Beliefnet
Science and SpiritReprinted with permission from the September 2004 issue of Science and Spirit.

God frequently works in ways so mysterious that belief requires a willingness to accept that, when it comes to matters of the spirit, many things will never be known for certain. Purity of heart, love of God, concern with sin, fidelity to the truth-these are the qualities believers tend to admire. The world beyond this one is as alive and well to the believer as the world around us. Judgment Day is what matters, and when that day arrives, squabbles about tax policy or positions on free trade will seem trivial stuff indeed.

Success in politics, by contrast, requires a laser-like focus on this world-and a corresponding reluctance to wait for more perfect times before taking action. Particularly nowadays, when one gaffe can doom an entire campaign, politics has truly become a science, as virtually nothing, from travel arrangements to the choice of a running mate, can be left to the unknown. Fearful of offending anyone, politicians speak not the truth as revealed to them by God, but the words tested by focus groups and polls. Determined to win, they look the other way in the face of such sins as negative campaigning and the sometimes immoral, if not illegal, activities involved in financing political campaigns. Once elected, the task of governing requires as much certainty as campaigning.

Despite the fact that religion and politics appeal to radically different temperaments-and that many of us are uncomfortable mixing the two-we have grown accustomed to assuming that religion will shape politics and that politics will shape religion. The 2004 presidential election has been the most prayerful in modern memory. George W. Bush turned to Jesus to straighten out his personal life while in his forties, received the call to run for president at Austin's Tarrytown United Methodist Church in 1999, and prayed for strength from God as he made the decision to go to war in Iraq last year. It is not a stretch to conclude that he, and many of his supporters, believe that as president, he has a special responsibility, not only to advocate this policy or that, but also to see that God's work is done.

John F. Kerry, a Catholic, is not as public in his expressions of faith as Bush, yet such is the nature of American campaigning that we have learned a great deal about his beliefs anyway. We know that he typically takes communion at Boston's Paulist Center and that he strongly endorses the changes in Catholic worship and doctrine ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. We know of his wife's Catholic upbringing and her current religious convictions (including her support of, but also discomfort with, a woman's right to choose). The mere fact that Kerry has been discussing his faith at all, especially given that he is less comfortable than Bush in doing so, is a testament to how common it has become in the United States for politicians to bring God into their speeches and acts.

No other wealthy liberal democracy requires public professions of faith from their political leaders to the degree that the United States does. And rarely in our history have we assigned religion as prominent a place in our politics as we do now. Who remembers the church to which Harry Truman or Gerald Ford belonged? Why is it, one might rightly ask, that a society generally viewed as the most modern in the world is one that these days is either unwilling or unable to separate faith from politics?

The answer to this question cannot be September 11, since it was during the election preceding the terrorist attacks that Bush cited Jesus as the political philosopher he most identifies with. Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was also unabashed about bringing God into the campaign. It is certainly true that since September 11, our public talk has been filled with religious terms such as "good" and "evil." Yet we were already prepared to understand the terrorist attacks in those terms, since they were essentially the same ones in which we had viewed the Cold War.

More credible is the belief that the separation of church and state actually infuses our politics with religion. From Thomas Jefferson to the contemporary followers of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Constitution's First Amendment has been viewed as protecting government from the sectarianism and dogmatism associated with religion. For those who hold to this point of view, George W. Bush, or any other politician who puts his faith front and center, is violating one of our most established constitutional principles.

Yet understood in another sense, the separation of church and state was bound to produce candidates who frequently invoke the deity. Where religion is official and established, religion atrophies, society becomes more secular, and candidates would never think of adopting confessional positions while campaigning. Europeans have had a history of linking church and state by establishing one religion as the official one. While in theory an established church should be a strong one, since it can count on the state for funding and support for its views concerning public policy, in practice such churches are somewhat like state monopolies. So secure is their position, they neglect to adapt to the needs of their congregants, and before long, they find their pews empty and their advice ignored.

In America, by contrast, the separation of church and state protects religion from government more than the other way around. It is true that when religion is private and sustained by voluntary contributions, it has no guaranteed financial support and must compete with other faiths to have its views reflected in the law. But rather than weakening religion, competition strengthens it-no church in America can survive without trying to find out what Americans expect from the spiritual marketplace, and then offering to provide it. When religion is divorced from government, it pours into and shapes just about everything else. Politicians appeal to God because in spite of differences in income, race, gender, and geography, belief in God is one thing that nearly all Americans share.

Americans were once expected to live in one place, to work for one company, and to be married to one person for their entire lives. Stable institutions shaped their worldviews and determined how they would act politically. If they belonged to unions, they tended to vote for the Democrats. If they owned the company, the Republican candidate would likely be their choice. Political parties took these patterns, and organized themselves as stable institutions around them. In Chicago, the Daley machine got you to the polls. In Maine and New Hampshire, Republican identification was an inherited characteristic.

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