Political Religion in America

Political Religion in America

Religion has long been a favorite topic for Republican candidates for political office. The looming Iowa GOP presidential caucuses may be decided by the religiosity of the competitors, particularly former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and how they relate to the beliefs and values of the Evangelical Christians, estimated at some 50% of caucus participants.

But the three leading Democratic presidential pretenders, former Senator John Edwards, Senator’s Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have also opened up about their faiths, the role of prayer in their public and private lives and the ways that religion molds their views on policy and government. They walk a fine line, appealing to the religious voters, while not alienating secular voters.

Clinton talks about her faith tradition, Methodism, and has even said that her religion helped her to deal with her husband’s infidelity. Obama frequently quotes scripture, emphasizing that his political commitment rises from his faith. Edwards recalls growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, and when talking about his serious family health problems says, “It’s the Lord who got me through.”

Religion looms large in the campaign for the White House. All candidates are grilled about their religious beliefs, some are eager to talk about faith, others play down the issue. The voters clearly want to know about the faith of the candidates and the candidates are more willing to talk about it than in previous elections.

As recently as the 2004 election, the Democratic nominee John Kerry steered away from his religious beliefs, even when he was denied communion by some Roman Catholic Bishops for his choice position on abortion. Now he defends discussion of theology in American political life, says that candidates should discuss their religious backgrounds with the voters, reminds the public that he was a teenage altar boy, that his mother was converted to Catholicism, etc.

President George W. Bush has accented the religious trend by reporting on his talks with God and Jesus as well as establishing regular prayer meetings in the White House. In addition, Bush set up a White House Office of Faith – Based and Community Initiatives and arranged for federal funds to finance social and educational programs based and housed in religious institutions.

The New York Times has reported that the Evangelicals are active everywhere – nationally and locally – on foreign policy, war, abortion, education, evolution, creationism, etc. etc. “A religious subculture once on the fringe has moved into the American mainstream.”

Our political leaders need to be reminded that Article VI of the U.S. Constitution reads in part, “No religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or Public Trust under the United States.” The very first Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or promoting the free exercise thereof.” There is no reference to God or to any religion in the Constitution, yet Senator John McCain refers to the U.S. as a “Christian Country.”

Our nation has avoided the religious combat that has plagued so many countries for centuries while fostering cooperation among its diverse components by adhering to some very important traditions: the separation of church and state; the practice of toleration of religious groupings; and treating religion as a private affair. America is organized primarily for economic competition: we must avoid drifting into competition for the salvation of souls.

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