Monday, November 24, 2008

Marrying Church and State? The Unseemly Focus on Religion in Politics

During the primaries, Obama's church received more passionate attention than his policy proposals. The conflict over Reverend Wright caused commentators to debate race, religion, and transparency in politics. Most of them, however, failed to ask a simple question: Why is this even relevant? Now that the media are focusing on Obama's yet unchosen church in Washington, DC, this issue will likely remain on the political radar.

From my perspective, religion has no part in governance, and an abundance of constitutional doctrine and tradition limits the interaction of religion and state action. Given this separation of church and state, the sensationalized coverage of the religious lives of political candidates strikes me as a puzzling display in distraction. Nonetheless, candidates now engage in a bizarre ritual in which they routinely profess a belief in God or Jesus. Confessing such a belief is now mandatory, just like saying that one wants to "improve schools" and "reduce crime."

During the recent political campaign, liberals spent a lot of time debunking rumors that Obama is a Muslim, rather than asking the relevance of such rumors on his suitability for public office. I am far more interested in how candidates will design policy. And religion is a pretty weak proxy for policy views. Reverend Wright and Pat Robertson are both "Christians," but they have very different opinions on public policy. Perhaps the media should end the circus by delving into policy -- rather than trying to figure out whether Sarah Palin practices witchcraft or whether Obama's minister wanted 9/11 to happen. But then again policy debates do not generate as much "traffic" as religious or sexual scandals, so I do not expect much to change in this area.


Sharon in DC said...

Though I agree with your premise that the separation of church and state means just that, the perspective that religion should not impact policy may be idealistic. Even the founders, who penned that bright line to ensure that the state could not impact one's choice of religion, clearly had no compunction about religion influencing government. This is evidenced in everything from our currency (In God We Trust) to our Pledge of Allegiance (one nation, under God); our Declaration of Independence uses slightly less declarative phrasing, referring to “Nature’s God” and our “Creator.” Though many people practice religion without actually internalizing its messages and doctrines, others swallow whole the tenets of their faith. For such a person, is it even possible that those messages and doctrines will not inform his or her policy decisions? If it is not possible to separate one from the other, is it not fair to consider a politician's religious viewpoints in addition to his or her stated political positions and policy decisions? I agree that for those politicians who go to church because American voters seem to like their politicians to believe in a higher power, the particular religion is irrelevant. But for a politician who believes that invading a sovereign country is a mission from God, I'd like to know a little more about what that God teaches.

FLRN said...

Now Professor - you well know that almost all organized governments are based on a foundation of religious influences, dating back to the origin of man. There is no getting away from it, if indeed political leaders would even consider denying or distancing themselves from a chosen path of religious practice. The media's love affair with religion will last just until they decide how much money Michelle has spent on her next dress.
I understand your perspective and applaud your assertion that governance has no part in religion, but let us am realistic here. Religion, your right to practice, believe in, or call on a higher power should not be wiped away at the threshold of the presidential office. President Elect Obama will indeed need this support and outlet to face the road ahead - and any effort to deny this would fall short of sincere. You are correct to hold this President to a higher standard, as a true democratic leader will lead, despite his faith through consensus rather than religious zeal. Your fear should not be that he practices a faith, but rather that he may very well craft policy guided by his faith. Given the habits of the media they won't question where he goes to church, rather they will look to see what the he and his family will wear while sitting in the pew!

Anonymous said...


Hey folks don't you think arguing about "obama policies" is a bit presumptuous?

HE'S NOT EVEN PROVED THAT HE'S A NATURAL BORN U.S. CITIZEN! And the truth is HE CAN'T because he was BORN IN KENYA and he doesn't have a certificate of LIVE BIRTH for the State of Hawaii, only a "certification" for FILE purposes only and of which would not even allow a person to get a drivers license.

Here’s Chief Justice Clarence Thomas’ fax# 202-479-2971 write him TODAY - if you don't know what to say, use the letter below as a sample.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Sharon: Idealistic? I? I have never been so insulted.....LOL. Anyway, even though the framers tossed "God"-ly expressions around, many of them were very cynical about religion. They also feared it, which is why the First Amendment has clauses allowing for the "free exercise" of religion but also preventing the state from "establishing" religion. Jefferson is the one who came up with the "wall of separation between church and state." He also had some very cynical views about WWJD.

But I admit having thought about your concerns when I wrote the blog, but I did not discuss them. Thanks for bringing them out. I wonder whether someone as deeply into religion as your hypothetical describes (God can tell me to invade a country) would wear his/her politics on the sleeve sufficiently enough for us to make a decision about the person without asking them about their church?

Or, if the politician makes religion an issue to that extent you describe, then perhaps it is on the table for relevant scrutiny. There is a doctrine in law which finds that an issue that is otherwise inadmissable can become "at issue" in a trial -- either because of the facts of the case or because one of the parties had brought it up. Example: Character evidence is not admissible to prove you committed a crime. But if the defendant brings out a bunch of people to say "how good" he/she is, then the prosecutor can go after the individual's character too. Maybe this should be the approach on religion in politics.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN: I do not think that Obama should cede his right to practice religion. I just think we should not be holding our breath while he searches for a new church. And then once he picks a church, get tons of punditry about the history of the church, its racial composition, the class background of parishiners, etc. You know it's all coming! Puke.

FLRN said...

I agree, and I am qualified to hold the emesis basin.

Sharon in DC said...

Dare I call you idealistic a second time, Professor? Alas, if only I had been posing a hypothetical situation. I would direct you to and to (cue to 6:07). You will find that both our current president and the recent GOP vice presidential nominee believed the invasion of Iraq to be a mission from God. That said, if in your vigilance in following both policy and politics you did not find these moments to be overly covered, nor that this amounted to wearing their religion on their sleeves, then perhaps I should take a cue from you and conclude that all hope is not lost! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Sharon: That Bush was a war man and a conservative on social issues did not surprise me. I lived in Texas at the time and, at the risk of discriminating, I always said that Texas Republicans are among the most fervent. I strongly urged my moderate friends to ignore the "compassionate conservative" rhetoric. Unfortunately, many people fell for it.

Also, don't you think when politicians link certain things to God that they are simply pandering? Or if not, this is just one factor among others for the action? Bush went into Iraq for geopolitical reasons. This was a Cheney, Woffowitz, Rice, et al agenda back from the Nixon/Ford era. Bush and company believe in an imperialistic world order with the US ignoring allies if necessary (or even if not).

Saying God backed the war was just heaving some "feel-good" rhetoric to parts of the population who love their religion in the traditional format (i.e., full of warfare) and who already believed that God elected Bush. I know it's hard to imagine Shrub as coldly calculating, but I think he can "play" people as well (or at least Rove and Cheney give him a narrative). Thanks for the commentary!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

PS: Sharon, I think what bothered me so much about religion and politics and what provoked me to write this column is the imagery of the media waiting to see where Obama goes to church and then having a feeding frenzy about the church, its history, etc., and even having "spies" go to worship services. That just seems unseemly too me.

Also, the religion thing causes politicians to behave in very ceremonial ways that end up being very awkward. Obama said that his religious views lead him not to support same-sex marriage, but he also tried to appear liberal on some gay rights issues. Basically, he argued -- I endorse laws that discriminate against you, but I am pro-gay. And having the spirituality "debate" was a bit too much as well. It was a song and dance....

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