July 19, 2005

Religious beliefs and public policy

Barbara Rossing is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is a faculty member at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is an evangelical who feels that the rapturists have, in trying to take the Bible literally, totally distorted its message. Her book The Rapture Exposed is her attempt to reclaim the message of the Bible. In the process, she argues that although this is a religious dispute between segments of Christianity, we should all, whatever our beliefs, take it seriously because it has public policy implications for all of us.

In a comment to a previous posting about the rapture, Professor Madigan spoke about her former sister-in-law who back in the 1980s was convinced that the rapture was imminent and that the day had been specified and that she would be one of the chosen. She then proceeded to run up her credit card bills, thinking that she would not have to pay it back. Of course, she had to deal with all the bills when the rapture did not happen. Dave's comment in the previous entry seems to indicate that this kind of credit-card behavior is quite widespread. (Here is an interesting conundrum: Is it unethical to run up bills that you have no intention of paying if you think that the end of the world is about to occur?)

I would imagine that this kind of extreme behavior is somewhat rare and that most believers in the rapture hedge their bets and continue to make their mortgage, credit card, and insurance payments.

But even if some people are tempted to act recklessly, such actions by private individuals do not do too much damage to the community at large. But not all rapture-influenced actions are that innocuous. Rossing's book reveals some startling information about rapture-influenced political appointees that I was not aware of (since I was not in the US at that time) but whose actions can affect all of us. One such person is James Watt who was appointed to the post of Secretary of the Interior after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Rossing says:

Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U.S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation's forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." (p. 7)

One might wonder how such a person as James Watt could ever have been confirmed to the post that is entrusted to protect the environment. One would think that the job description for the position of Secretary of the Interior requires someone who takes a very long-term view, and that anyone who cannot envisage the need to take care of the environment beyond the next few generations would be eliminated. And perhaps there was a time when such people would not be nominated to high positions but that seems to be no longer the case. Nowadays, politicians seem to feel obliged to wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim how it influences everything they do.

Of course, most people are religious in some way and there is no doubt that their religious beliefs will have an effect on what they do and what policies they support. We should protect people's right to believe whatever they want. But should that protection also extend to public policies that they wish to implement that are based on their religious beliefs? Can we draw a line between policies based on religion that are acceptable and those that are not? Or is it better to simply say that any public policy that has religion as its only basis is not acceptable.

These questions become more apparent with issues such as global warming. If global temperatures are rising at about one degree per century as experts suggest, then in a few centuries the melting of the polar ice gaps, the loss of glaciers, and the consequent rise in sea levels would have catastrophic consequences, causing massive flooding of coastal areas and huge climatic changes. Suppose the Secretary of the Interior says that since the end of the world is going to occur long before then, we should not worry about it, should that person be removed from office? Is it religious discrimination to say that we should not be basing public policy on religious beliefs?

If James Watt had been rejected as a nominee because of the feeling that his religion-based short-term views were dangerous for the environment, could it have been alleged that he was the subject of religious discrimination?

This is a very tricky question because while we do not want to impinge on people's right to religious beliefs, we do have a responsibility to base policies on empirical evidence. The public policy implications of religion becomes even more alarming when applied to issues of war and peace as we will see in the next posting.


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Your example of the person who ran up all those credit card bills was an extreme example, but a lot of people really are putting themselves in financial jeopardy in preparation for the rapture.

My grandmother has practically bankrupted herself paying for a casket for when she passes away. She refuses to be cremated since she believes she will ascend bodily to heaven during the rapture.

Posted by Craig on July 19, 2005 03:35 PM

The issue of the soul in Christianity is one that I always have difficulty understanding. As I mentioned in the previous comment, Revelation seems to conflict with aspects of other portions of the Bible, notably with regard to the resurrection of the dead.

Some portions state that the soul goes to heaven or hell (or Purgatory in Catholicism) immediately after death . Other passages speak of a bodily resurrection and final judgement of the souls of all dead individuals at the time of the rapture. Still other passages speak of some immediate action for the soul at the time of death, to be followed by a final judgement as well. I have never studied the opinions of biblical scholars on such matters, but assume that those opinions might be similarly contradictory.

As for practical implications, the burial of dead bodies seems to be an extremely wasteful use of our most important resource, land. Now that most caskets (in the U.S.) are placed in steel vaults the process of deterioration will be much slower compared to that of the old pine box in the hole method. Eventually the entire country could become a cemetery! At least a mausoleum allows for quick decompisition so that the space is recycled for the next generation.

Posted by Dave on July 20, 2005 06:46 PM

I too feel that burial is not for me and have strict instructions to be cremated and the ashes scattered. I do not want to be "localized" in any way. It seems that the yearning for immortality in a physical form is very strong in many people and this may be the driver for all these efforts to preserve bodies.

Posted by Mano Singham on July 21, 2005 09:00 AM

Rather than burial or cremation, I'd like my body to be used for medical science - assuming, of course, that the rapture does not come, in one form or another. :)

Posted by Paul Jarc on July 25, 2005 02:15 AM

I thought our constitution forbids any public policy based on someones religous beliefs. We all have the right to believe anything we choose but a public figure who openly basis their support for legislation based on their religious beliefs doesn't belong in public office.

Posted by Debt Elimination on August 11, 2010 02:37 PM

Religious belief and public policy should not be mixed. If i recall correctly, separation of church and state is supposed to be in effect for quite a while now, yet swearing under oath, and putting the right hand on the bible, and finishing any oath ends with "So help me god." where is the separation there.

Posted by Rami Abramov on September 13, 2010 05:03 PM