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{Originally publisjed in September, 2004 as “Religion Should Inform, Not Dominate U.S. Debate”}

There are two things you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company. If you know what they are, you might want to stop right here.

I was going through an article on democracy in the Middle East, and I came across the phrase “Command the right, and forbid the wrong”. It appears several times in the Koran.

Like all great religious writing, it brings a vital question into sharp focus. How you react to this verse shows what you think about religion and politics.

This phrase legitimizes fundamentalist Islamic regimes throughout the world. Saudi Arabia and Iran command the right and forbid the wrong. Is it right for women to be veiled? Then veil them. Is it wrong to drink alcohol? Then ban it. If it’s wrong by the Koran, forbid it. If it’s right, compel it.

Although this phrase is subject to interpretation by a long history of thoughtful Islamic scholarship, its use in the Koran still fuels the fire of extremists. For those Muslims who insist that their Scriptures are the Exact and Only Truth (such people exist in all faiths, including my own), there is only one way to govern. Command the right, and forbid the wrong.

America was founded on a different idea. Religion was to be practiced freely, without hindrance or favor. What was commanded and what was forbidden would be determined by thoughtful deliberation, based on the wellbeing of her people.

I think most Americans agree our vision is better. But before we congratulate ourselves, a reality check might be in order.

Those who would “command the right and forbid the wrong” are still very much alive in America. The fires of their passion were never completely doused by the waters of reason that marked America’s founding. They just split in two.

The first faction that links religion to politics wants desperately to “forbid the wrong”. Homosexuality is wrong, so they support anti-sodomy laws. Divorce is wrong, so they mandate counseling. Alcohol and drugs are wrong, so they support regulation and prohibition. Pornography is wrong, so they want it off the internet. If the Bible forbids it, the government should too.

But before you pat yourself on the back for supporting the separation of church and state, ask where you stand on “commanding the good”. Although it’s seldom talked about, modern liberalism has its share of religious activists who are quite enthusiastic about using politics to bring about their own heaven on earth.

Such people will tell you that the redistribution of wealth is justified because charity is a religious obligation. They will tell you that it’s immoral to privatize Social Security because the Bible commands us to honor our parents. I heard both these ideas from the first rabbi my children ever knew.

There is, of course, another way to understand religion and politics. It is the one most consistent with the vision of America. It recognizes that, while there is much wrong that must remain illegal, the two are not the same thing. It affirms that being permitted to do wrong is sometimes necessary for us to aspire to moral betterment.

It also knows that some acts are not moral unless they are voluntary, done without threat of coercion. It draws strength from faith to persuade not by threat of jail, but by personal example.

For example, do you know in your heart that abortion is wrong? Then find a woman who wants one, help her have her baby, and find an adoptive family. Better still, raise the child as your own. I know a quiet, dignified Christian woman who has done just that. She has earned more respect from me than a thousand Pat Robertsons.

This vision needs to be shouted from the pulpit of every church, synagogue, and mosque in America. It should be reaffirmed by every candidate this November, regardless of religious faith or lack thereof. It says clearly and firmly that politics is rooted in this world, a flawed process carried out by flawed beings. It cares only about what rules are required for a free people to live together in peace.

All religions can inform that discussion, but none can have the last word. Not in Afghanistan. Not in Iraq. And not in America.