There's a great new book
which I am beginning to read and which is reviewed in the New York Times
today. Taking it's name from the US Pledge of Allegiance, 'one Nation under God', it's basic idea is surprisingly stimulating and also particularly relevant to many of the 'big issues' one hears about so much over here. To what extent should religion impact upon politics or even the political behaviour of individual political figures?
One interesting idea was from the Democrat, and former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, a man I met during my trip to New York two years ago.
'Mr. Cuomo did not ask that religious beliefs be checked at the public door, but he limited entrance to those that "would serve well as an article of universal public morality," that were "not narrowly sectarian" but fulfilled "a universal human desire for order or peace or justice or kindness or love."
Advocating, in effect, a very loose version of "natural law," a tradition historically associated with his Roman Catholicism, Mr. Cuomo spelled out two moral principles that he asserted "would occur to us if we were only 500,000 people on an island without books, without education, without rabbis or priests or history, and we had to figure out who and what we were." These two principles - respect for one another and collaborative improvement of the world - nicely captured Americans' perpetually competing concerns for individual freedom and for community, he said, and "are shared by most if not all our nation's religions."
To which Mr. Souder replied that "the notion of a natural law common to all religions" was a particular worldview itself, and one at odds with his Christian faith.
"I cannot relate to the idea of a generic, natural law God,'' he said. "My God is a particularly Christian God." Moreover, Mr. Souder questioned whether all religions really had "a common denominator that is workable in the American political system." '
This all turns, of course, on the fundamental question of whether or not you want a sectarian state or a religious state, and is particularly pertinent given the nation-building going on in Iraq at the moment. I would suggest that their actions in Iraq, and the tensions caused there, intriguingly reflect upon America's own approach at home. There, they are worried about it becoming a theocratic state, where the religious beliefs of the majority dictate how all lead their lives. They want it to broadly reflect the Islamic values of much of the country, but they want their laws to make logical sense. My own view of the situation is fairly clear. There is nothing wrong with living in a, very broadly speaking, 'Christian country' or 'Islamic country', but the real danger comes when this becomes an excuse for not thinking. When bad logic or bad practicalities of an idea can be circumvented by reverting to the interpretation of religious figures or holy books a country, and a people, finds itself in a dangerous position.
I fear that too often in the US, the presence in the country's governing document, the Constitution, of phrases referring to God, allows this to arise; whereas in the UK I am happy our Parliament reigns sovereign. Religion is a great guide for many people in their private lives, and so it should be. It can also be a great guide for how politicians live their own lives. It should never be used as a vehicle for the oppression of one group's values by another though. That, if it ever happens, should be done for more defensible reasons than just 'I believe I have been told to'. Any democracy has to develop its own separate values which it wants to be governed by. The thoughtful process of developing these should not be by-passed using the screen of religion. It is dangerous when politicians make their decisions on the grounds of teachings, not on the grounds of practicalities, logic and what is best for that country.