Mixing the Unmixable?
February 21, 2012
The folly and futility of arguing either politics or religion is well-know. Understanding this, it would seem stupid to write concerning both, even though they are now very closely linked. Mixing religion and politics has been likened to mixing ice cream and horse manure—it never hurts the horse manure, but it always ruins the ice cream.
The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention may have blocked the establishment of Christianity as a national religion, but they could not keep religion out of American politics. Beginning with the election of 1800, Federalist clergymen charged that Thomas Jefferson, a deist, was unfit to lead a “Christian nation.” About a century later, Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” competed with the anti-capitalist “Social Gospel” during this nation’s industrialization. The civil rights movement can now be seen as possibly the most effective religious intervention in American history. More recently, the alliance between the Republican Party and the Religious Right has, arguably, realized the founders’ fears of religious-political coalitions.
Does religion become more sectarian and partisan when it enters the political arena, because it demands the mixing of religious agendas with non-religious ones?
Organized religion has certainly played a larger role in American politics in recent years than probably ever before, and American politicians are well aware of voters’ religious commitments. Nearly every member of Congress professes a religious faith, and Democrats have worked hard to shed the stereotype that they are less friendly toward religion than Republicans. It is not incorrect to suggest that there are probably far more politicians pretending to be Christians than there are Christians serving as politicians.
Most recently religious leaders, politicians, and the political pundits were tangled in a controversy with a lot of moving parts. Catholic bishops launched a protest after the Obama administration announced the requirement that employers provide no-cost birth control to employees through their insurance plans. Although the rule exempted churches and other places of worship, it did not grant exception to religiously-affiliated organizations like hospitals, colleges and social agencies.
The argument quickly shifted to whether this is an issue of religious liberty or women’s health. When Republicans first convened a Capitol Hill hearing on the issue, all the invited witnesses were male religious spokesmen. It has always seemed odd that the people who claim to speak for God are usually male and middle aged or beyond.
The debate and public furor was great enough to force the President to change policy and require the insurers, rather than the religious institutions, to pay the bill in order to preserve the principle of making no-cost birth control available to all women.
The quick-change would seem to uphold a broadly-supported principle about the availability of contraception, while creating additional room for exemptions based on religious beliefs. There is evidence that the resolution may sit comfortably among Catholics in the pews, even if it did not satisfy the church hierarchy. In other words, it may have been politically successful.
The over-riding fact is that while the opponents’ churches and religious beliefs are totally protected by our country’s constitution, their commercial endeavors are not. If a church chooses to operate colleges and hospitals in the secular world, employing and serving non-adherents, the nation’s laws must apply. As an employer, the church is bound by the same laws as everyone else. The Supreme Court has already ruled that Native Americans and the Amish cannot claim religious exemptions from the law.
Over fifty years ago, a successful presidential candidate was rejected by many voters who believed his Catholic religion would give the Pope dominion over the American nation. This year, the likely challenger will probably be shunned by those who suggest he would be controlled by a cabal in Salt Lake City.
Beliefs prohibit many things that our government regularly does. The most politically familiar and controversial is the federal funding for abortion (and to a lesser extent contraception) with tax dollars. Whether the objections are rooted in religious conviction or secular pro-life beliefs, these are seen by many as a grave injustice.
Although religious teaching condemns the taking of any innocent life, this curiously has never formed a broad protest to our nation’s military adventurism. Refusing to pay income tax because some portion is used directly or indirectly to kill innocent people in a foreign land will eventually land you in jail. There is no conscientious objector alternative to paying federal taxes.
Abortion, birth control, sterilization, war, assassination, executions, blood transfusions, and a host of other practices and procedures that are against all or some U.S. religions are regularly practiced or supported by our government. If indeed the government is the people, it then may be very incriminating of them.
A most interesting question might be, “Are all adult citizens ultimately responsible and accountable for the actions of the nation?” This is a question that is probably best left unasked and unanswered. Might an affirmative answer be a major impediment for those Americans of faith who would live “in the world, but not of the world?”
Leaving the better-left-unresolved behind, we certainly have infinitely more important problems in this nation than to continue the non-productive distractions of trying to mix ice cream with horse manure.
It is totally possible that our two major parties are, in reality, simply different sides of the same coin that hold our attention with sideshows while the debt crisis, and other important problems, continue to grow. There are certainly enough legitimate problems to occupy the actions and discourse of the President, his challengers, and the Congress without the continual rehashing of the same decades-old wedge issues.
Is it possible that the Founders had it correct in the beginning?