Church and State in the US Elections

If you need an illustration of the relevance of debates on church and state you could do worse than cast your glance across the Atlantic. The upcoming midterm elections have exposed that the issue is, for many, at the heart of the issues being discussed. This debate on the separation of church and state has raged throughout American history. While the founding fathers of the republic may have feared the establishment of a government run church (or a church run government!) their ancestors, in seventeenth-century puritan migrants, had often attempted to set up cities run as orderly, godly theocracies (Boston being a pertinent example. This dual tension has run through the American psyche up to the present day.

The first amendment to the US Constitution stated that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1802, argued that this “[built] a wall of separation between church and state”. Where as in the past presidents such as George Washington and John Adams had called days of fasting and thanksgiving (in other words, involving the state with a particular religion), Jefferson shied away from the recognition of any state sponsored form of faith. While Jefferson may have been clear on his position, however, exactly what the first amendment meant has generated considerable debate. Does the fact that Congress cannot establish a religion mean that faith must be kept completely out of public life? Some would answer this question in the affirmative – witness the succession of court cases on prayer in public schools, the teaching of creationism and the presence of the Ten Commandments in court rooms. Others, however, would see constitutional separation to be more about preventing the government from establishing any institution along Church of England lines rather than removing all religion from public life. After all, Jefferson’s letter was to a group of Baptists worried that they were being disadvantaged – separation, they argue, is designed to avoid favouritism rather than remove God from public life.

This age old debate is one of the key points in the current electoral cycle. One of the interesting things about the new “Tea Party” movement (disaffected conservative Republicans) that has emerged lately is their open use of religious rhetoric. Many Tea Party supporters are evangelical Christians who favoured the approach of the Bush administration. President Obama is seen as a Marxist, Atheist or even a Muslim – a leader who has abandoned the “godly” principles that governed the foundation of the USA.  This means that the role that religion should play in the state is often brought up – either to attack opponents lack of faith, or by those same opponents to raise the spectre of theocracy. One of the Tea Party’s most visible candidates, Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell, has recently courted controversy over her understanding of the constitution on the issue of this separation. While this Guardian article picks up on her apparent lack of understanding of the issue, the video debate suggests that O’Donnell’s view of the first amendment is not that it expressly prohibits the involvement of church and state, but rather that it seeks only to prohibit the establishment of a church. Her recent focus on God, who she claims has called her to be “His voice” in the senate, shows that she is not shy in using her faith as part of her politics. While she may be at the more extreme end of the debate, the fact that she was selected to run for major political office shows something of the appetite for politicians who do not view the separation of church and state as total. The direction that the tea party movement and their relative strength means that watching their influence will be one of the most interesting elements of next week’s vote.

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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