The prayer issue finally came up in one of the Aiona-Abercrombie debates, and the candidates for governor handled it, I am happy to tell you, in precisely the right way.
Duke Aiona, who held prayer gatherings in his office as lieutenant governor, said he would do the same as governor, but added, "I understand... the principles of separation of church and state." It was the right thing to say and the right thing to believe and the right position to hold.
Neil Abercrombie, who had an opportunity for rebuttal, instead said, "I think everyone's religious beliefs and spiritual journey needs to be respected... I take the lieutenant governor at his word and I have respect for it." This, too, was the right thing to say and the right thing to believe.
And the two opponents shook hands.
It was, for me, the single best moment of this year's local election campaign.
Religious tolerance is an important part of what it means to be American. You may hold strong beliefs, and you may want to convert others to those beliefs, and you may cherish your right to do this without interference from the government, and it's all good, but in America we draw the line at harnessing government to impose theology. If I may be blunt, we agree not to harness government to impose our own values so that it does not ever impose someone else's values on us.
It was, therefore, a profoundly un-American thing when, earlier in the year, one religious group urged voters to choose Mufi Hannemann over Neil Abercrombie for religious reasons, while another has urged voters to choose Duke Aiona for the same reason. Even some backlash ads against Aiona, while superficially taking the same view I am taking, struck me as urging a vote on theological grounds. A pox on all their houses, I say, because religion is too important to be bandied about in the battlefield of political ads.
Religious discrimination is at least as bad as other kinds. And it was ever thus. I'm old enough to remember when people said they wouldn't vote for Kennedy for president because he was Roman Catholic. A lot of people who flunked history speak of the founding fathers' faith as if it were unified and wholly accepted, a mighty fortress that gave us our core values, but the real reason for the appeal of church-state separation from the beginning was that they were not in accord on religion and their differences were contended with as much passion as Sunnis and Shi'ites muster up today - maybe not as much outright killing, but let's not forget the Salem witch trials and some of the stuff that was done to the first LDS crowd.
"Paid for by the Committee to Bring Back the Inquisition, Thomas Torquemada, treasurer."
Keeping religion out of politics is harder than it looks. I think when one candidate shares your own faith it may be harder not to see the other guy as godless or at least suspicious, even though history has provided innumerable examples where a devout politician turns out to be the one who will do bad things because he feels more strongly than others do that his cause is just. An extra reason to welcome a heartfelt statement of religious tolerance is that it suggests someone who is not particularly likely to confuse his own platform with something that arrived from a mountain in convenient tablet form. In any case, it's hard enough to sort through campaign platforms and records without peering at the candidates to measure the lumens of their respective halos.
It can get tricky, especially when there is a religion that insists upon some practice that society has decided should be illegal, and more obviously when there is a sect that does not believe in church-state separation itself. Then we get into the political version of Godel's theorem that in any closed system there are questions that cannot be answered within the context of that system. My better angels told me to leave that be before returning to their busy day of dancing on the head of a pin.
While we're asking our candidates to be civilized about religion, we can ask it of ourselves, too. So much of the heartbreak in today's world is caused by religious extremism, which is not confined to the acts of the extremists themselves but extends to our own tendencies to discriminate against perfectly good American citizens who derive their civilized faith from the same book that speaks so differently to people who are filled with hate. Not everyone in a pointy hat is a witch and not every witch wears headgear.
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