I've previously expressed my scepticism about the idea of religion existing within a secular society. Is it really possible for the deeply religious to keep their religion private and not have it interfere with public life? Well in today's Sunday Time Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) explains how crucial it is to keep religion and politics separate.
Sacks covers disastrous episodes in history that have resulted from the mixing of religion and politics and is concerned that we may be headed in that direction again:
We are living in an age in which, not just in Britain but throughout the world, many people are disillusioned with secular politics, and are turning to religion instead. In itself that is a blessing. Religious faith is our noblest effort to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The expansive air of the spirit redeems the narrowness of the material world. But to expect it to solve political problems is to invite disaster. Religion becomes political at its peril, and ours.
Sacks explains what liberal democracy can offer that religion doesn't:
Liberal democracy does what few great religions have ever achieved. It makes space for difference. It honours the person regardless of his or her beliefs. It allows societies to negotiate change without catastrophe. It teaches us the difficult arts of listening to our opponents and - in Isaiah's phrase - 'reasoning together'. These are modest virtues but necessary ones.
Politics knows what religion sometimes forgets, that the imposition of truth by force and the suppression of dissent by power is the end of freedom and a denial of human dignity.
Sacks explains that it's the 'existence of alternatives, the clash of opinions' that keeps democracy alive and that this is where politics and religion differ. Personally I think that these are also the qualities required for contemplating the 'big questions' which Sacks considers to be the domain of dogmatic religion.
Of course, I'd prefer it if religion kept out of both politics and ethics, but I'm very happy to see Sacks speaking out in this way. I guess it's easier for a leader from a minority religion to support the separation of religion and politics, but with the current situations in the US and the Islamic world, it's certainly welcome.