Politics & Media
Oct 16, 2008, 06:19AM

Leave Religion out of Politics

Rather than a personal choice or set of beliefs, religion has become entangled in our political culture at every level. Time to separate church and state once and for all.

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Photo by takomabibelot

Last Thursday, my Splice colleague Chloe Angyal wrote a great article about Bill Maher’s film Religulous. Watching Maher smugly and self-righteously ridicule people’s faith-based beliefs and values, Angyal says she came to understand the pervasive anti-intellectualism that had previously baffled her. I too have expressed worry about our nation’s growing disdain for intellectuals and though I take slight umbrage with the idea of Maher representing intellectualism, I found Angyal’s piece to be a smart, evenhanded assessment of how Americans love to sneer at anyone whose beliefs differ from their own. What the article really got me thinking about though, is religion in this nation: how it is too closely tied to politics, how we consider it a measure of an individual’s character and trustworthiness and how, despite all our talk about being the world’s melting pot, “American values” seems increasingly synonymous with Christian ideology.

I am not a religious person and never have been. I spent a week one summer in elementary school attending Vacation Bible Camp with a friend and I remember having to recreate Noah’s ark with construction paper one day in Crafts. My finished project was just a mangled mess of brown paper with glued-on circles posing as animals. It didn’t remotely resemble a vessel of any kind, but when I passed it over to our teacher, she happily told me it was beautiful and how I had made God proud. I didn’t believe her then and I don’t believe it now. It’s not that I’ve never believed in God per se, but more that I’ve always assumed that if there is some higher power, it has bigger problems than worrying about the stuff I’m doing.

I recognize the importance of spirituality and faith, though. It can be comforting during times of fear or hardship. It gives meaning to life, a sense of purpose or guiding principles for day-to-day happiness and well-being. My husband is Jewish and though he doesn’t really subscribe to religious doctrine, that heritage is an important part of his identity. He likes the culture and traditions. Through Judaism, he’s linked to a rich and important history. He’s part of a global, Jewish community—one that experiences interconnectedness built on the foundation of religion. This is what religions do. They connect people: to each other, to god, to a set of ideals. And that’s good, desirable even. There’s nothing wrong with believing in something that you can’t prove, something in which you must simply have faith.

The issue I have with religion is that too often, people are not content to simply believe what they wish and go on about their lives. Too often people try to force their beliefs onto others and assert their own virtue. Indeed it is self-righteous to ridicule someone for believing that God created the earth. But it is equally if not more self-righteous to tell me that I’m going to Hell for not believing what you believe. It is that sort of sentiment that has gotten us to a point where we wonder how anyone can still think Barack Obama is a Muslim instead of asking the more appropriate question of why the hell should anybody care? Somewhere along the line, Muslim became this horrible dirty word, synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist. If Sen. Obama was a Muslim, or anything other than a Christian for that matter, would that really be so bad? Are there not compassionate, wonderful people of Islamic faith? Are not all religious faiths subject to extremists and outliers? People keep asking how anyone can still believe he is a Muslim, but my question is, why is his religion even part of the conversation?

Our nation prides itself on exercising a separation of church and state. It is one thing that sets us apart from many other countries—we have no national religion. Our laws and policies are thought to derive from rational limitations and open, pragmatic debate, not based on a dominant religion’s ideologies. Yet no election, no political speech, debate or address to the nation can avoid inserting religious language into the political discourse. How many times have we heard the words “God bless” uttered by a political leader? God bless America. God bless the voters. The American workers. The troops. Even God bless you sir, said directly to someone posing a question. This language can’t help but create otherness. God bless such-and-such inevitably means “God bless those who believe that there is but one god who can indeed bestow its blessings upon us.” If you believe differently, then the language expressed by our nation’s representatives fails to properly reflect or include your beliefs.

I’d like to see this kind of language removed from the political sphere entirely. I’d like for it to not matter at all what religious group a candidate is or is not a member of—he/she shouldn’t be basing policy decisions on religious beliefs anyway. And I would love it if policy discussions could be devoid of religious ideologies entirely. If you are pro-life and truly believe abortion is murder and want to wave a giant poster of an aborted third-term fetus that you’re trying to pass off as a first-trimester image, fine. There are valid points to be made and different people believe different things. When you add a Bible passage to that poster, though, your point becomes moot. Personal beliefs about things like abortion, gay marriage or comprehensive sex education can and often should be based on religious doctrine, but the Bible cannot be used as support for creating or overturning laws. Further to this point, the debate over teaching Creationism alongside evolution in science classes is not a debate we should even be having. If it is so important to inform students of this alternative to the scientific explanation of human existence, then we should be pressing for the inclusion of a religion class in schools. Positing Creationism as the antithesis of evolution in our public schools presupposes that this is the only valid alternative to scientific theory. It leaves no room for and gives no credence to the many other religious beliefs we claim to be so accepting of.

I am not some anti-religion zealot. There are ways for people to live their lives based on religious principles without imposing upon others. And just as there are many deeply religious people who separate their political beliefs from their religious ones, there are many non-religious people, like Maher, who self-righteously think their lack of faith is most desirable. It’s just that politics and religion are so entangled in our nation that they’ve both come to resemble that Crafts project I did all those years ago—they’re practically unrecognizable as the vessels they were intended to be. We need to remove religion from the sphere of politics. We need to get back to the time when the word Muslim was just mistakenly interchanged with Islam, instead of a scathing indictment of person’s character.

  • It would be nice to think that someday religion will dissipate from politics, but I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon. The religious public makes up a huge chunk of voters and using the encompassing word "God" appeals to several different sects. Faith is easy to imitate and whether a candidate is religious or not, ignoring a tool that could swing thousands of voters in his favor would be improbable.

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  • A fine article on a topic that's bugged me for years. Although I suspect Claire Taylor and I are voting for different candidates, I couldn't care less if Obama is a Christian (which he is), Muslim or Buddhist. It has nothing to do with the way he'd govern. I find the perfunctory "God bless America" that candidates feel compelled to end debates or rallies with to be condescending. Sure, some presidents have deep religious beliefs (and some don't), but I just don't want to hear about them.

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  • I will never cease to be amazed at how much greed and self-righteousness can emanate from a country that takes pride in being so devoted to religion. What ever happened to plain old morals and ethics?

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  • I'm not a Bible-thumper, but am devout in my own way, and it's offensive to see politicians wrap themselves in religion as a mere way to pander to voters. The president could be an atheist for all I care, as long he or she gets the job done.

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  • Great article. It is something that I have thought a lot about. I especially like the part where you talk about personal beliefs being based on things like religious beliefs but those should not be used to base/change laws. It's like people forget that when you are discussing those issues, there is a disconnect from one person to the next, because one person follows the Bible and the other doesn't.

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  • Intrinsically, the reason religion is so important to most voters is because our society tends to hold the following to be true: Religion = Morality. What a crock! From pedophilic priests to philandering televangelists, we’ve been bombarded with the fact that those who espouse to be religious are often some of the most immoral characters in our society. But never forget the power of alliteration. Jerry Falwell proved himself to be a master marketer when he launched the political activist organization he so brilliantly named the “Moral Majority.” At that point, he OWNED morality and anyone not in agreement with him was immoral at best. “A rose by any other name” would never have been as powerful! The true problem is laziness of the American voter. It’s much easier for them to make a choice based on the religious affiliation of a candidate, rather than their voting record. Personally, I would be very afraid of a candidate whose belief system is so entrenched with the preaching from their pulpit that they were immalleable to the will American people. One more thing: I’d also add the terms “liberal” and “feminist” and to the dirty word list. I’ve seen pure, abhorrent shock come across the faces of more than one intelligent, respected person I’ve known over the years, when I used those words to describe my personal ideology.

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  • Religion in this country is not just in politics. Look at the U.S. currency; pledge of allegiance, or the courts. Separation of church and state never existed in this country. Like so many politicians, saying it is so does not make it so. I wish there were more articles like this too stir up conversation

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  • The Landlord makes good points, especially about the currency and pledge. I especially hate it when, in time of trouble, politicians cloak themselves in religion. On a side note, wish there were more "separation of church and state" or no breaking "the Chinese wall" in the media today. Not only is it hard to tell in some newspapers whether front page stories are ghost-written by the editorial page staff, but "style" supplements often reek of stories screaming "This one's for you, advertiser!"

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  • Those are all good points, The Landlord. I guess I just get really annoyed when people try and govern via their own religious beliefs or whatever. Like when McCain talked about abortion last week during the debate. UGH

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  • All I can say is "Amen!"

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