What Does Religion Have to Do with Politics?

By Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley 

Scott Hahn is the author or editor of over forty popular and academic books. His works include best-selling titles Rome Sweet HomeThe Lamb’s Supper, and The First Society. His most recent book is It Is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion

Brandon McGinley is a Catholic writer and speaker based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. McGinley’s work has appeared in the Washington PostFirst Things, the Catholic HeraldPlough, and The Lamp, among other venues. He is the author of The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception.

church and state, scott hahn, brandon mcginley, it is right and just, religious liberty
Photo Credit: Stephen Walker

What does the duty of religion have to do with politics and law? Just asking the question would cause most modern political thinkers to break out in hives. Morality and especially religion are supposed to be separate, largely private areas of concern; politics, on the other hand, is necessarily public and therefore should be free from these complications.  

We’ve all heard the complaint: how dare you use the law to impose your morality on me? Curiously, this harangue seems to be used mostly when a policy proposal aims to enshrine some traditional Christian principle into law; when secular norms are enforced by law, this is seen as natural and good.  

“Ah,” the perceptive secularist might chime in, “but when someone argues, for instance, for the legal right to have an abortion or to disseminate pornography, he is arguing only that the government should get out of the way of private freedoms! These are morally neutral positions—no one is forcing you to have an abortion or to view pornography if you don’t want to!”  

But, of course, the person making this argument doesn’t actually believe the freedom to kill an unborn child or to have unlimited access to smut is “morally neutral” for society as a whole. If she did, she wouldn’t care either way whether abortion and porn were legal. But clearly she cares very deeply, because she thinks society is better off—that is, more morally sound—with these freedoms than without them. The argument from liberty or autonomy is not “neutral” at all, but a genuinely and wholeheartedly moral argument that having the freedom from government coercion to perform certain actions makes society better than restricting that freedom would.  

We would recognize this as obviously true in most contexts other than sexuality, which distorts our vision. The arguments for and against gun control, for instance, are widely understood to be moral arguments over competing moral values of liberty, safety, and peace—and how best to pursue them. Very few people who think abortion is “not a moral issue” would agree that the freedom to pollute waterways with hazardous chemicals is also neutral.  

We can go even further and assert that every law or regulation enshrines some vision of right and wrong, justice and injustice, in our society. Let’s take an incredibly mundane example. In Brandon’s home state of Pennsylvania, barbershops have very specific equipment requirements: “one hair clipper for each chair in operation, two razors for each chair in operation, at least one of which is non-disposable,” and so on. Meanwhile, in Scott’s home state of Ohio, all barbershop regulations were recently rescinded. One state thinks society, as a whole, is better off with strictly regulated barbershops; the other thinks society is better off with less-regulated barbershops. Both of these, in very small ways, are moral claims about the relative value of freedom, safety, and coiffure.  

When we drop the individualist blinders and realize that families, communities, and nations have their own existences, their own duties, and their own goods to pursue, we can understand how the laws, regulations, and customs we live under both enshrine a moral vision and influence the way we all think about truth, goodness, and justice. 

So, what does our society value? What virtues (and vices) do our laws and customs reward, and what vices (or virtues) do they punish? What rights and liberties and privileges will politicians and their parties go to great lengths to defend, and which ones do they abandon as soon as it is expedient to do so? What areas of human (and divine) concern are considered “out of bounds” for politics and are thus left to recede into an increasingly walled-off sphere of the private?  

It doesn’t take an especially keen political mind to realize that the answers to these questions in modern America—and really across the Western world—are not encouraging for people who take the Catholic faith seriously. Of course, none of us are obligated to acquiesce to the pressures of a corrupt culture, and neither could a virtuous culture compel us to be good. But, as Servant of God Dorothy Day, quoting her longtime associate Peter Maurin, said, we can and must try “to build ‘that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.’”  

Every aspect of our common lives encourages us one way or the other: toward justice or injustice, truth or falsehood, good or evil. There is no avoiding these fundamental concepts, no way to be safe and still in between them, no neutrality. This is because our laws and customs ultimately emanate from what we value most of all, from what we place on the highest pedestal, from what we honor above all in our common life. In other words, society emanates from worship.  

And, just like for every person on earth, what we worship will either be God, or it will be something or someone other than God. How everything in our life plays out, as individuals and as societies, depends on this decision. 

Learn More

Is religion a right given to us by the state? Is it an opium for the masses? Is it private opinion with no role in the public sphere?

In It Is Right and Just, bestselling author Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley challenge our idea of religion and its role in societyHahn and McGinley argue that to answer questions over religious liberty, justice, and peace, we must first reject the insidious lie perpetuated by secular-liberal culture: that religion is a private matter.