The Necessary Mix of Religion and Politics

Election seasons are prime for considering the relationship between religion and politics -- Kennedy's Catholicism, born-again Carter, Bush and the evangelical vote, Obama's pastor problem, and so on. But few campaigns in recent memory bring about as much hand wringing over religion as the current contest for the Republican nomination.

From Michelle Bachmann's reading list of obscure, purportedly "dominionist" authors, to Rick Perry's preemptive prayer service before announcing his candidacy, to Mitt Romney's Mormonism, the current slate of candidates gives rise to a plethora of fascinating religious considerations. Some, like Bachmann and Perry, use their religious affiliation -- evangelical Christian in both cases -- to their political advantage, rallying likeminded supporters with evangelistic fervor. While others, like Romney, downplay their affiliation in an effort to avoid alienating voters.

In the past, no matter what one's religious affiliation, there was a supposed general agreement among voters, politicians, and members of the press that all parties should remove their religious views from consideration in the political arena. That is, the so-called "separation of church and state" should apply equally to government officials as to the government itself.

This stance is rooted in Reformation and Enlightenment thinking and, as far as it applies to government, has served Western democracies well. The problem is, while it is possible to separate church and state in a ruling body, it is both impossible and undesirable to do so in a human body. Maintaining a pluralistic society and a secular state does not require citizens to divide themselves into believers on certain days and irreligious citizens on others.

Yet, we are told, this is precisely what politicians must do in order to keep from appearing to violate the separation of church and state. Take, for example, the proposal, issued a couple of months ago, by The Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan of a kind of "libertarian Christianity." This, he suggests, is the opposite of what he has long referred to as "Christianism," which is marked by "the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals."

Consider, also, the New York Times op-ed from August by David Campbell and Robert Putnam in which they suggest that what marks the Tea Party is not their insistence on smaller government, but their desire to "mix religion and politics." They write, "this infusion of religion into politics" is precisely what "most Americans increasingly oppose."

But is it the mixing of religion and politics in general that Americans oppose, or could it be what R. R. Reno, editor-in-chief of First Things, identifies as "mingling certain kinds of religion with certain kinds of politics?"

Surely this is what most Americans mean when they say they don't want their politicians' religious beliefs to affect their political convictions. Politicians shouldn't be expected to fragment themselves, to somehow isolate their religious convictions from their political views. What should be expected, however, is for politicians to answer for their beliefs, as Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times suggested albeit somewhat harshly. Offering a more generous explanation of Keller's suggestion, Times columnist Ross Douthat followed up, "The separation of church and state in the United States has never separated religion from politics, and the 'private' beliefs of politicians have often had very public consequences."

Douthat's view marks a reeducation of the American public on what separation of church and state means when it comes to the religious identities of politicians. And, it would seem that this changing view is taking hold even among politicians themselves. In the recent Republican debate in Las Vegas, the moderator, CNN's Anderson Cooper, asked the candidates directly whether it is "acceptable to let the issue of a candidate's faith shape the debate." The question was prompted by yet another criticism of Romney's Mormonism, this time by a pastor affiliated with Rick Perry.

The candidates unanimously agreed that questions regarding the role of religion in the formation of one's values and the influence on decision-making are fair game. Newt Gingrich, who has had a somewhat rocky relationship with the religious right, said, "There's a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments..."

But, Mitt Romney added, one's religious affiliation shouldn't be the deciding factor in one's candidacy. He concluded, "The founders of our country went to great lengths, and even put it in our Constitution, that we would not choose people for public office based on their religion."

Indeed, we can consider a politician's religious views without elevating them to the level of deciding factor, but acknowledging the link and using it beneficially is key. So suggested University of Notre Dame professor R. Scott Appleby in a recent panel discussion considering the spiritual impact of 9/11 at the Templeton-Cambridge seminars on Science and Religion. When reached for further comment, Appleby wrote, "There is a growing awareness not only that religion is not going away, but that many of the world's greatest challenges will not be addressed effectively without partnerships between governments and religious communities." We must stop pretending that politicians can or should be willing to divide themselves into religious people on some days, and political people on others.

Professor Appleby is right; most Americans value religion, and thus it is not a pretense of separation we want from our politicians, but honest dialogue about how their religious beliefs can and should influence their political convictions.