Is religion a source of conflict in society? Sometimes, it is. Yet there are many instances in which people's faith commitments produce a stronger civil society, a greater degree of authentic tolerance, and a more refined attachment to moral principles.
Why, then, does religion sometimes have a disruptive effect on culture and society? Obviously, dogmatic and doctrinal differences are not light matters. The real differences between believers (and nonbelievers) translate into argument and debate. That's not a bad thing, and it's precisely why we need tolerance: not because we have to agree about everything, but precisely because of our disagreements.
Another complication, however, flows from the state's involvement in religious matters. Religious differences become magnified when the state starts making its own claims about religious truth, or asserts a right to adjudicate doctrinal differences. The situation is worsened when politicians choose to exploit religious differences in order to pursue and realize their own goals, or decide that, in the name of tolerance, the state must seek to exclude all religiously-informed contributions to the public square. Such is the soft authoritarianism with which believers in much of Western Europe and America are confronted today.
One of the American Experiment's universal gifts to the world is its attempt to create circumstances in which believers of different faiths and confessions can, alongside non-believers, co-exist peacefully and live out their significant differences on a host of issues. It hasn't always been easy, and it requires a common commitment to a belief in reason and natural law, but it has worked very well for most of America's history. The key to the success has been identifying and minimizing the impact of those forces that enable differences to be converted into overt hostility.
An overly politicized society is one of those forces. Reducing the influence of politics to its proper sphere, instead of seeing it as the answer to everything, is part of what the Acton Institute is about: to make society a safe place for the exercise of strong faith. Thank you for your support of our work.
Sincerely, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, President