New York bishop speaks out on religious liberty in a pluralistic society

March 28, 2012

[Episcopal Diocese of New York] Bishop Mark S. Sisk of the Episcopal Diocese of New York issued the following statement:

Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society

By the Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk

March 27, 2012

The Founders of this nation believed that separation between Church and State was of crucial importance. The First Amendment is succinct: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The importance of religion was not denied; it was simply not to be “established” by government.

The concern of those founding thinkers was not so much to protect the state from religion, as it was to protect religion from the manipulation and ideological exploitations of the state. The effective bargain struck was this: the various religious claimants would be freed from government controls in order to do their own best work. The people for their part would be free to choose, or not to choose, the religion of their choice.

Generally speaking the religious communities accepted the bargain with alacrity. Doing so, however, forced them into a sometimes grudging concession: the acknowledgement that their own faith was not, nor would ever be, the only show in town.

From the religious perspective there can be little doubt that the bargain our founders struck with history paid off. Religion has flourished in America as it has in few other places in the western world.

However, there can also be little doubt that the number of Americans for whom religion is an important element in their lives is decreasing; ours is an increasingly secular society.

Many of us are saddened by this slow drift. I, for one, believe that it does not portend well for our nation. We as a people need the insights and sensitivities that religion, at its best, can provide. However, I fear that the religious community has squandered a good portion of our credibility by becoming allied with one or another particular political position.

Any such alliance of religious communities with political power presents the temptation to impose views that are fundamentally grounded on particular religious perspectives. Furthermore, religious communities need to exercise the greatest care when seeking for themselves “special” exemptions. It is not that these are always inappropriate: it is simply that when they are sought by religious communities, such exemptions must not infringe on the equally important right of nonbelievers not to have those particular religiously-grounded views foisted on them.

Analogously, when a religious community engages the general public, an extraordinarily delicate balancing act is required. The exercise of government power needs to be wielded with great care so as to avoid muffling the freedom of religious speech. At the same time the religious community itself must guard against seeking a privileged place either in the court of public debate or with regard to its activities in the world. So long as any particular religious activity is not supported in any way by public monies, and so long as that activity does not enter into economic competition with regulated competitors, then the government should refrain from interference.  When those two standards are not met, however, religious activity should be conducted under the same regulations as all other such activity in society.

Deep religious convictions within a profoundly pluralistic society will inevitably create tension. But if that society is truly and richly pluralistic, this tension will be a creative one that enriches both the individual and the general community. It will only be as we work together, seeking the common good, that these sometimes conflicting claims will be resolved to the health of the nation and the flourishing of individual freedom.

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