A vocal component of the contemporary conservative movement in the United States seems intent on bringing religion front and center into the political process. Many of the recent aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination, includingMichele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, have all claimed to some degree that God wanted them to campaign for the nation’s highest elected office. Newt Gingrich, another presidential hopeful, has joined the chorus by accusing both President Obama and Mitt Romney of waging a ‘war on religion.’
The race for the Republican nomination signals the increasing inclusion of religion into political discourse and mirrors a recent Pew Research Center poll that shows the number of Republicans who believe religious institutions should refrain from involving themselves in government matters is declining. These are indications of a Republican party that is moving away from the ideal of a separation between church and state and towards a position where the line between religious belief and affairs of the state has become blurred.
Many proponents of this shift away from secular government claim the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and should steadfastly remain one. The reality is that the founding fathers, whether they professed themselves to be Christian or not, placed their trust in reason, not faith. Their aim when they created the Constitution was to protect religious freedom and erect a wall between church and state that would keep each safe from the other. Two key components of religious protection in the Constitution are Article 6, which bars religious tests as a condition of public office, and the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which stipulates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Keeping a barrier between religion and governance is not to be construed as opposition to religion. The choice to practice one’s chosen faith is a key tenet of democracy and these constitutional provisions were instituted with the aim of protecting religious freedoms from suppression by government or other groups.
It is also just as important to protect government from religion as it is to protect religion from government. The danger posed by the infusion of religion into politics is that the compromise and inclusiveness necessary to govern justly will disappear. Barry Goldwater, largely regarded as the father of the modern conservative movement in America, decried the Republican shift in the direction of the religious right for just this reason. Goldwater saw the rise of the religious right in the latter half of the 20th century as a divisive element and a dangerous move towards intolerance that would very well lead to the demise of the GOP. Recent attempts at placating the religious right, whether genuine or calculated, have indeed compromised the Republican platform by pandering to a demographic that will alienate many moderate conservatives who see more danger in the possibility of religious extremism than they do in another Obama term.
None of this is meant as an indictment of religion. The same freedoms that allow millions of Americans to practice their own chosen faith also allow those running for public office to express theirs. The central issue is that when a particular religious faith becomes the driving force behind public policy, both become threatened, and this is the course that has been gaining traction in the conservative movement.