d ask. Inevitably, this would generate a discussion about them being ok with a prayer, as long as it was their prayer. Thus, I hoped, I made the point about why government must always be neutral toward religion, because otherwise someday, the government might “pick” the “wrong” religion, from your point of view.
The Supreme Court ruled long ago that religious activity was not inherently prohibited from government actions, such as education in schools. To be legal, the action 1) had a secular purpose (e.g., teaching history of a region), 2) did not fundamentally advance or hinder religion, and 3) does not create “excessive government entanglements” with religion. As you can imagine, it’s the 3rd one that often gets us into trouble.
So, what’s the point of all this? That students should be able to bring their Bibles to school, but also their Korans, their Vedas, their Sutras, or their Archie comics, of that’s what they believe, or disbelieve. And this challenge extends from schools to the White House. Can you believe whatever you want? Yes. Can you compel others to believe the same? No.
That sounds simple, but the simplest things can be the most complicated.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.