Politics and Religion in a Secular State

By Bobbie Kirkhart

It is iron­ic that, as the world’s first sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy hav­ing scorned all state reli­gion, we soon became and have remained, social­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, pre­oc­cu­pied with god. Cam­paign speech­es end with “God bless you.” The song, “God Bless Amer­i­ca,” which Irv­ing Berlin wrote as a par­o­dy sung by a com­i­cal­ly chau­vin­is­tic char­ac­ter, is now per­formed as a patri­ot­ic hymn.

“God Bless Amer­i­ca” by Joelk75 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We brought our first reli­gious schism direct­ly from Europe, and it stayed promi­nent in our polit­i­cal agen­da for 200 years. There were only two sig­nif­i­cant reli­gious groups in ear­ly Amer­i­ca – Catholic and Protes­tant – for the first hun­dred years, and their fight was not sim­ply a polit­i­cal debate. It was filled with deep per­son­al hatred and fear, exclu­sion of Catholics from pub­lic events, resent­ment of Protes­tants and their posi­tion of priv­i­lege. The fight had been vio­lent in Eng­land, and it was bare­ly less so in Amer­i­ca. The teach­ing of Protes­tantism in pub­lic schools moti­vat­ed the Catholics to build their own school sys­tem. This, in turn, cre­at­ed a boost to the anti-Catholic, anti-Jew­ish, anti-black Ku Klux Klan. Through­out the cen­tu­ry, the Catholic-Protes­tant rift was also an immi­grant-nativist fight lead­ing back to the time when we were still British colonies.

Not until 1928 did a major par­ty nom­i­nate a Catholic for pres­i­dent. Al Smith was a pop­u­lar four-time gov­er­nor of New York. Although he was of mixed Euro­pean ances­try, he iden­ti­fied as an Irish Catholic, which was enough to ensure his defeat. Reli­gion was a big part of his loss as he was vic­tim to the leg­ends of Catholics’ absolute loy­al­ty to the Pope and the stereo­type of the Irish as street fight­ers. Nei­ther was cred­i­ble, but they were believed by enough peo­ple to give them an excuse to send Smith to a resound­ing defeat.

The same issues were argued 30 years lat­er when young, charis­mat­ic John F. Kennedy was on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic tick­et, and, as before, the argu­ments were too often spite­ful. Kennedy won in a close elec­tion, and his pop­u­lar­i­ty end­ed the argu­ment per­ma­nent­ly. The cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee is Joe Biden. He is Catholic, and the only per­son who men­tions that is Joe Biden.

There were also some Jews in the leg­is­la­ture, a few in the 19th cen­tu­ry but grow­ing in num­ber in the 20th  as the chil­dren of immi­grant groups matured. Jews were ill-treat­ed in soci­ety, though over time they carved a small and grow­ing polit­i­cal niche. Jews have not fared as well in the exec­u­tive races, but it is like­ly only a mat­ter of time until they do. The only Jew nom­i­nat­ed by a major par­ty for exec­u­tive office was in 2000, when Al Gore chose Joe Lieber­man to be his run­ning mate. This was wide­ly seen less as risky than as oppor­tunis­tic, an attempt to bring back the Jew­ish vote, which had been drift­ing away from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty. The race was essen­tial­ly a tie, marred by poor­ly designed bal­lots in Flori­da and con­tro­ver­sy in sev­er­al states. The Supreme Court halt­ed vote count­ing, which gave the Pres­i­den­cy to George W. Bush. Today, both Catholics and Jews are over­rep­re­sent­ed in Con­gress with almost no reli­gious controversy.

In recent years, Amer­i­cans have become less tol­er­ant of reli­gions’ involve­ment in pol­i­tics. In the first decade of this mil­len­ni­um, for the first time since mod­ern polling, most Amer­i­cans would be will­ing to vote for a qual­i­fied can­di­date who is Mus­lim or athe­ist. A major­i­ty also responds that a candidate’s human val­ues are more impor­tant than their shared reli­gion. How­ev­er, most Amer­i­cans see reli­gion as a pos­i­tive influ­ence in soci­ety.

Bud­dhists, Mus­lims, and Hin­dus are under­rep­re­sent­ed – as are non­be­liev­ers. It is like­ly that the 16 rep­re­sen­ta­tives who refused to state their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion include some non­be­liev­ers. Pol­i­tics exists because peo­ple dis­agree, a view that has not dis­ap­peared and will not soon. Amer­i­can Mus­lims suf­fer from this fact more than oth­ers do, with seri­ous threats haunt­ing them. How­ev­er, the vicious ran­cor that haunts the Mus­lims in Con­gress, rais­ing to the lev­el of death threats, has no place in the mod­ern world, and today almost all Amer­i­cans agree.

Recent sur­veys show that most Amer­i­cans are more like­ly to vote for a can­di­date who has the same val­ues rather than the one who has the same reli­gion. It seems that we are reach­ing back to Europe, which first taught us reli­gious big­otry. Even­tu­al­ly we learned, how­ev­er slow­ly, mod­ern Europe’s phi­los­o­phy that reli­gion is per­son­al, while human­i­ty is shared among all of us. There is still much reli­gious big­otry in the Unit­ed States, but recent polls show that it affects our pol­i­tics less as time goes on.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al and of Athe­ists Unit­ed. She is a founder and past vice pres­i­dent of the Sec­u­lar Coali­tion for Amer­i­ca. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.