A case in point is the current dust-up over same-sex marriages. The problem is that the concept of "marriage" has a mixed heritage. As it emerged in early agrarian societies, it was a matter of contract between families or tribes, as a means of acquiring and keeping valuable land and passing it on to heirs in common. The religious element came only later, when the Church began treating the exchange of vows as a holy sacrament.
One pragmatic solution to the current disagreements would be to return to the original contractual basis for the relationship -- the way it is still done in some western societies. A contract is drawn up between the marrying parties; it is signed and attested to in front of a state-designated official, and the record is entered on society's official books, where it serves as a legal basis for determining questions of parentage and inheritance. And that is all that society, as such, needs to concern itself with. Religious norms or mores would have nothing to do with such civilly-sponsored unions.
Through their legislators, the people could decide what parameters applied to civil unions. They could decide, as they already effectively have in California, that such unions are open to any two persons (but not next of kin), regardless of gender; they could -- since it is all a matter of freedom to contract -- even decide to allow civil unions between three or more persons. The only constraints would be what a majority would back.
Then "marriage", per se, would become a term defined not by the State, but by the churches. Again, each denomination would be free to observe its own traditions and beliefs in performing marriages. However, there would be no State records of any such marriages, and the church's ministers would not be acting as deputies of the State in attesting to their performance. The only records would be those kept by the couples and by the churches themselves.
Thus people joined by the State could have done with the matter then and there, or they could, if they wished, become in addition "married" in a church ceremony -- in any church that will accept them under its criteria. Conversely, people could choose to marry only in a church ceremony, as long as they realized that the State would be under no obligation to regard them as each other's spouse, with all the legal rights and obligations that relationship entails. (Such a church-only marriage might be just the ticket for two elderly persons who did not want to mess up their finances and taxes, but who were also religious enough to want to solemnize their relationship before God and mortal witnesses.)
The details can be worked out -- the main principle is to keep religion and politics completely separate.
I see the same approach as offering a solution to the problem of the mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero. It is the fact that it is a mosque that injects the inflammatory element of religion into what would otherwise be a purely political decision of zoning, traffic patterns, architecture, and other secular considerations. And because of the horror of 9/11, the inflammatory element cuts both ways. As one Arabic commentator had the wisdom to observe (H/T Pat Dague, at Transfigurations):
I cannot imagine that Muslims want a mosque on this particular site, because it will be turned into an arena for promoters of hatred, and a symbol of those who committed the crime. At the same time, there are no practicing Muslims in the district who need a place of worship, because it is indeed a commercial district....The last thing Muslims want today is to build just a religious center out of defiance to the others, or a symbolic mosque that people visit as a museum next to a cemetery....[T]he battle against the 11 September terrorists is a Muslim battle...and this battle still is ablaze in more than 20 Muslim countries. Some Muslims will consider that building a mosque on this site immortalizes and commemorates what was done by the terrorists who committed their crime in the name of Islam. I do not think that the majority of Muslims want to build a symbol or a worship place that tomorrow might become a place about which the terrorists and their Muslim followers boast, and which will become a shrine for Islam haters whose aim is to turn the public opinion against Islam.If we are going to keep religion from inflaming politics, then the decision of where to build a mosque -- or a church, or a synagogue -- has to be removed from the secular authorities, who are constitutionally prevented from letting religious considerations influence their decisions. And if religions are going to get along with each other, then they will have to demonstrate some practical cooperation in submitting their proposals of where they want to build to representatives of the other faiths who are already in a given neighborhood. In order to get a building permit from the civil authorities, any religious group, in addition to satisfying all other civil requirements, would have to produce a certificate of consent attested to by a representative council of other religious bodies in the immediate area. Such councils could be established by agreement among the churches themselves (within minimum limits, in order to prevent collusion between just a few to keep the "competition" out), or in default of such agreement, by local, neutral legislation. Representation on the councils would require that a church/assembly/congregation have a minimum size appropriate to the area in question.
And who knows? Over time, the councils might become competent to deal with more than just the issuance of new permits for for the construction (or conversion) of religious buildings. They might join resources, say, for a charitable project in their area, and do any of the other kinds of selfless things which religions are supposed to exemplify.
It is fairly certain that most of the strong opposition to the locating of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero stems from concerns that are moral and religious at bottom -- and that cut both ways, exactly as identified by the Arab commentator quoted above. Any such mosque would become a symbol of religious division in spite of itself, incapable of being viewed neutrally, because of where it is located, and because of the event that is irrevocably associated with that location. Religious leaders in the area will have no difficulty in perceiving this -- and the proponents of the mosque themselves might never have even gone this far with their ideas if they knew that they had to convince their own and other faiths first of their reasons.
But allowing politics to decide the issue has been a complete and utter disaster. Ambrose Bierce famously defined politics as "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles: the conduct of public affairs for private advantage." We have seen the pandering of politicians at its absolute worst; we have seen the cowardly left kowtow to Muslim sentiments while refusing to condemn the atrocities being committed each day in the name of that "religion of peace". The result is an America which presents itself to the Arab world as weak and divided against itself, i.e., as they would understand it, under Allah's judgment, and without any principles of its own it deems are worth defending. This is, again, the consequence of mixing religion with politics. (Of course, most Arab states do so as a matter of course -- do we really want to make their polities our model of good governance?)
For an example of how taking politics out of religion would improve the latter, the prima facie specimen is the Episcopal Church (USA) over the last forty years: it has been riven by politics. The same fate is overtaking the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion as well -- just check out the many posts on the pages linked.
Take the politics out of religion, and the religion out of politics. Then both will be better able to function as they should. And both might then move on to their proper tasks in trying to make this a better world. But until they are firmly separated, their combination will continue to unravel the very fabric of our society.