@notWWJDjswgc: Why the surprise? Pew finds Americans prefer mixing religion & politics

Originally posted as comment to:

Last week I heard on my (preferred) liberal news media outlet, NPR, that seemingly to everyone’s surprise a Pew Research Center survey showed “more Americans favor mixing religion and politics.” Then this Sunday at my (preferred) conservative parish I received a two-page handout titled “Forming a Good Catholic Conscience for Voting.” Now, I realize it goes too far, but these two pieces of media – and the swirl of sometimes vitriolic online and in-person comments around them – couldn’t help but cause me to ask the following question.

Does allowing your religious belief – or lack thereof – to influence your politics violate the US Constitution?

Well, according to the Constitution, only if your religion or non-religion influenced politics result in Congress making “a law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


In that case, what would actually be un-Constitutional would be a requirement – even if you happen to be a member of Congress – to NOT allow your religious beliefs to influence your politics (as if that were possible). It wouldn’t even be Constitutional to prohibit you from acknowledging that influence (and probably wouldn’t be wise, either, if we want transparency on this issue, something both anti-religionists and the religious of differing faiths should desire – and quite in contrast to the increasing, and increasingly tolerated, lack of transparency regarding money’s influence on politics).

Perhaps that is why this first clause of the First Amendment couples its protections for religious freedom with a further prohibition on Congress “abridging the freedom of speech.”

Yes, and not only the freedom to speak, but also “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It seems prescient that all these freedoms are logically grouped together in the first sentence of the Bill of Rights, because historically – from early abolitionists to Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X and many in between– America’s houses of worship are where people have most consistently come together to give voice to and act on behalf of the most marginalized members of our society.

That’s right, read in this context it becomes clear that the Constitutional concern was that government would intrude on and appropriate religion – as it had in England – not the other way around. Unfortunately, the commonly accepted, late 20th century Orwellian re-interpretation of this text would make it mean the exact opposite: that we must somehow protect the most economically, militarily and politically powerful government in human history – presiding with the consent of a consumer society whose wealth and secular nature is similarly without precedent – from our nation’s diverse, diffuse and waning sphere of organized faith.

Put that way, fear of religious influence on American politics seems almost ironic.

Perhaps, then, the Pew Research Center shouldn’t have been surprised that their polls ahead of the fall 2014 midterm elections showed that the majority Americans – a large percentage of which, as defined by prior polls, would not consider themselves religious – perceive that “religions losing influence in American life is a bad thing”. Perhaps the folks at Pew shouldn’t have even been surprised that an increasing percentage of US adults say that houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions.

What this vast swath of America’s secular society seems to subconsciously – and, therefore, for researchers, surprisingly – be seeking, is an alternative voice.

A non-economic, non-military, non-political, non-consumerist – dare I say, non-“natural degeneration of the secular” – voice.

Now, whether we find such a voice in the expression of our houses of worship is another question. However, my argument is not that, but rather that the reason even the prospect of hearing such a voice is constitutionally protected in the US is because from the very inception of our nation it has been our hope that such a religious voice does exist.

America, at its best, is rooted in that hope: that speaking truth to power can win the day.

Religion, at its best, responds that even if it does not, truth must still be spoken.

Therefore, at all of our best, we would not seek to silence, but to listen. There are so many influences on politics – and on us, the electorate – promoting party affiliation or mere self-interest that it would not hurt to allow ourselves to be challenged by a counter-cultural perspective. And the religious, in raising their voice outside their congregations, would open themselves up to challenge in turn; their words tested, they should take to heart criticisms by the non-religious and those of other religions alike in order to actually strengthen and purify their faith.

For the Christian, this would mean asking whether Jesus could have embraced the political action or attitude we are espousing, and still have embraced the cross.

That is the only question, but one we cannot answer in isolation, without conversing with others, without attending to the voice of all those affected by the actions and attitudes we submit for public consideration, possible adoption, and certain trial. To quote Thomas Merton’s prayer and confession to God, “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” Therefore we humbly submit our actions and attitudes to the scrutiny of others – even, or perhaps especially, to those with whom we may not at first agree – in order to demonstrate to God, even as Merton went on to plead in his prayer, that “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.”

Hmm, amidst the money, the vested interests, the pure political posturing, isn’t that precisely the kind of voice to which we all want to at least have the opportunity to listen?
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