Faith And Partisan Politics: Looking For A Little Healthy Distance

Are Americans losing faith in secular government?

As Joe Conn noted on Friday, yesterday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” the Alliance Defense Fund’s annual attempt to turn America’s houses of worship into cogs in a massive right-wing political machine.

The ADF spent last week bragging about the hundreds of pastors who would be taking part and claiming to be standing up for free speech, truth, justice, apple pie, motherhood, etc.

Call me skeptical, if only because it’s an off year and a lot of jurisdictions aren’t even having elections. I see this year’s event as a dress rehearsal for 2012, when the ADF and its allies hope to harness churches into a political force that will defeat President Barack Obama, keep the House of Representatives in Republican hands and turn the Senate over the GOP.

I’m sure the ADF signed up some misguided pastors. But the good news is that the overwhelming majority ignored “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” They did that in part because a lot of Americans are rebelling against the politicization of churches. Put simply, Americans go to church for spiritual reasons, not to hear yet another partisan harangue.

With any luck, the ADF’s stunt will lead to a discussion of the role religion plays in politics generally. Americans may be wary of church electioneering, but they seem pretty content with a hefty degree of religious rhetoric in campaigns.

Some are starting to question this as well. On Sunday, Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, laid out the case for disentangling religion and partisan politics in an excellent Washington Post column.

Turley begins his piece by referring to Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, which contains the famous “wall of separation between church and state” reference. That letter takes a lot of abuse from the Religious Right, and it’s good to see someone offer a strong defense.

Turley notes that polls show that 66 percent of Americans support “a clear separation of church and state,” but adds “those Americans do not seem to be motivating politicians or shaping politics…. The result is that the 34 percent who do not support separation seem to drive the political agenda.”

This leaves candidates on both sides of the aisle free to proclaim their piety or even explicitly brag about how they intend to pursue a faith-based agenda once in office. Turley astutely points out the problem here: “The danger of explicit appeals to faith in politics isn’t the establishment of an official religion; that remains highly unlikely. Rather, faith-based politics can become faith-based laws that enforce morality codes, expand public subsidies for religious institutions or sideline religious (or non-religious) minorities. Most important, our political-religious climate threatens to replace a campaign for the best policies with a contest of the most pious.”

Turley concludes by asking if Americans are losing faith in secular government. I’ve wondered that as well. These days, secular government – which ought to be celebrated for providing a platform upon which individual freedom rests – is too often portrayed as a corrosive (or even a somehow anti-American) force. Jefferson, James Madison and other founders who labored to craft a secular state would be perplexed indeed.

Turley’s piece is welcome reminder of the need to separate not just church and state but religion and partisan politics as well. Take a look. I think you’ll like what you read.