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Cornelius: Religious voices vital to our public life
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Religious believers have long been wrongly attacked for "unconstitutional" meddling in politics and government when in reality their politicking and opining were nothing of the sort.

A particularly illustrative example comes from U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. In 1854, Douglas, who six years later lost the presidential race to Abraham Lincoln, denounced 3,000 ministers for speaking out against slavery, an action he saw as a threatening intrusion of religion into public life. The ministers should stick to religion, he claimed, and stop trying "to establish a theocracy to take charge of our politics and our legislation."

Theocracy? From speaking out against slavery?

Yes, the ministers’ religion informed their opposition to slavery; yes, their ethics flowed from Christ’s teachings about the equality of all human beings in God’s eyes and His imperative that Christians love their neighbors as themselves.

But the ministers were not politicking on an issue that was religious as such: They were not advocating any religious doctrine, ritual, or practice or trying to force people to attend church or read the Bible or endorse the Judeo-Christian idea that there is only one God.

They were simply speaking against the evil of slavery. Still, for Douglas, this marked an unacceptable tendency toward theocracy.

Similar reactions are heard today when believers raise concerns about some of the major issues of our time: stem cell research, euthanasia, and abortion, among them. But these are no more religious issues than was slavery in 1854.

And as we deal with these and related issues, religious views have a necessary and proper place in our public life today. Thoughtful religious voices offer a perspective beyond the rhythms and sound bites of the news cycle. These thoughtful voices are not slaves to opinion polls, partisan politics or a desire to hang on to public office.

Thoughtful religious voices have long addressed enduring questions about the nature and value of life, the proper relationship of individuals and families to one another, to community, to government; the related responsibilities, the ethics and morality that should govern these relationships.

In short, thoughtful religious voices can raise and illuminate serious ethical questions that might not otherwise be seriously examined. Of special importance they are among the thoughtful voices that can counter the wrong turns of reason, science and the law.

And these do go wrong.

De jure segregation, segregation imposed by law, was a product of government, of twisted reason and the law. The Tuskegee syphilis research was a product of reason and science unhinged from basic values of human decency. (For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service studied 400 poor black men who had syphilis, men who were never informed they had it, and were not treated for it, even after penicillin became available.)

Anyone who thinks such abominations are strictly a thing of the past has little knowledge of the darker recesses of the human heart. Nor do they recognize the vast possibilities for going morally and ethically astray as we deal with:

• a health care system that within a decade could be overburdened by baby-boomers;

• our expanding powers to manipulate life;

• changing attitudes about the nature of life that are producing a serious euthanasia movement.

Religion, of course, does not speak with one voice. It speaks with a range of voices across the political spectrum and from opposite sides of issues.

Some religious voices are welcomed into the public debate, though the welcome often depends on the welcomer’s politics. Some religious groups oppose war, advocate more government money for programs aimed at the poor and homeless, lobby for health care reform or more money for AIDS research.

These actions are widely accepted as being proper for religious groups, and seldom does anyone claim these groups are trying to force their religion on others. Many who welcome these religious voices into the public arena, however, do not welcome those that speak out in ways they dislike on stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion and related issues.

Like Douglas all those years ago, they would bar these religious voices from the debate.

But religious voices, thoughtful and thoughtless, should be heard on these matters, just as thoughtful and thoughtless secular voices are heard.

The First Amendment protects them all, an open and honest debate would welcome them, a healthy debate needs them.

Tack Cornelius, a writer who lives in Gainesville, is a member of Pine Crest Baptist Church.

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