Law, Politics, and Religion

It has been an especially interesting time of late at the intersection of law, politics, and religion: controversy over the remarks of presidential candidates concerning Muslims and the Presidency; and, on a happier note, the visit to this country by Pope Francis.  I have three related observations.

First, it has been said that we should not elect a President, or any other public official, whose Muslim heritage and Islamic faith would lead them to be guided by the Quran in place of the law and the Constitution.  To these same folks, I would ask: what about public officials who would be guided by the Bible in place of the law and the Constitution?  Do you object to that, or only to reliance non-Christian texts?

Second, while many have hoped for the Pope’s willingness to dive into our national politics, others, including some prominent conservatives, have criticized Francis.  I would add another area of public policy disagreement that has largely been ignored until now.  During his speech to a joint meeting of Congress, the Pope today – and this came as no real surprise – called for the abolition of capital punishment and, seemingly, of life without parole sentences.  He said that he supported those “who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

His words are appealing to many, and certainly delivered with his unique brand of moral authority.  But his prescription ignores other legitimate considerations of criminal punishment, and it is unrealistic to expect that some offenders can be rehabilitated (or are even interested in rehabilitation).  There are times when the political community must protect itself from dangerous people by ensuring that they do not reenter free society; indeed, there are those who continue to pose grave threats to others even while incarcerated – imagine the threat they would pose if freed.  And then there are those whose permanent incarceration, even execution, is justified on grounds of moral desert.  If the Pope is to focus upon those sentenced to life in prison or death, I wish he would give greater attention to the crimes they have committed to get to that point in the first place.  So I respectfully disagree with the Pope and urge the Congress to reject this particular suggestion.

Third, Pope Francis’s visit has produced some remarkable moments, not the least of which was his appearance today on Capitol Hill (though I was also particularly moved yesterday when, with the President, the Pope said, “God Bless America”).  There are lessons to be learned from his visit and his example.  Though he holds many objectionable positions on political matters, it was remarkable to witness the mutual respect shown during his visit: the respect that he has shown to Americans and our institutions, and the respect and love that Americans, even non-Catholics, have shown to him.  If hundreds of American politicians, as they did today in the House chamber, can show respect for the Pope when he is among them, even as they disagree with him from time to time, surely they can do the same for each other.  Francis certainly has shown respect for us, though I’m quite sure he knows that many of us dispute some of his views.  Perhaps we should remember this the next time one of our politicians insists that the only way to be a good Republican is to spit on Barack Obama, or compares his or her opponents to terrorists just because they have a different view on a matter of policy.

Of course, politics ain’t bean bag.  And an effective political system demands that disagreements be aired.  Healthy conflict – between institutions and ideas – is often good for producing safe government.  But do we really have to be this nasty to each other all of the time?

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