Religious arguments both damage, strengthen the political process

Despite the separation of church and state, religion plays a significant role in political debate.


In the run up to the Republican primaries that begins January 2012, Mitt Romney has had to address his membership in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as he did in the 2008 election.

Gregory P. Magarian, JD, free speech and election law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, says that certain forms of religious argument pose a meaningful threat to democracy, but restricting these arguments would be an even larger threat to U.S. political culture.

“Arguments about religion undoubtedly make public political debate more contentious, fractious and difficult,” he says. “But religious argument threatens to destabilize the debate in ways that should ultimately strengthen our democracy.”

Magarian discusses religion’s role in politics in “Religious Argument, Free Speech Theory, and Democratic Dynamism,” published in a recent issue of the Notre Dame Law Review.

“Many people’s political convictions about, for example, gay marriage, draw upon their religious or conscientious commitments,” he says.

“If we push those influences to the margins of political discourse, our debate will be less engaged, less informative and ultimately less likely to generate the fresh insights needed to move us toward resolving our differences.”