Tony Campolo, the American sociologist and pastor who prayed the benediction at the 2016 Democratic convention after Hillary Clinton's nomination for president, once said: "Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn't do much to the manure but it sure does ruin the ice cream."
Many of us would have a lot of sympathy for that view. We have seen far too many examples of the religious trying to enforce their faith and morality on others. At times such intolerance has caused great hurt to society, but more often it simply exposes the church to richly-deserved ridicule.
There have been times in history when, most of us would agree, it has been entirely beneficial for people's faith to motivate them to get involved in politics
As a Christian leader who wants to live in a modern secular democracy, I cringe when the church starts to look and sound like the Taliban.
Yet there have been times in history when, most of us would agree, it has been entirely beneficial for people’s faith to motivate them to get involved in politics.
One need only think of William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the North Atlantic slave trade, or Martin Luther King’s battle against racial segregation. These were not social activists who coincidentally happened to be religious as well.
Their religious faith was what motivated their activism – a rather uncomfortable truth that once prompted Christopher Hitchens, in God is Not Great, to engage in some highly entertaining mental gymnastics to implausibly conclude that Martin Luther King was not actually a Christian at all.
Wilberforce and King were perfectly comfortable quoting the Bible, and yet they articulated a concern for human rights that appealed to both the religious and non-religious alike.
Their use of the Bible tended to concentrate on the "Let my people go!" texts rather than the "Thou shalt not" texts to which the religious resort when they are fighting culture wars.
Which brings us to the current national conversation on abortion and a probable impending referendum on the Eighth Amendment.
In a recent debate, it was noticeable that the only references to religion were from those who want to see the amendment repealed, causing one anti-abortion advocate to point out, quite reasonably, that it was inconsistent for the only people who were talking about religion to accuse their opponents of being religious fundamentalists who wanted to impose a theocracy.
Does this mean religion has no place in the abortion debate? Is the eighth amendment, as its opponents like to claim, a relic of a Catholic moral monopoly that has no place in a young progressive Ireland?
Should those of us who have a religious faith accept the argument that we are not entitled to join others in debating a vital human rights issue?
I certainly have no wish to see the dogma of any religion or church (including my own) enforced on others. Most Christians I talk to, of all denominations, acknowledge that such an approach has, in the past, caused much damage and pain in Ireland.
But an honest acknowledgement of past wrongs should not stop people of faith from speaking out against injustice, or from defending the vulnerable.
Baroness Nuala O’Loan, former chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission’s human rights inquiry, has pointed out that there is no such thing under international law as “a human right to abortion”.
Meanwhile, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child all affirm the right to life as one of the most basic human rights.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, in its preamble, specifically states that such rights apply “before as well as after birth” – a factor that was recently ruled on by an Irish court as being relevant under Irish law.
It is entirely proper for religious believers, and others, to defend the Eighth Amendment as a constitutional safeguard
As a Christian, I believe that all human beings are made in the image of God and therefore possess dignity and are entitled to inherent rights. The fact that this belief in human rights stems from my faith should in no way inhibit me from engaging in liberating and enlightened political activism in the tradition of Wilberforce and King and in a way that appeals to both the religious and nonreligious.
It is entirely proper for religious believers, and others, to defend the Eighth Amendment as a constitutional safeguard for the most vulnerable which places Ireland ahead of most other nations in terms of progressive human-rights legislation.
Nick Park is executive director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland