America’s paradox: We want religion in, but out, of politics

MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle

“Keep religion out of politics,” said a mega sign cruising St. Paul’s streets on the back of a truck on Monday, the opening day of the Republican National Convention.

But a few blocks away, dozens of anti-war demonstrators marched with placards declaring: “Blessed Are the Peacemakers, For They Will Be Called Sons of God.”

And Steve Ahlgren’s sign said, simply: “1st John 4:7-21.”

It was a biblical reference to loving God and loving one another, too. And Ahlgren, a lawyer from Lauderdale, insisted that religion expressed like that has a place in politics as a powerful force for good.

Religion in politics? Religion out of politics?

Two views, same country
Both positions, paradoxically, express the view of America, one of the most devout nations in the Western world.

“Religion plays a crucial role, and it has throughout the history of the Republic,” said Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle

It was a factor in the moral justification of FDR’s New Deal, he said, and it was debated intensely when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, ran for president. Religion provided moral authority for the civil-rights movement in the 20th century, and it played a role in women’s drive for suffrage.

Indeed, religion trumps the issues for many Americans. And voters who perceive a candidate as sharing their own faith and a related set of values will forgive the candidate on a range of issues.

Religious and political differences
Look at a Red State-Blue State map, and you are seeing religious divisions as well as political demarcation lines. The red, or Republican, states tend to cleave to the evangelical Christian faith, while the blue states typically are more secular.

Putting together a religious and secular coalition is very difficult for a party and a candidate, Hofrenning said. Voters who pray often and rarely miss church are looking for expressions of faith, and candidates must respond. But many secular voters revolt at any hint of encroachment of the separation of church and state.

Hence, we have seen both McCain and Obama stumble in trying to have it both ways.

“It’s a challenge for all of them, but more so with the Democrats,” Hofrenning said, because the party’s core base is more secular. 

More vigilant about separation
A major quirk in America’s political culture is that while we mix religion and politics, we are more vigilant than many other countries about separating church from state.

The religion-out-of-politics sign cruising St. Paul this week is sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which identifies itself on its website as “the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics).” Saying it is “critical to defend the separation between government and religion,” the foundation also sent the sign to Denver last month for the Democratic National Convention.

This truck was parked Monday in downtown St. Paul at Sixth and Cedar Streets.
MinnPost photo by John Camp
This truck was parked Monday in downtown St. Paul at Sixth and Cedar Streets.

Americans agree in theory with the ideal of drawing a line between church and state. But it isn’t clear where they want it. In an August 2007 poll by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, a large majority (69 percent) of Americans agreed that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. However, a sizable majority (63 percent) opposed churches endorsing candidates during election campaigns. Just 28 percent said churches should come out in favor of candidates.

The voters’ desire for faith in their leaders is reflected in media coverage of campaigns, according to another Pew project.

A relatively prominent topic
Researchers for Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed coverage of religion in the campaign through 16 months of the primary season, from January 2007 to April 2008. They found that when coverage of the “horse-race” aspects of the campaign was excluded, religion emerged as a relatively prominent topic. Religion garnered nearly as much coverage (10 percent of the stories) as race and gender combined (11 percent), even though the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination were a black man and a woman.

Overall, however, religion stories, along with other substantive and policy issues, took a back seat to campaign tactics and political strategy, which together garnered 81 percent of the coverage.

“So despite the attention paid to Obama’s former pastor, questions about McCain’s relationship with his party’s conservative religious base, interest in Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the surprisingly strong campaign of former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, only 2 percent of all the campaign stories directly focused on religion,” said the Pew report.

Candidates readily affirm faith
In other words, reporters may be a bit squeamish about focusing directly on a candidate’s religion. The same is not true for the candidates themselves. We heard affirmations of faith at the Democrat’s convention in Denver. We can expect more of the same this week at the GOP convention and in the campaigns afterward.  

Marching through St. Paul on Sunday, Rick Robinson from Cedar Rapids said his line on where religion is appropriate in politics is drawn “at using God to push your own agenda forward.” The use of force to put down other people and other religions “misses the whole point of belief in God,” he said.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by stephen winnick on 09/02/2008 - 01:02 pm.

    Sharon- Your story doesn’t focus on one very important link; little mention is made of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state clause.Any discussion or report of churchiness in government must start with The First;just as the discussion of one young woman’s now public pregnancy starts with her mother’s statement that she chose to have her baby. Funny but not funny how one who opposes choice invoked it in her family’s case. Separation of church and state requires that pro life be banished to sunday schools, pulpits and street corner preachers–and not be included in discussions of the national politic. I would have liked your story to have included such views now that the Republicans(dare we call them “the Reds”?)have decided to focus on such with the Palin selection while, without debate, adopting a platform that is rightest of right on the Choice/Life spectrum. sw

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