This convergence of faith and politics is exactly what the nation’s Founders sought to avoid. Many of these men were deeply religious, but they were only an ocean removed from the religious strife that had plagued Europe for centuries. With these experiences in mind, they created a Constitution that doesn't contain a single mention of God and prohibits religious tests for those seeking office.
Their vision is at serious risk today. History has shown with tragic consistency that an intimate relationship between religion and politics does irreparable damage to both -- from the crusades of medieval times to the terrorism of modern times. Constant use of the God strategy by political leaders encourages just such a relationship. When George W. Bush justifies the Iraq War by saying that liberty is “God’s gift to humanity” (2003 State of the Union) and that America’s “calling” is to deliver that gift to the Iraqi people (countless times), he is offering something quite like a divine vision for U.S. foreign policy.
It is precisely this conflation of abstract claims about God with the concrete goals of the state that led esteemed religion scholar R. Scott Appleby to call the administration’s rhetoric about spreading freedom and liberty “a theological version of Manifest Destiny.” At a minimum, this approach risks repeating the errors of the original manifest destiny: unduly emphasizing the norms and values of white, conservative Protestants at the expense of those who will not or cannot conform.
Just as important, pairing religious doctrine with public policy encourages moderate citizens to conclude that the U.S. government’s actions are the will of God -- or at least congruent with such wishes -- and therefore beyond question. Dogmatic political voices and hints of divinely inspired policy are not the ingredients of a robust republic; they’re the recipe for hubris, jingoism, and the decline of democracy. These are disquieting possibilities, but the words of our political leaders in recent decades have moved America toward them. Both the Gospel of John and the record of evils past teach one thing: in the beginning, always, are words.
To concretely grasp what is at stake, we might recall John Kennedy's address before conservative Protestant clergy in September 1960. Unlike current candidates, the Catholic Kennedy declared: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair," and that he would make decisions "without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates." Such a presidency was essential, he said, because "Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart."
At this rate we'll soon be there. Tragically, we may already be.
December 19, 2007
Faith and Politics
Street Prophets has a very interesting post on historical trends in religious/political speak. They tracked the usage of religious speech from our Presidents from FDR forward and discovered that talking about God in speeches has soared since Ronald Reagan. What is more interesting, to me at least, is the type of invocation. Presidents prior to Reagan were far more likely to speak about God in a "please help us" type of way--what they term speaking as "petitioner." But recent Presidents are more likely to speak as "prophet; that is, the wording suggests that one has knowledge of divine wishes and desires."