Faith and Democracy

What is the role of faith in our democracy? For starters, freedom of religion is the first right enshrined in the First Amendment. While amendments are not listed in order of importance, it’s hard not to read something into that drafting choice. Yet constitutional meanings frequently play hide-and-go-seek with text. This is especially the case for religion, which is never defined in the Constitution.[1]

Maybe the Founders’ generation assumed the meaning was self-evident. I would hope, however, that they knew there is little that is obvious or uncontested in religion. The etymology of the word itself suggests how difficult it is to define.[2] Religion comes from the Latin term religio.[3] The Latin phrase itself likely came from the root ligare, to bind. Joined with the prefix re-, religion is the process of “binding together again.”

The question is: what does religion bind together? Some believe it bound an individual to the discipline of moral discernment. It referred to epistemic responsibility, the responsibility to properly know what you know. A related but distinct interpretation was that it referred to the oaths taken by members of cults or religious orders. It emphasized the practical, ritual, and ecclesial dimensions of religious life. Over time, as religion started to assume more individualistic and mystical associations, the root was understood as referring to the re-connection between the human and the divine.

But there’s another interpretation that I think is worth noting in the present day: religion binds together people. For many, religion is essentially social, cultural, and political, not spiritual or metaphysical. That is not to disparage it. Providing the social fabric for a community is important. But that sense of religion may complicate how we view it at a time of rising political polarization and in-group-out-group bias. A pastor from my hometown of Philadelphia is fond of saying that mixing religion and politics is like mixing manure and ice cream. The manure is going to be fine but the ice cream sure will be ruined. Obviously he wants to protect religion from politics. But it’s not hard to find those who feel just as fervently that our politics need to be protected from religion.

Tomorrow, as part of the Clough Center and the Good Governance Project’s series of events concerning governance reform in the U.S., an exciting panel of religious leaders will discuss the importance of faith in our democracy. How can faith form the kind of mature citizenry necessary for a pluralist democracy? How do different religions view the role of government in human society? What role does faith have in ensuring government respects human dignity? All this and more will be up for discussion. For more information, or to register, please check out the event page.

For many, our democracy feels tattered. In pieces. Come hear what a Rabbi, a Reverend, and a Priest have to say about binding it back together.


Ian Ramsey-North is a second-year student at BC Law. Contact him at ramseyno@bc.edu.

[1] In fact, “religion” only appears once in the entire Constitutional text. The word “religious” appears in Article VI’s prohibition of religious tests for holding public office.

[2] To anyone bringing up the etymological fallacy I would quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

[3] See Friedrich Max Muller’s Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion

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