June 2009 Church & State | Editorial

U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay is entitled to his religious beliefs. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, DeLay is free to believe in 20 gods or no god. His personal beliefs about religion neither pick anyone's pocket nor break anyone's leg.

But lately DeLay and a number of other politicians have been talking about how religion not only influences but controls their decisions as public officials. Speaking at a Religious Right gathering in Pearland, Texas, recently, DeLay said, "He [God] has been walking me through an incredible journey, and it all comes down to worldview. He is using me, all the time, everywhere, to stand up for biblical worldview in everything that I do and everywhere I am. He is training me, He is working with me."

DeLay freely admitted that he filters his political decisions through his "biblical worldview." And what exactly is that biblical worldview? In DeLay's interpretation, it is a rigidly fundamentalist form of Christianity.

Ostensibly, when DeLay is making a decision about how to vote on a particular issue, he asks himself not, "Is this constitutional?" or even, "Is it good for my constituents?" Instead, he asks, "What does the Bible tell me to do?"

Other speakers at the same event took this concept to its logical (or perhaps illogical) extreme. They declared that the Bible addresses every issue of importance to people today. The Bible, one speaker said, provides answers to issues like the minimum wage, the capital gains tax, the 40-hour work week and the estate tax.

If these speakers are right, political leaders need not hold hearings, engage in debates or empower fact-finding commissions to determine public policy. All of the answers are in the Bible or, more accurately, someone's interpretation of the Bible.

That approach is troubling, to say the least. Even if everyone agreed on how the Bible is to be interpreted, that would not change the fact that the Bible is not and never has been the basis of our government. It is inappropriate for DeLay or any other political leader to use the process of governance to further his or her personal religious views.

President George W. Bush does the same thing, albeit in a subtler manner. From day one of his presidency, Bush has talked about the power of religion to change people's lives and argued that government needs to find ways to direct taxpayer money to "faith-based organizations."

The president has spoken, with obvious sincerity, about how faith helped him overcome problems with alcohol. That's great for him, but he then makes a crucial mistake he assumes that religion's positive role in his life justifies taxpayer-supported faith outreach.

This is more than just a fallacious assumption, it is dangerous. It is dangerous because it has become a platform on which some political leaders are building a whole new vision of church-state relations one that, if enacted, would foster unity between religion and government, not separation.

In short, we are on the verge of scrapping a principle that has worked well for America for more than 200 years in favor of a claim that religion can achieve wonders if it just gets some government help.

What's especially ironic is that this new claim is not untested. In fact, it has stood before the tribunal of history and been condemned as a complete and utter failure. Unions of church and state don't strengthen either institution they degrade both.

Like many other Americans, Tom DeLay undoubtedly believes that his religion is the only correct or "true" version. He's free to think that way, but such a limited vision is a poor launching pad for determining policies for nearly 300 million people, among them Christians (hundreds of varieties), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Atheists, Pagans, Sikhs, Jainists and on and on.

DeLay, like many in the Religious Right, is prone to see things in stark black and white. The problem is, political issues, like moral dilemmas, usually defy efforts to portray them that simply. DeLay's false dichotomy you either have the proper "biblical worldview" or you don't, thus you are either right or wrong is an inadequate guide for determining public policy in a modern, pluralistic nation.

DeLay and all the public officials who think like him need to be reminded that there is a document that the United States uses to formulate public policy. They should read it more often. It's called the Constitution.