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Religion should speak to our shared responsibilities

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As Rudy Giuliani pulls out of the race for nomination, the American presidential contest is hotting up, and it’s fascinating to see the differences between American politics and ours.

But there’s one historic feature of American politics that I think has relevance to us too. Back in the 1830s a brilliant young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited the United States to see how this experiment in liberty was working out. The book he wrote, Democracy in America, remains one of the classics of political thought.

What surprised him was how religious America was compared to Europe. And what he wanted to understand was how religion and democracy can coexist. ‘In France’, he said, ‘I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions’, but in America they walked hand in hand.

How did it happen? The answer, he discovered, was that religious leaders were careful never to get involved with party politics. They knew that politics is of its essence divisive. And if religion got too involved with politics, it too would become divisive. So religious leaders focused on strengthening families, creating communities and charities, building schools and encouraging active citizenship. It created what he called ‘habits of the heart’ that were so essential in sustaining a sense of the common good.

A democratic society needs two things: a way of mediating conflicts, and a sense of shared identity without which there is no society at all. Politics, said Tocqueville, must focus on the conflicts, religion on shared belonging. He added, ‘In proportion as a nation assumes a democratic condition… it becomes more and more dangerous to connect religion with political institutions.’

Those are wise words, for America and for us. Religious organizations must never become pressure groups for this or that contentious item of domestic or foreign policy. Their task, and I include myself, is moral: to strengthen the bonds of human relationship and the sanctity of human life; and to teach us to love our neighbours as ourselves, especially today when our neighbours belong to so many different faiths. When religion becomes politicized, or politics becomes religionised, bad things happen, and we must avoid that if we can.

It’s a hard distinction to keep, and neither America nor we have always succeeded. But that remains the challenge. Politics speaks to our conflicting interests. Religion should speak to our shared responsibilities. That’s how religion and democratic freedom can walk hand in hand.