Saturday, December 06, 2008

Religion in the Political Arena: a Good Thing, Mostly

“Religion has always played a political role in America. The politicization of modern American religion began in the special circumstances of the 1950s, when the dynamics of the Cold War led many white Protestants and quite a few Catholics to become ardent supporters of the American status quo. But the most influential political movement with religious support was the Civil Rights Movement. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), the most visible spokesman of that movement, drew his power, insights, rhetoric, and images from his black Baptist heritage combined with an appeal to the unrealized potential of American ideals. King’s ability to draw on sophisticated philosophy, the pacifist social theory of Mahatma Gandhi, a deep familiarity with Scripture, and the preaching traditions of African American churches made him an extraordinarily powerful force...The strongest supporters for the civil rights goals for which King strove were the black churches, which eventually also recruited a few notable allies from Catholic and mainline Protestant churches.”

--Mark Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity

Many today decry the influence of religion in politics and the public sphere. “There’s a separation of church and state in this country, don’t you understand?!” they cry. They think stances like the pro-life view or traditional marriage view smack of religion and therefore should be off the debate table in politics. For example, as I posted on a few weeks ago, some are arguing that the Mormon church should have its tax exempt status revoked because it financially supported the “Yes on Prop 8” campaign. Though he’s probably no separation devotee, even Cal Thomas poo-poos the political action of religious adherents (Ed has a post on Thomas here). Some even go so far as to want religious points of view out of the public market place of ideas entirely. They forget that religious influence has always been legal under the constitution. Establishment is what violates the First Amendment. There's a big difference between the two.

If that’s you, I really hope you read that quote nice and slow, taking it all in. Do you apply your criteria consistently? You’d better thank your lucky stars that religion has played a role in America, for it (specifically, the Christian religion) has been the impetus for many of our greatest political and societal gains in the past. For instance, if you remove the polemics of William Wilberforce from British Parliament, abolition would have come about much, much slower on the continent. If you remove the influence and participation of the black churches during the Civil Rights Movement, that force would not have wielded the tremendous power it did. Do the “separation” fans really want the church out of the state in the way they define that often vague doctrine?

Though no doubt religious people have done great damage at times in the political arena, they have done much good as well. This should give the “separation” fans pause in advancing their arguments.

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