Why you should care
Should church and state be separated or married at the hip?
OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail With OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving anything PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show. Our question this week delves into religion: Should the United States be a Christian nation? We want to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week.
This week, Amy E. Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, weighs in on the broader role of religion in politics. Here are her thoughts:
In the back-and-forth between independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought — in a nomination hearing earlier this month to determine if Vought would be the next deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget — Sanders criticized Vought for stating his religious belief that non-Christians are condemned. The phrase that bothered Sanders so much came from the New Testament and aligns with the historic teachings of the Christian faith.
Deeply held religious faith is transforming in that it provides a foundation for morality.
Sanders is free to reject the idea of eternal punishment, but he should be civil toward the millions of Christians, Muslims and others who hold a different view. He should also respect the U.S. Constitution’s ban on religious tests for office. When he concluded that “this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders contradicted the robust tradition of religious freedom that serves as a foundation to American democracy.
The free exercise of religion is exactly what this country is supposed to be about.
The Foundation of Religious Freedom
Religious liberty is one of the crowning achievements of America’s Founding Fathers. Keenly aware of the dangers of excessive entanglement between religion and government, they also were acutely aware of the many contributions from people motivated by religious beliefs.
So they wrote a religiously neutral constitution with no direct mention of God and crafted the Bill of Rights to clarify the centrality of freedom of religion. The First Amendment seeks to both distance institutions of religion from direct interactions with the state while protecting individuals’ freedom to worship as they see fit. Our governing institutions, in other words, are secular, but those who govern and are governed have the right to practice their religion.
Religion’s rightful role in politics
Freedom of religious practice and worship is one of the American system’s greatest strengths, so people of faith should be welcome in the public sphere. Deeply held religious faith is transforming in that it provides a foundation for morality, offers answers to existential questions about the meaning of life and shapes views on how to interact with one another and with the divine.
Perhaps most significantly for politics, religious faith reorients believers toward the transcendent. Religious life is not focused on the daily grind and getting the most that you can while you can. It can provide ultimate meaning and purpose, pointing to future possibilities and eternal hopes. It also requires sacrifice and obedience, directing the faithful to look beyond themselves and toward the good of others.
Sure, there are hypocrites — those who misrepresent religious teachings to serve their own ends. But for the sincere, religion is a primary force driving them to seek social change and boost the welfare of others. Devoted Christian faith motivated Martin Luther King Jr., alongside many other Christian clergy, to help lead the civil rights movement with calls for justice, equality and peace. Motivated by his Hindu beliefs, Mahatma Gandhi led the way for Indian independence from Great Britain.
A central goal of government is to care for the common good, so those working in government — elected and appointed — need to think beyond self-interest. For many politicians, religious faith is a primary motivator for their public service.
The benefits of religious diversity
The beauty of religious freedom is that people with a wide variety of beliefs can work side by side to build stronger, more vibrant communities. The presence of these differing perspectives in the political arena strengthens deliberations by ensuring an array of voices can speak to major policy debates.
Consider the 115th Congress, which includes Muslims, Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Protestants, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and more. For some, the tenets of their faith are central to their identity and dedication to the greater good; for others, religion is primarily a cultural identity. Whether they’re traditionally religious or more modernist, Congress is stronger because of the diversity of its members. Free exercise of a religion, in short, strengthens democracy.
But don’t just take my word for it; weigh in with your own thoughts below and take our poll. Should religion play a role in politics?
Amy E. Black is a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois.