The Senate Should Lead a National Debate on Religion and American Society

Religion is a complex, influential part of many cultures. It can bring people together, but it can also be a source of division and stress. Regardless of the specific beliefs and practices, most Americans acknowledge that religion has a strong impact on their lives. The Senate has a unique opportunity to lead a new national debate on the relationship between the practice of religion and American society, families, and culture.

A number of scholars have attempted to analyze religion using various social-science tools and methodologies. One of the most important approaches is that of Emile Durkheim, a major figure in the development of sociology. His emphasis on the functions that religion performs for a society—rather than its particular beliefs or practices—remains central to sociological thinking about religion today.

Other social scientists, particularly those working with quantitative methods, have looked at how religion can be used to shape a culture. For example, some have studied how religious beliefs can help create a sense of national identity in a country or region. Others have studied how religious traditions can serve to support the poor and marginalized in a society. Still other researchers have examined how religion can provide a framework for moral values and principles, and help people cope with life’s problems and stresses.

The Bible also has much to say about matters “religious.” The thematic center of this discussion is how God relates to his creation, especially humanity, and how humanity should relate to him. The Old and New Testaments speak pervasively about the need to have right beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors toward the Creator.

Some social science thinkers have defined religion as a universal genus, meaning that it exists in every culture and serves the same functional purposes everywhere. This view is problematic because it treats religion as an inescapable feature of the human condition and makes it impossible to analyze the religions of individual cultures.

More recently, there has been a reflexive turn in the study of religion as scholars have pulled back the camera to examine the constructed nature of what has previously been taken for granted. This new perspective has enabled us to see how the definition of religion is a political choice that serves the needs of a particular group or time.

Congress, and the Senate in particular, should continue to play a role in shaping America’s religious landscape by ensuring that judges who appear before them are sensitive to the importance of religion in family and public life. The President should appoint, and the Senate should confirm, justices who understand that government should not be in the business of trying to remove religion from the lives of Americans. The Founding Fathers would have wanted the Senate to be a place where important questions about religion could be debated, not crowded out of the public square.

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