Religion and Politics: Is There Any Hope for a Divorce?

Article excerpt

Election Day 2012 is many months off, but already we're seeing signs that religion will play an unusually prominent role in the campaign.

Blame it in part on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who called for a day-long prayer rally at a Houston football stadium in August and, shortly after that, announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for president. Perry's announcement upended the GOP race as he quickly rocketed to the top of the polls. His use of religion to kick-start his campaign has only spurred others to play catch-up.

Candidates like U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, who had already been using generous amounts of religious rhetoric in their campaigns, found themselves struggling to regain momentum. Former frontrunner Mitt Romney, a Mormon who walks a delicate line when courting evangelicals, watched helplessly as his lead evaporated.

On the other side of the political aisle, President Barack Obama, who highlighted his Christian faith during the 2008 campaign and even wooed evangelicals, is expected to return to those themes as the campaign heats up.

Meanwhile, two Los Angeles Times reporters looked at efforts by the religious right to organize right-wing pastors in Iowa and found an effective political machine in place. Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold quoted Rob Stein, a Democratic Party strategist, who remarked, "The Christian activist right is the largest, best organized and, I believe, the most powerful force in American politics today. No other political group comes even close."

The issue of faith and politics raises two closely related questions: Is the mixing of religion and politics legal, and why does it persist in the United States?

The law is clear: houses of worship--and all nonprofits holding a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status--are prohibited from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Speaking out on issues is permitted, but telling people who to vote for or against is in violation of the tax code.

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It happens anyway, of course. Every year, the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group founded by religious right leaders, prods pastors to openly violate federal law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Every year, some pastors take them up on it. (They almost always endorse a Republican or attack a Democrat.) They are reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS is reportedly restructuring its internal policies for auditing churches, a necessary first step for any investigation of partisan politicking. In the great tradition of byzantine bureaucracies, this is taking a very long time. But sooner or later the IRS will have to do something. We just don't know when.

The underlying question may be more interesting: Why does religion continue to have a stranglehold on U.S. politics? Will we ever get some separation between those two?

Perhaps--but it's going to take a while. Despite language in Article VI of the Constitution that bars religious tests for public office at the federal level, Americans have decided to impose one anyway: You need to be a believer. You also need to belong to a familiar denomination. It's best if you're Christian, but in some cases you can be Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist. …