Making Sense of America’s Messy Mixture of Church and State

“[I believe in an] America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.” –John F. Kennedy, 1960

Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a rosy view of the Constitutional framework for religion. The United States Constitution established a secular government, a model few if any European states followed at the end of the 18th century. Indeed, France, Britain and Ireland , the Holy Roman Empire all fought intense civil/interstate wars over religious divisions in the preceding years. Spain had its Inquisition, and Eastern Europe grappled with wars over the Ottoman advance as far as Budapest.

Did the U.S. Constitution and subsequent Western democracies solve the church and state? Even Enlightenment values in the nascent American government did not solve waves of anti-Semitism and nativism driven by unfounded religious suspicions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the Cold War had religious overtones, with domestic fervor in the United States drilled up on the basis of opposing the advance of an atheistic Soviet Union. Simultaneously, a Presidential candidate had to assure Protestant voters the Pope did not intend to govern the United States. Don’t forget the Troubles in Northern Ireland even more recently than Kennedy’s plea for ecumenism. The list goes on.

Even in 2015, the United States and its political class fuse religion and politics with acerbic results. The clientelism of pressure groups, media outlets, elected officials and opinion leaders generate rapid support around a religious issue. Look no further than Kim Davis and her immediate apotheosis to the level of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was not a grassroots movement, but a calculated symbolic play in America’s culture wars. The most recent iteration of religion as a political wedge issue in the United States began in the late 1970s with the Reagan Democrats. Both sides of the political spectrum are vulnerable to this posturing.

Western observers can hardly look at the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, cry “sectarianism!” and offer some sort of brokered solution without looking in the mirror. The same psychological factors which drive mutual hostility among different ethnic and religious groups clearly operate in contemporary democracies. Perhaps the developed world simply has less exacerbating variables which turn sectarian conflict into devastating civil or interstate war.

There is hope in the tone struck by Pope Francis during his visit: a tone that bamboozled most commentators for oscillating between Greenpeace environmentalism and Values Voter Summit conservatism. Francis presented a perspective that was non-ideological and defied the big political capital on which politicians cash in on religious buzzwords. The papal visit exposed the strategic yet messy way that religion is levied in American politics today. How much has Western civilization adopted Enlightenment values in the last 300 years?

Pope Francis could be a watershed moment for an aspirational role of religion in politics, one that challenged the Protestant President Barack Obama to say Francis motivated him to do better. Or his visit could be the latest episode in American culture wars. Perhaps the public itself can decide.

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