We cannot codify into law a commitment to democratic discourse that ensures religious considerations are kept out of policy discussions- nor, because of the importance of protecting free speech, should we even think of doing so. To keep religious doctrine out of democratic discourse, we have to appeal to the believer’s prudence, self-interest, commitment to democracy, and moral sensibilities. Prudence, because in a religiously diverse society we are not going to make any progress in discussions about public policy if people allow their religious beliefs to dictate their positions. Self-interest, because if religion is permitted to influence our discussions about public policy, then the religious beliefs that attract the most adherents will prevail. When the population of the United States was overwhelmingly mainline Protestant, perhaps this did not seem much of a problem because the differences in beliefs, at least with respect to policy issues, were manageable. Increasing diversity has made consensus on some issues more difficult, however, as indicated by the sharp disagreements among religious adherents on issues such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. If Islam grows in numbers in the next few decades differences based on religious dogma will likely become even more pronounced. Do believers want public policy determined by which creed can mobilize the most voters?
Cutting short meaningful discussion of public policy by reliance on one’s religious beliefs also shows a lack of respect for the equal standing of the citizens who don’t share one’s beliefs. For all practical purposes, a religiously based public policy claim can be evaluated only through the theology peculiar to the religion of the proponent of the claim. No one can assess that claim without adopting the proponent’s religious point of view and sectarian religious vocabulary. Using your religious beliefs as a basis for a policy argument is like using a private language that’s intelligible only to your coreligionists. The common language that’s accessible to everyone is, of course, language that describes all aspects of issues – the problems, the proposed solutions, our objectives and goals – in secular terms. Formulating one’s public policy arguments in secular terms is necessary to engage all of one’s fellow citizens. If all you’re doing in a discussion on public policy is preaching your own religious doctrines, you might as well shut up and just use your Bible or Qur’an as a bludgeon. Your message is: accept my religious doctrines; accept my religious doctrines; accept my religious doctrines.