‘History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.’ Political freedom it seems, is not something that Thomas Jefferson believed was achievable with both church and state contributing each other’s ideals in equal measure. The United States are a nation built on a combination of values in society, politics and theology that originate from Puritan ethics and practice. Despite Jefferson’s warning, the prominence of religion in politics and the lives of American people has previously seemed indefinite. However, the notion of ‘the separation of church and state’ appears to be becoming increasingly more distinct in contemporary society.
The article from which the image originates discusses how divided people have become on the matter of whether or not religious institutions should have input in political issues, and if so, how much input. One of the polls carried out this year by the Pew Research Centre found that, ‘A growing percentage of U.S. adults (now 72%) think that religion is losing influence in American life’. There is a belief held by many people that religion losing its influence in American politics has led to a diminishing value of moral principles. This is entirely dependent on how an individual views this issue. One could argue that for example, institutions such as the school are failing to teach children the same values as their parents due to a lack of religious direction. Although it could also be suggested that they are in fact being taught the same values and morals, with the addition of a more modern attitude to concerns in today’s society. It is a widely known fact that an increasing number of people now believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution as opposed to the seven days of creation. It is undeniable that religion has frequently been a cause of conflict throughout history and also continues to be today. It is repeatedly criticised for its continuation in maintaining and supporting old fashioned, out-dated traditions. Now that taboo subjects such as abortion, the condemnation of paedophilia in the Catholic Church and same-sex marriage and are now openly discussed in politics and the media, it is clear that religion appears to be taking a back seat not only in politics, but also society in general. According to the article, ‘During the last midterm election season, in 2010, those who wanted churches to keep out of politics outnumbered those who wanted churches to express their political views by a 52% to 43% margin.’ This is clear evidence emphasizing how society is changing regarding religious practice and political points of view.
The founding fathers desired balance between politics and religion, intertwining to create positive moral ideals. Jefferson believed that the absence of a free civil government would undoubtedly result in political and religious leaders taking it upon themselves to seize any opportunity to ‘avail themselves for their own purposes’. Indeed, it is often suggested that religion is primarily used in politics to appeal to the public, and that those reciting the eloquent, emotive language associated with religious rhetoric in fact hold little value and belief in their discourse. I believe this to be true to a certain extent, as it cannot be ignored that religious rhetoric is one of the techniques politicians in America have developed over centuries, in order to influence their own personal agendas. This method is successful as it creates a connection with its people, a sense of identity that citizens can relate to. It embodies the image of Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill’ and Tocqueville’s phrase ‘American exceptionalism’, arising from the belief that the nation must set a moral example to the rest of the world as they made a pact with God. This positive, patriotic discourse is reflected in many political speeches that followed.
Ronald Reagan used a great deal of religious rhetoric in many of his own:
‘Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.’
Through this powerful use of language, Reagan speculates the seemingly disastrous consequences that may potentially occur if religion lost its influence in society, Reagan almost threatens the American people into believing that they must practice a faith of some kind and believe in God. In opposition to this however, Obama’s more pragmatic speech on faith and politics in 2006 represents more modern views on religion. There is a hint of mocking undertone sensed in certain parts of the speech, for example: ‘…substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.’ Obama does not use the same blatant religious rhetoric, instead he admits scepticism and that he has questions as many others do, thus relating to many American people who have difficulty accepting or understanding religion. In stating that people are ‘tired of seeing faith used as an attack’, he includes and also defends all religion across the United States, giving the positive impression of a united front.
Religion is of course, not simply a political exigency. Despite its gradually diminishing presence in American politics, the importance of religion is dependant entirely upon the individual. It is an innate instinct as a human being to crave a belief in some form of higher power and can be argued that it does not matter how prominent religion is in politics, so long as people remain true to their faith as they so desire.