An old friend of mine recently declared that individual American citizens cannot advocate political positions in the public square if those positions are motivated by those persons’ religion or “personal beliefs.” These persons, so my friend asserted, should not “impose their beliefs” upon other persons who do not share those same beliefs. There are layers of irony in this claim.
First, all political opinions stem from individuals’ beliefs—whether they are of a peculiarly religious nature or motivated by some other guiding principle (such as the scientific method or the unassailable autonomous self). Civic life is inevitably defined by the state imposing certain beliefs upon others, often even against some citizens’ will (the imposition of income taxes being one common example in America). There is also the irony that many significant political movements in American history—abolitionism, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—were driven by a very explicit religious impulse, one that believed that men and women are created equal and in the image of God and are thus deserving of certain rights the state cannot infringe upon.