05/28/2005 01:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Faith-Based President

May law or government policy be based on faith? Given our nation's secular tradition, we would rightly protest a law prohibiting any person to eat pork merely because pork consumption is forbidden by some interpretations of the Bible. Any law based solely on sectarian religious belief should be rejected out-of-hand in a democratic society.

The objection is not that this law abridges the free exercise of religion. To the best of my knowledge, not eating pork does not violate anyone's religion. Rather, it must be rejected because it serves no legitimate public purpose and simply imposes one group's religious faith on the nation as a whole. Whether or not such a law violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"), it certainly undermines a fundamental precept of American democracy -- one person's freedom should not be infringed merely to satisfy another's religious faith.

Sometimes, this is a difficult principle to apply because there may be both a secular and a faith-based reason for the law. Consider, for example, a law forbidding stores to be open on Sunday. On the one hand, this can readily be seen as the illegitimate enshrinement in law of one group's religious faith. On the other hand, there may be a legitimate public purpose in having all or most stores closed on the same day, and why not pick the day most people would rather not work? An even more obvious example is the law prohibiting murder. Unmistakably, this enshrines in law the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." But it is also a perfectly sensible law without regard to anyone's religious faith. A society that failed to prohibit murder would hardly be safe or stable. That the law has a religious as well as a secular purpose does not make it illegitimate.

The principle may also be difficult to apply when there is both a faith-based and a moral-based reason for the law. Murder, again, is a good example. But the line between morality and faith can sometimes be elusive. Eating pork is easy; adultery is less so. Often, people of faith confuse their faith with morality. Therein lies the problem.

George Bush appears to have no idea whatever of the difference between faith and morality. He acts arrogantly on the premise that stem-cell research, gay marriage and abortion are immoral, when in fact his views are based entirely on his own sectarian religious beliefs. His opposition to stem-cell research is no different, and no more legitimate, than a Muslim's opposition to Bush eating pork. Such a policy is merely faith masquerading as morality. As such, it is profoundly, blindly, and disturbingly incompatible with a basic premise of a well-functioning democratic society.

What Bush fails to comprehend is the fundamental distinction between acting in accord with one's faith and imposing one's faith on others. Bush has a right not to marry a man, not to have an abortion, and not to do stem-cell research. But he has no legitimate authority to prevent others from acting differently if they do not share his religious convictions.

Of course, there are real line-drawing problems here, and I don't mean to elide them. Morality and faith overlap. But a thoughtful person, respectful of religious diversity and individual freedom, would pay careful attention to the difference. Bush appears not even to know the difference exists. And in this, he is dangerous, indeed.