Thursday, August 31, 2006

Morals inform political debate

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

By Kevin O'Brien

It's too bad Ken Blackwell was the one to say it, because too many people will just dismiss it as self-serving: "The public square should not be stripped or scrubbed clean of religion or faith or God. We understand that the flip side of a theocracy is not the secular state. The flip side of a theocracy is religious liberty."

This is one of those rare cases in which the truth can and should be separated from the teller and his motives, because it is - well - the truth.

Yes, Blackwell made his remark during a campaign appearance in which he received a nice back-scratch, in the form of an endorsement for governor of Ohio, from a national coalition of Christian ministers.

Yes, he was scratching their backs, too, by defending both their political activism and their tax-exempt status, which has been called into question by religious leaders on the other side of the ideological fence.

And yes, all of this has a lot more to do with winning at politics than with transcendent constitutional ideals.

Blackwell is hanging grimly on to his most loyal supporters, religious conservatives, even as he fails to generate any momentum in other political sectors.

But a transcendent constitutional ideal has somehow managed to get itself articulated. And, in a campaign as shallow and uninspired as this race for governor has been, that's worth noting.

Say what you will about Blackwell's politics, but with two well-turned phrases, he has demonstrated that his grasp of the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression is far firmer than that of his critics.

For months, we've been hearing their wailing about mixing religion with politics. It's all a carefully calculated fear campaign, trading on the public's tendency to be a bit put off by the perception that Blackwell is just a little too sure of himself. More to the point, they want Ohioans to believe that Blackwell is so sure of his Christianity that he's going to make sure everyone shares it by the time he's through.

What nonsense. If they're seriously saying they expect legislators, judges and the public to fall compliantly into line with the Buckeye Inquisition, Blackwell isn't the one who's being insulted. You are.

But let's put that aside to focus on the larger question of religion's influence on politics and public policy.

Religious expression is not merely permissible in the political arena. It's essential.

Just look at some of the issues that get people fired up these days: the war on terrorism, embryonic stem cell research, immigration, homosexual rights, abortion, poverty, capital punishment.

Can anyone take a reasoned political stand on any of them without first making some kind of moral judgment?

In some of our deliberations, we may put social, political or economic factors ahead of strictly moral concerns. But for most of us, somewhere along the way, the moral component plays a hand. Then, as we decide our course through representative government, the nation's collective moral leanings become clearer.

Like it or not, the teachings and traditions that calibrate American society's moral compass are Judeo-Christian in origin. We may choose to follow them, ignore them or reject them outright, but they're always in play.

And like it or not, preachers are in the business of trying to influence our moral judgments.

The ones who support Blackwell are trying to do it the old-fashioned way - through persuasion. The ones who oppose him are trying to shut them up, using intimidation and the IRS.

I say a preacher has as much right to speak his or her mind on politics as a publican, and if the congregation happens to be within earshot, so what? It's been done that way in black churches as far back as anyone can remember, and the republic has survived.

And as long as moral issues figure into what Americans decide at the polls, a preacher's input ought to be welcome. Whether you want to give him an "amen" at the polls is entirely up to you.

With all that freedom, setting up a theocracy is going to be one hell of a job.

O'Brien is The Plain Dealer's deputy editorial director.

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