No Religion in Politics

by Adam Z. Berenstain, SUNY Cortland

Posted in on Wednesday, Oct 22

On August 16 reverend Rick Warren hosted the Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion, an event which brought Barack Obama and John McCain onstage with Warren to discuss matters of morality. When asked if evil exists -- and if it does, what ought our response to it be -- Obama replied that evil can be found anywhere, “in Darfur...sadly, even on the streets of our cities,” and must be confronted. John McCain answered, to a round of applause, that evil exists and must be defeated. McCain then vowed to follow Osama Bin Laden “to the gates of hell,” and defined the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as battles of good against evil.

This exchange, and McCain’s response in particular, is exceedingly troubling. We can all agree that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and atrocities like suicide bombing and so many of the horrors of war are evil -- profoundly immoral and malevolent. Yet this secular definition of evil was certainly not what Warren and his guests had in mind. The definition of evil discussed was religious in nature -- to be evil is to be allied with the devil against God. That the potential next leader of the most powerful nation on Earth would suggest that evil can be defeated -- and that he is the man to do it -- is a dangerous development and an indication of how much power religion holds in discussion of the important issues of the day.

The influence of Evangelical Christianity on American politics almost cannot be overstated. According to Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath, in a 2004 meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, George W. Bush confided that, “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.” Now John McCain would see Bush’s holy war and raise it by vowing to defeat evil itself. Although I’m uncomfortable with Barack Obama’s own use of his faith as a means to appeal to voters, I will quote his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination and say, “Enough.”

Religious faith is the realm of the mysterious and unprovable. Most religious beliefs are typified by unwavering certainty and immutability -- for the believer. Religion tells us a story in which this world is just the prologue to an eternal heaven or hell. Politics takes place in the very flawed physical world in which compromises and tangible results are everything. The Founding Fathers wisely saw religion and politics as incompatible. In an 1813 letter to one Baron von Humbolt, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.”

America is already too divided without imagining the political arena is a battle between good and evil. America’s educational institutions and economy are in bad enough shape that we cannot afford to take seriously inane distractions like the teaching of Creationism alongside legitimate scientific knowledge. The faithful must beware those who use religion to support a political message. When the defeat of evil, or assurances that a supreme being fights on this or that side, become mere campaign promises, doesn’t it diminish believers and even religion itself?

The final weeks of 2008’s presidential campaign are upon us. I urge you, first and foremost, to vote; and I also urge you to exercise skepticism when you hear politicians use religious language or make appeals to your religious faith. If strong religious feelings must have a place in American politics, let them be less like George W. Bush’s and more like James Madison’s: “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry: