We've been talking alot about religion and politics lately. The aftermath of the 2004 election seems to be dominated by this question. Most of it is strictly about the Christian conservative movement without much discussion of religion in politics more broadly. Most of the regular posters on this blog are also regular church goers but have political opinions far to the left of the typical evangelical conservative voter/activist. I for one am an atheist - one of the few subsets of American society it is still acceptable to exclude and persecute.
In this posting I propose two subjects for discussion. First, what is the role that religion plays in American politics and life? Second, what is the role that religion should play in American politics and life? The first is an empirical question that has an answer out there waiting to be discovered. The second is a normative question to which answers are essentially opinion.
Here are some basic statistics I found at pollingreport.com (see link to the right):
-42% of all Republicans think that people with strong religious beliefs are discriminated against. 62% of Republicans think that evangelical Christians have the “right amount” of influence on President Bush’s decisions.
-53% of Republicans believe that the greatest concern should be public officials who don’t pay enough attention to religion and religious leaders. In contrast, 65% of Democrats believe that the greatest concern should be public officials who pay too much attention to religion and religious leaders.
- 72% of respondents believe that it is proper for the 10 Commandments to be displayed in public buildings.
- With regard to the religiosity of political candidates, 70% agree that it is important that Presidents have strong religious beliefs. 25% disagree.
- Republicans are split almost 50-50 on the question of whether religious leaders should try to influence politicians. 71% of Democrats believe that religious leaders should not try to influence politicians.
- 15% of Americans say that religion is “not very important” to their own life. 55% say religion is “very important.” 29% say it is “fairly important.”
- 43% of Americans say that they attend religious services “seldom” or “never.”
- 64% of Americans support the use of federal funds for social programs run by Christian religious organizations. 56% of Americans oppose the use of federal funds for social programs run by Islamic religious organizations.
- 40% of Americans believe that government can promote the teaching of religion without harming rights. 54% believe that when government promotes the teaching of religion it always harms rights.
I believe that the above data shows some interesting items. It comes as no surprise that Americans are very religious. Comparisons with other democracies will show that Americans are more religious than any other democracy except for Italy or Ireland. The Italian government is a rightist coalition that includes openly fascist elements.
American views on religion are complex and at times contradictory. 54% believe that governments always harm rights when they promote religion. However, majorities of Americans support federal funding for Christian organizations and oppose similar funding Islamic organizations. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s the same people making up all three majorities but the overlap means that many Americans have inherently contradictory views of politics and religion. For example, advocates of an entirely secular policy would oppose federal funding to both Christian and Islamic organizations. Also, religious faith is not universal in America. 43% of Americans say that they attend religious services seldom or never.
So what should the role of religion be? My own view is that there is already too much devotion to devotions in American politics. I long for the strict seperation of religion and politics advocated by Jefferson and Madison. Personal spirituality and public policy should be separate debates. When political parties get into the business of taking sides in theological debates (such as what policies are most closely based on Christian teachings), both public policy and private religion suffer. Of course, such a separation is very unlikely in the United States. Ironically, several of the European democracies which have officially recognized state religions have less religion in their politics than does the United States in which the Constitutions calls for their separation.