It is not true that our society is divided between a moral majority of the religious, on the one hand, and an immoral or amoral minority of the nonreligious, on the other. Atheists can have moral convictions that are every bit as strong as the moral convictions of the devout Christian or observant Jew. What we have in the political arena is not a division between the moral and the immoral but an ongoing contention between different moral visions addressing the political question—how ought we to order our life together?
This ongoing contention, this experience of being locked in civil argument, is nothing less than democracy in action. It is Lincoln and Douglas debating the morality of slavery; it is the argument about whether unborn children have rights we are obliged to respect; it is the argument over whether the war in Iraq is just or unjust. And on and on. These are all moral arguments to which people bring their best moral judgment. In short, our political system calls for open-ended argument about all the great issues that touch upon the question “How ought we to order our life together?”
The idea that some citizens should be excluded from addressing that question because their arguments are religious, or that others should be excluded because their arguments are nonreligious or antireligious, is an idea deeply alien to the representative democracy that this constitutional order is designed to protect. A foundational principle of that order is that all citizens have equal standing in the public square. [...]
As I have suggested, religion cannot be separated from politics. More precisely, religion cannot be separated from democratic politics. But I do believe that religious leaders should be more circumspect and restrained than they sometimes are in addressing political issues, and that for two reasons. The first and most important reason is that the dynamics of political battle tend to corrupt religion, blurring the distinctions between the temporal and the eternal, the sacred and the profane. So the first concern is for the integrity of religion.
The second concern is for the integrity of politics. Making distinctively religious arguments in political debates tends to be both ineffective and unnecessarily polarizing. Citizens who are religious, like all citizens, should as much as possible make arguments on the basis of public reasons that are accessible to everyone. [...]
There is a long and complicated history by which the West, and America in particular, has arrived at our commitment to freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of political action. These freedoms, as they are enshrined in the First Amendment, are all of a piece. Our history and our commitment is not shared by everyone in the world. In most dramatic contrast today are Islamic societies in which, as many see it, the brutal choice is posed between monolithic religion or monolithic secularism. We have to hope that is not the case, but that is a problem for Muslims to resolve.
Thank God, and thank the American Founders, our circumstance is very different. Ours is a pluralistic society in which, by the means of representative democracy, all citizens—whether religious, nonreligious, antireligious, or undecided—are on an equal footing as they bring their diverse and sometimes conflicting moral visions to bear on the great question of politics—how ought we to order our life together?
Debating the Separation of Religion and Politics, by Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus. "On The Square" First Things November 15, 2007. Excerpts from an opening statement at a debate sponsored by The Economist on the resolution: "Religion and politics should always be kept separate" with Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State: