The Politicization of Religion in America
When discussing the role of religion in America, liberals and conservatives usually find common ground in the idea that the Founders identified as Christians and were influenced by Christian ideas, which manifested in their constitutions, laws, and practices. There is also a commonality in the idea that the Founders crafted a regime hospitable to Christians and practitioners of other religions. Liberals and conservatives argue over the Jeffersonian concept of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Differences often arise when discussing the proper balance regarding religious liberty and church-state relations. Conservatives have always endeavored to foist religion into the public square whenever possible. They have been steadfast defenders of what they believe to be the truths of the Judeo- Christian tradition and have aspired to blur the distinction between church and state.
In contrast, liberals have attempted to make that wall of separation higher and more impregnable. Whether we speak of school prayer, same-sex marriage, or taking the words “under God” out of the Pledge Of Allegiance, the liberal doctrine of secularism is arguably more robust than at any other time in America’s history. Non-compliance results in informal sanctions and many private citizens and churches in America are paying the price for their religious beliefs.
For much of American history, neither political party has dared to imply that Christ was a devotee of a particular economic system. Still, on November 24th, 2013, the stage was set for an unholy alliance between a Pope, a politician, and The Vatican. In his apostolic exhortation of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny” and warned about the dangers of the “idolatry of money.” More like Bernie Sanders, rather than St Thomas Aquinas, he called upon the rich to share their wealth and urged our world leaders to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of “exclusion and inequality.” Just two days later, news of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation appeared on the website of Senator Bernie Sanders. Three years later, on April 16th, 2016, in a trip billed as being “above politics,” Sanders met with Pope Francis in Vatican City. Sanders claimed he took time off the campaign trail to visit the Pope, but since the New York primary was three days away, he seemed to be bringing the campaign trail to Rome. It is not clear whether Bernie Sanders had a revelation about Christianity, much like Martin Luther’s Tower Experience, or whether he was merely seeking political advantage. Still, from this day forward, nothing would ever be the same. In a stunning volte-face, progressive politicians in 2019 who never cared much for religion now claim to be the inhabitants of a moral high ground. We have learned that there is a “right side of history” and the importance of always “going high when they go low.” A slight deviation from the tenets of Christianity is sometimes permissible if it is in retaliation towards a political opponent you despised. In America, unflattering portrayals of Christianity are the norm. Whether it was Californication’s David Duchovny being fellated by a Catholic nun, Tim Minchin as Christ ripping from the moorings of his cross to give a groupie a thorough rogering, or Kevin Spacey in House Of Cards spitting in the face of Christ, secular liberal Hollywood elites have never shied away from revealing their true feelings about Christianity. Be that as it may, academics, self-styled pastors, and comedians continue to preach their self-righteous sermons and the idea that Jesus was a socialist. Secular progressives who, in the past, would embrace Satanism before Roman Catholicism have unexpectedly distinguished themselves as true exemplars of Christianity. They have even created an unflattering caricature of Christ called GOP Jesus, which they believe represents Jesus Christ with Republican values.
I would neither argue that Jesus endorsed a particular economic system nor wish to start a modern-day version of The Reformation. However, not all Christians believe that material success and deep religious conviction are mutually exclusive. In his influential book written in 1905 entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber made an empirical argument that Protestants were more involved than Catholics in capitalistic activities based on observations in Germany. Weber also argued theoretically that there was a correlation between ascetic Protestantism and a “spirit of capitalism.” Weber believed that capitalism resulted from a rationalization of the world and that Calvinism was the religion most amenable to capitalism because of its ability to contribute to the systematic, rational ordering of the moral life as a whole. Before the Reformation, individuals did not view their worldly activities, like their occupations, as serving God. Roman Catholicism glorified the monastic lifestyle and people retreating from the world. The Reformation rejected this attitude. Serving God meant participating in worldly activities because this was part of God’s purpose for each individual. Weber introduced the concept of Beruf or a “calling.” The idea of the calling is that an individual must fulfill the obligations of their position in the world to be acceptable to God. Hard work and material success were signs that you were on your way to gaining God’s favor. Favor could only be attained via dedication to disciplined work and acquisition, along with a life of denial of pleasure and spontaneity in the enjoyment of life. Thus, wealth accumulation was “morally sanctioned insofar as it was combined with a sober, industrious career;” “wealth was only condemned if employed to support a life of idle luxury to self-indulgence.” To Weber, earning money reflected virtue, and this reflected a reversal in the normal human condition.
Unlike some conservatives, I advocate a strict separation of church and state. While we can strive to separate church and state, we can neither separate the religious sentiment from the men and women that we elect to govern us nor should we ever endeavor to do so. While it might be true that the Founders did not create a theocracy, they knew a democracy required a moral people. For some, religious faith is a vital support for morality. For others, humanity is capable of morality without belief in God. The job of a spiritual leader should be to proselytize those struggling with their faith or have no religious faith at all rather than make claims that a President is not a Christian or implicitly endorse specific economic systems or political candidates while explicitly rejecting others. Conservatives and liberals must always resist the temptation to mix religion and politics. As Senator James Lankford has asserted, when religion is used for political purposes, it “empties religion of its eternal meaning and becomes just one more cynical method of acquiring power.”