Bumper Sticker “Thinking”

While it is easy to rouse emotions with a bumper sticker, it is more difficult to express intelligent thought.

Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Last Time We Mixed Politics and Religion People Got Burned at the Stake.” I’m guessing that the author had the Salem witch trials in mind (or did it go back farther, to the fires of Smithfield?). Evidently this person is either a time traveler or has in some other way missed the past few centuries.

Convictions about the nature of god (or a god) and what that god (or those gods) desire have motivated many people to public action in the years since Smithfield and Salem. People who take themselves to be operating on the basis of religious convictions have expressed those convictions in public ways regarding abolition, civil rights, fair wages, health care, abortion, peace and education – just to name a few areas.

John Locke’s original formulation of religious tolerance was based on the conviction that the state dealt with the external world of here and now, while religion dealt with the internal world and our eternity. Such a nice, clean division of labor! We see Locke mirrored in the strand of American thinking that insists that religious believers are free to believe anything they want, as long as they keep it in private. Some religions might work just fine as purely private internal affairs. Christianity doesn’t, however.

Can we tolerate the mixing of religion and politics? I don’t see how there is a way around it as long as their are political and religious people. There’s also a pretty good chance we’ll see plenty of ways of letting religious convictions be expressed in public that we find repulsive, even evil. (Of course religious convictions don’t have any corner on the market of being associated with unpleasantness.) But we also don’t have to look very hard to find expressions that we find commendable.

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