The relationship between Church and State is one that is guarded and defined by skepticism. From Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter explaining the necessity of “building a wall of separation between Church and State” to the plethora of recent Supreme Court cases citing the First Amendment as a reason to prohibit everything from prayer in school to the public display of the Ten Commandments, Americans have been cautious of the integration of these two influential institutions. Yet, while we guard this often blurry threshold, Americans create precarious mixings of religion and politics. Which begs the questions, how strict can this separation be? Is it possible? And, in the end, do we want separation?
Take abortion or same-sex marriage, two social issues at the forefront of political debate. For many Americans, religious beliefs shape their opinions with regard to these issues; and, in-turn, during elections, voters align themselves with candidates who share their sentiments. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 37 percent of all registered voters cite religion as the most influential factor when talking about same-sex marriage while the figure is lower for abortion at 28 percent. When Congressional and local elections are sometimes decided by hundreds of votes, percentages this high can have a major impact. And the recent budget battle over funding for Planned Parenthood is a testament to the effect these beliefs can have.
Next, what about the March 20th burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor that sparked international protest killing seven United Nations workers and five Afghans? Those in defense of the pastor cite freedom of speech and expression under the First Amendment. But it is also the responsibility of the State to consider the interests and well-being of its people. One has to ask, do private religious and clergy decisions become matters of State when they put people’s lives at risk?
Yet, we shouldn’t neglect to acknowledge the social change for which the pulpit has been a platform: Christian leaders Samuel May and Elijah Lovejoy, and their outrage against the institution of slavery. Or Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Both of which are iconic figures and groups in the Civil Rights Movement.
In other words, it is a mistake to slate religion as strictly polarizing and something to be ushered away from the realm of politics — at least completely. Though not all shape their beliefs through a respective faith, for many religion does provide the foundation for morality. And while political decisions based entirely on religious convictions can be dangerous, so are decisions void of a moral compass.
In the end, can we separate religion from politics? It seems a complex but natural relationship in which there can be mutual benefit. But like most successful relationships it is hard work. There must be healthy debate, balance, and the ability to compromise. No one said it would be easy.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons