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Why Progressives Can't Ignore Religion

Wall or no wall, politics and religion have always been inextricably intertwined, and we won't win until we recognize and deal with that fact.
 
 
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Photo Credit: David Shankbone

 

In this fine country of ours, there is "a wall of separation between Church and State," as Thomas Jefferson once put it. And thank God for that (at least, if you’re inclined to believe in it). Our country has been so much stronger and more free as a result of having that wall. 

Here's the thing, though: having that wall doesn't mean that the cord linking politics and religion can ever be severed, at least not in this country where religion lives so fervently. The fact is that the USA remains, by a considerable margin, more religious and more Christian than any other Western nation, with close to 80 percent of us still calling ourselves Christians (in spite of somewhat falling percentages on that number in recent years).

Even beyond that, though, religion permeates our culture, our language, our traditions, our public rituals, our history, and yes, our political debate. More than anything else -- more than political party, more than political history, more than any cultural icon whether it be Shakespeare, Star Wars or John Wayne — Christian religion is at the core of what America believes in and relates to. Progressives ignore or dismiss religion at our peril: we will never get to a majority political coalition in this country without understanding religion and the people who believe in it. 

The fact is that religion has driven most of our country's great conflicts and has been the inspiration for most of our progress. The abolitionists and the pro-slavery Southerners, the suffragists and the appalled conservative ministers who railed against them, the Populists of the late 1800s and the High Church business elite who were locked in combat, the Protestant Prohibitionists and the heavily Catholic "wets" who opposed them, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950-'60s and the racist but Bible-beating Southerners who fought them: they have all fought over an impossibly tangled blend of religion and politics.

The good news is that the religious fault-lines are pretty much the same kind of fault-lines as the political ones political activists are more used to. In religion as in politics, conservatives tend to be rather individualistic, as the ultimate goal is to win the reward of heaven for yourself. Conservatives tend to value tradition and traditional hierarchy above change and openness, believing that too much change is scary and that only traditional authority figures can protect us. Conservatives tend to believe that an excess of democracy and "rights,” whether in government or a church setting, is a bad thing. God's role for conservatives is to punish us if we stray from the one true path. 

Religious progressives, on the other hand, are drawn less by hope of heaven and fear of hell than by the appeal of the sacred community, and the teachings of religion to love their neighbors as themselves. They tend to be more open to new ideas, new kinds of leaders, and new ways of thinking about faith; and much less inclined toward thinking there is one true path.

The happy thing about the American experiment with freedom of religion — which actually echoes ancient Greece and Rome before Christianity became the official state religion — is that while people are inevitably shaped, motivated and drawn to politics by their religion and philosophy, our constitution's wall of separation between church and state has generally (with some notable exceptions) kept our politics far more free of zealotry and violence than you find in countries without that wall. For most of world history, politics and religion were so intertwined they corrupted each other and caused a great many bad things. The fact that this has not happened as much in America is a tribute to founders like Jefferson. 

 
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