Religion's Essential Contribution to Public Life
by Colleen Carroll Campbell
Should religion steer clear of politics? If media commentaries about a Pew Research Center poll in mid-August on the subject are any indication, the answer from Americans is yes.
The national survey found that 52 percent of respondents believe that churches and other houses of worship should not express their views on day-to-day social and political questions. That’s up from 44 percent in 2004.
The finding has delighted many secular pundits, who see it as proof that Americans agree with their aim of shooing religious values and voices from the public square. Many also interpret the poll as a resounding public rejection of religious conservatives who seek to influence politics.
There are several problems with those readings. For starters, more than 70 percent of Americans told Pew pollsters that a president should have strong religious beliefs, and 64 percent said they believe politicians today express their religious beliefs too little or the right amount. That’s not exactly the profile of a nation ready to eject God from political life.
As for the idea that the poll marks a rejection of religious conservatives and their values, it is noteworthy that the increase in concern over politicized religion did not come from secular liberals. It came from social conservatives and from Americans who regard America’s major political parties as insufficiently friendly to religion.
This tipping point was not reached in 2004 after Democratic Sen. John Kerry tangled with Catholic bishops over his abortion stance. It came in 2008 after a primary season dominated by headlines about Sen. Barack Obama’s ties to such leftist pastors as the Revs. Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger and by breathless reports about Democratic efforts to woo religious voters.
Secular liberals surely will cry hypocrisy when they see conservatives worrying about politicized churches just as Democrats are angling for a bigger slice of the values-voter pie. Of course, conservatives can counter by noting that many liberals who once snickered at George W. Bush’s professions of faith now gush about Barack Obama’s.
The lesson of the poll is not that the banish-God crowd should prevail or has prevailed in America. Religion is an undeniable part of American public life, and most Americans want that to continue. We want the freedom to express our political views, including those informed by our religious principles, and we generally want the same for our pastors and politicians.
With that freedom come drawbacks, of course. A politician can try to manipulate voters by using glib God talk to obscure a record that belies their values. A pastor can use his spiritual authority to try to advance his own political clout.
Religious voices can muddy the political waters, but they also can add transcendent perspective to our superficial debates. As America’s abolitionist and civil rights movements attest, religious voices can awaken us to long-simmering injustices and remind us that human rights come from God, not government.
Religious voices also can serve as crucial a check on the state. It’s no coincidence that many of the most vocal critics of religion’s influence in America are politicians who favor expanding government power so that the state can play the very meaning-making role in society that they urge America’s churches to relinquish.
Even in an election year marked by a surfeit of cringe-inducing YouTube clips of rabidly partisan preachers and piously pandering politicians, it’s worth thinking about why our messy but invigorating tradition of religious participation in public life beats the stifling alternative of a strictly secular public square.
Colleen Carroll Campbell, a member of the editorial board of Voices, is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes a regular op-ed column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where the article above first appeared in the August 28, 2008 edition. It is reprinted here with permission. Visit her web site: www.colleen-campbell.com.
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