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Debating the role of faith in the community

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

One of the ongoing debates in America is the role of religion in the community. During the Christmas season particularly, religion and its place in public life often comes to the forefront of discussion.

Dueling atheist and Christian bus ads in Fort Worth Texas led to such an uproar that the Fort Worth Transportation Authority chose to ban all religious ads from buses beginning on January 1. In New York, two billboards ignited the same issue. Over time, the phrase "Merry Christmas" has been supplanted by the more neutral "Happy Holidays" in places ranging from mall advertising to school classrooms.

With debates like these in mind, the topic of Faith in the Community is highlighted in the opinion section of Sundays Deseret News. In a mix of columns by the Deseret News and other writers, the role of religion in the United States and in the public forum is debated and discussed.

The Deseret News editorial argues that a vibrant democracy requires citizens to obey the law, to address and solve local problems cooperatively, to participate actively in civic life and to behave altruistically. One of the private motivators of these actions is active faith. No matter what denomination a person belongs to, religion acts as the best tutor of democratic dispositions.

The editorial cites a study performed by Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame in 2006 and 2007. Their analysis, which appears in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, states that religious Americans are more generous with their time and money to both religious and non-religious causes. Religious Americans are more civilly active, more likely to belong to community organizations, more trusting and altruistic. The data also suggests that religious Americans are happier and show a greater respect for authority.

Gordon Smith, a former U.S. Senator, president of the National Association of Broadcasters and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, argues that religion must maintain a place in the public square.

Using the example of Europe, Smith examines how religion can unite a nation, as well as bring order to the process of governing.

When you separate people from their religious tradition, everything becomes morally relative, Smith writes. There is no higher power that draws a German to feeling equal to a Frenchman or a Frenchman feeling equal to an Englishman. There is no moral basis for the brotherhood of man. You are left only with competing national interests.

In his editorial, Smith shares his concern that by declaring religious arguments in public policy decisions out of bounds, people are forgetting how important moral and religious foundations are for the vitality of democracy.

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," John Adams once wrote to members of the Massachusetts militia. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation writes in a column titled, Governments should protect freedom of religion, that religious freedom is strongly related to political liberty, economic freedom and prosperity.

The Founders frequently stated that a free society could not survive without virtue and religion, she writes. They knew that family, congregations and other private associations exercise moral authority that is essential to limiting the size and power of government. This constitutional order produced a constructive relationship between religion and state.

According to the Index of Economic Freedom co-published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, nations that severely restrict religious freedom, such as North Korea, Iran and Burma, typically offer their people the least economic liberty and some of the worst economic conditions.

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