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Debating the role of faith in the community

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 9:52 p.m. MDT

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 Sunday’s 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.

In contrast, researcher Brian Grim notes, "Wherever religious freedom is high, there tends to be fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, prolonged democracy, and better educational opportunities for women."

In an editorial by Christopher Stevenson, the Director of America's Quilt of Faith, promotes the idea of establishing a National Museum of American Religion on the National Mall.

“There is a bright thread running through our history, seen by believer and non-believer alike, true or false, declaring that God has a special role for America to play in the world,” Stevenson writes. “This exceptional story, in all its representations, stands on its own and begs to be told through a museum in our nation's capital.

Stevenson argues that the “strong hand of American religion” is found throughout the history of the United States, “from the early explorers and the Puritans to the 13 colonies; from the Revolution, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the Bill of Rights to Manifest Destiny, the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves; from the devastating wars, an emergent middle class and the epic social movements of the 20th century to the Cold War and our response to the terrorist attacks of 2001.”

The purpose of this museum, Stevenson suggests, would be to present U.S. religious history objectively, to remain silent relative to the supremacy of one faith or denomination and to refrain from judging whether American religion has been beneficial or detrimental to the country.

“Each citizen, now and in the following generations, needs to be thoroughly reminded of America's religious history, judge it for themselves and decide on a religious path of progress forward with at least some thought given to the country's long-term health,” he concludes.

Nathan B. Oman, an associate professor of law at The College of William & Mary in Virginia, discusses the recent passage of an Oklahoma law prohibiting the use of “sharia law in making judicial decisions.”

His editorial, titled, “Sharia law poses no threat to American courts,” argues that current American laws have sensible rules governing cases where two parties would prefer to use religious law, such as sharia law, in tandem with US rules.

While courts may routinely apply foreign law to cases arising from events abroad, they will not apply such laws when they violate basic American values, Oman states.

“In the end, Oklahoma's law needlessly attacks a key part of Islamic spirituality,” Oman writes, “For Muslims, sharia is both richer and less threatening than the political demagogues suggest. Oklahoma's action is unnecessary because our courts long ago found a sensible way of accommodating the laws of other nations without compromising basic American values.”

Returning to the ongoing debate of Christmas and religion, J.R. Labbe discusses de-commercializing Christmas and the actions of Christians in promoting their beliefs during the holiday season.

“As Christian researcher George Barna has said, we Christians too often are our own worst enemies when it comes to showing the world what real, biblically centered Christianity looks like — the one that calls for loving your neighbor as yourself,” Labbe writes.

“Proclaiming one's faith through an uttered "Merry Christmas" — or becoming angry at the restaurant manager who doesn't — isn't the way to display our humble faithfulness to the mission our Father gave us — to love our neighbors.”

Labbe encourages the de-commercializing of Christmas through the giving of services and goods, rather than focusing on the more trivial “Happy holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas” debates.

“If you want to put Christ back into Christmas, then instead of battling the mall crowd to spend outrageous amounts of money on presents that will be forgotten by Easter, use that time and money to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and visit the infirm,” Labbe states. “Living out that faith — putting our muscle and minds and money into tackling hunger and poverty and homelessness — is what keeps Christ in Christmas.”

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company