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Faith intersects with secular government, but must do so with restraint

  • Author: Matt Schultz
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published January 25, 2015

Grab a pencil and jot down three political topics that are not impacted by your religious beliefs. Choose carefully. If you do this in a group setting as I have, you'll notice a rare thing: zero consensus. There is no one political topic that we could all agree on as having no religious or moral implications.

This is one reason (among many) that it is important to be sure that our system of law remains independent from any one particular ideology. People of faith have every right to voice their views of morality and ethics, to speak truth to power. Indeed, it is our responsibility as citizens to voice our views on matters of social justice and concern for those in need, for as Augustine said, "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld."

However, history has shown that when any one religion gains too much political power, other religious groups suffer. Secular institutions such as our government protect diversity of belief, and that is healthy for all religions. This dynamic comes up frequently, and is set to come up again in this next legislative session with a bill that seeks to change the makeup of the Alaska Judicial Council.

The Judicial Council evaluates applicants for judgeships and nominates the most highly qualified applicants to the governor, who makes the final appointment. Currently, the council consists of three public members chosen by the governor, and three lawyer members chosen by the Alaska Bar Association. This makeup assures that the judges selected are the "tallest timber": the most qualified and professionally respected. It reduces the influence of partisan politics, special interests and money that have so deeply wounded our political system.

The current structure works. And yet, a bill introduced by state Sen. Pete Kelly would change the makeup of the council by doubling the number of public members, which would reduce the impact of professional expertise and increase the influence of partisan politics.

So, with no discernible brokenness in the current council, why the push to change it?

One reason people promote such a change is that they keep a list -- one that is the inverse of the list mentioned above. Instead of listing which political topics are not impacted by their beliefs, they have created a shortlist of topics that are so deeply entwined with their religious agenda that they are willing to change the very structure of the system in order to reinterpret the law to be in keeping with their own very specific beliefs.

One major backer of the push for changes in judicial nominations here is Alaska Family Action. AFA identifies itself as Christian, though it only represents one small sliver of the Christian spectrum. They are largely focused on seeing their particular form of Christianity influence legislation. There is nothing wrong with that -- by design, our constitution ensures that all faiths have equal voice. However, the push to change the process of judicial selection goes beyond using one's voice, and enters into the territory of state-sponsored religion.

A brief review of history and current events shows us what happens when the system of justice becomes too entwined with any niche ideology. It is bad for society, which is forced into a religious system it has not chosen. It is bad for the law, which is forced to relinquish freedom of religion in order to placate influential special interests. And it is most definitely bad for religion, which in all of history has never benefited from being too closely entwined with the government. The separation of church and state benefits both.

We all have our lists of issues that are matters of personal conviction and faith, and we all wish to pour our hearts and souls into advocating for what we believe to be right. Faith traditions around the world seek this social justice. But that pursuit requires a gentle interaction with government. We must be active enough to advocate for the weak, without ourselves becoming the corrupting influence. This is a delicate balance, and one that can not be maintained while too assertively influencing the impartiality of judicial selection.

The Rev. Matthew Schultz is a board member of Justice Not Politics Alaska and pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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