Sunday, February 8, 2009

Religion and Politics

There is an unspoken rule in America that there are two subjects that should be avoided in conversations among friends: religion and politics. But why is this so? Everyone seems to have an opinion on both subjects, and it seems reasonable to say that we could all benefit from a healthy dose of civil discourse. Unfortunately, civil discourse is not easy to come by, and tempers usually flare when interlocutors discover that there are irreconcilable differences in their respective worldviews. Even more volatile conversations take place when both religion and politics are mentioned in the same breath.Needless to say, in a pluralistic society, there are many different opinions on the role of religion in politics. For purposes of discussion however, we will focus mainly on two polar extremes. On one end of the argument, there are those who say America was founded on the Christian religion, and that the very identity of our nation rests on this fact. To them, religion and politics are are inseparable.
Others say that the founding fathers were wary not only of the effect religion would have on politics, but also of the effect that politics would have on religion. To them, separation of church and state is an integral part of our form of government, and is vitally necessary in a country with a people of all different cultures and creeds.Those that subscribe to the "Christian nation argument" see Christianity as the driving force of our collective morality, and a necessary aspect of American cultural literacy. They point to quotes fro m the founding fathers which seem to imply that they agreed with the concept of a Christian nation. For example, George Washington said that "It is impossible to govern... without God and the Bible". Recently, this argument has come to prominence due to the advocacy of such high-profile figures as Jerry Falwell . Proponents of this view also worry that the Christian religion has essentially come under attack by secularists on the other side of the aisle. They point to incidents where organizations like the ACLU have lobbied to remove the words "under god" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Under this view, religion is being endangered by secular politicians, and religion and politics are need of closer coordination.
On the other side of the aisle, there are those who emphasize the importance of the separation of church and state. To them, not only does religion have a damaging effect on politics, but politics also poisons religion. Organizations like the Secular Coalition for America lobby for an increase in the separation of church and state. They point to cases where they feel that the Christian religion has been imposed on people of other creeds and non-believers alike. The Boy Scouts of America, for example, is an organization that has come under fire by those who believe it should not receive public funding due to its official adherence to Christianity. Some even go so far as to argue that we should remove all allusions to the Christian religion from our public currency, pledges, and public property. They cite the establishment clause of the Constitution to support their assertion that America is not, in fact, a Christian nation, and that religion and politics should have a clear wall of separation.
There are those who take a more pragmatic stance on the issue. President-elect Barack Obama, for example, has argued that while religion is a necessary and unavoidable factor in the political decision making process, we should respect the views of those with all different belief systems. Public issues should be framed and argued based not on dogma and scripture, even if these might be influential factors to the individual making the argument, but they should be cast in secular terms in the public discourse. Many also take a practical stance on issues like "under god" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "in god we trust" on our currency, holding that these phrases are part of our national history, and shouldn't be removed on the basis of a secular ideology. In this view, religion and politics cannot possibly be separated entirely, but government must be cautious not to impose any particular religion.
No matter what your personal view on what the coordination of religion and politics should be, it is evident that this is a debate with enormous implications. If America is, in fact, a Christian nation, what follows from this realization? Conversely, if separation of church and state should be absolute, how do we reconcile this with the views of the religious right, and what do we do about the references to Christianity on public property and in the American tradition? This is a debate that will undoubtedly be contested for years to come, and one on which it is worth developing an informed opinion.