The Culture of Belief and the Politics of Religion

Article excerpt

WILLIAM P. MARSHALL [*]

I

INTRODUCTION

Religion has stood at the center of the American stage during the years of the Clinton presidency. The Congress passed, and the President signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA") [1]--the most dramatic and extensive piece of legislation addressing freedom of religion issues in our nation's history. [2] In a dramatic upset, the Republican Party took over Congress in 1994, fueled in large part by the mobilization of Christian conservatives. [3] The House of Representatives voted on a prayer-in-the-schools amendment for the first time in almost thirty years. [4] Governments began experimenting with providing social services through faith-based organizations because of dissatisfaction with the success rate of secular-based efforts. [5] Instances of school violence that had captured national attention were ascribed by some to have been caused by the absence of religion from public education. [6] Religiously defined hate groups and militias proliferated. [7] The most controversial and inflammatory law enforcement event of the decade involved the efforts of the federal government to arrest the leader of a religious cult in Waco, Texas. [8] Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which established the fight against religious persecution as an international relations priority and established an office in the State Department to promote international religious freedom. [9] The United States intervened in a war in Europe that had been stoked by religious hatred and division. [10] The list goes on. [11]

Against this background, Professors Randy Lee and Marci Hamilton offer diametrically opposed normative and descriptive assessments of the role of religion in politics. Normatively, Lee believes that in our constitutional system, religion should be an active player in political affairs. [12] Hamilton contends that the role of religion should be more circumscribed. [13] Descriptively, Lee believes that religion has been inappropriately marginalized in American political life. [14] Hamilton asserts that, if anything, religion has been too active a participant in the political scene. [15] Lee and Hamilton, however, share one common point of agreement. Lee, explicitly, and Hamilton, implicitly, both recognize that religion can be, and often is, a potent political force.

Part II of this comment will address and support the point explicitly offered by Professor Lee--the claim that religion is political. This section will argue, however, that the political manifestation of religion is not confined to the instances when religion becomes involved in express political activity, such as lobbying or partisan politics. Rather, religion must be understood as a pervasive social force that has an inevitable political effect. Part III will address whether religion has been inappropriately marginalized in the public culture. It will show that the purported marginalization is more a matter of perception than reality. While it is true that there is a popular perception that religion has been inappropriately marginalized in American life, the reality is that religion has retained its power as a social and political force. Part III will also attempt to explain the discrepancy between the reality and the perception of the marginalization claim. Part IV will address the normative debate regard ing the role of religion and politics, and suggest that there are legitimate reasons why the overt involvement of religion in politics should be treated with some caution. Finally, Part V will use the example of school prayer as an example of why the mix of religion and politics can be harmful to the interests of both politics and religion.

II RELIGION AS POLITICS

Religion is a powerful force in the American political scene. Its political role, however, has many guises. Some are explicit, as when churches, religiously affiliated organization, or religious leaders become directly involved in partisan politics or legislative lobbying. …