In America there is ongoing reference to the issue regarding the separation of church and state, however a recent poll conducted by the PEW Forum on Politics and Religion indicated that a majority of American voters “believe” that lawmakers should be religious. While this may suggest a conflict between the constitutionally imposed separation between church and state, the reasoning behind this belief may suggest something quite different. It is also important to remember that the Constitution does not directly reference a separation of church and state, but refers to the establishment of religion, a philosophical concept found in Thomas Jefferson’s famous “Wall of Separation Letter,” written in 1802 in response to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association in 1801, which we know as the “establishment clause.”
The PEW poll referenced above suggests that while America appears to have become a more secular society there still remain some deeply entrenched and longitudinal beliefs where religious faith resides and one of those involves America’s leaders. A good example of this seemingly long held American belief can be glimpsed among the developing carnage surrounding the question of President Obama’s publicized religious beliefs and those inferred by many opposed to his presidency, e.g. the “Birthers” and Tea Party activists. However, irrespective of the conflicting views of whether President Obama is a practicing Christian or a closet Muslim, religion, according to the above referenced Pew Poll is still considered an important prerequisite for a political leader.
One of the reasons underlying the importance of this personal attribute is that religious belief suggest adherence to long held guiding principles that help lawmakers make good moral and ethical decisions that ultimately affect those they have been elected to represent. In other words, religious beliefs act as a type of moral compass that helps lawmakers in making the right decision and navigate the waters of moral and ethical uncertainty in reference to the laws they introduce, support or enforce, as well as their personal morals and ethics.
The results of the above referenced PEW poll is not a matter of denominationalism or even religious expression, rather it is based upon what the average American citizen perceives as a reliable foundation on which political leaders can build good morals and ethics. Accordingly, it is reasonable to understand that religion is the basis from which the determination of right and wrong derives, as well as the scale on which such decisions can reliably be balanced. To this end, we can find support in the book of Jeremiah, specifically Chapter 2 verses 5 and 6 where it is taught:
5 thus, says the Lord, “What transgression have your fathers found in Me, so as to go far from Me, to follow after vain and worthless things?”
6 They did not say, “Where is the Lord, Who led us out of the land of Egypt.”
Herein, the Prophet Jeremiah records that the apostates of his day lacked historical memory and therefore did not possess a reliable foundation on which to make decisions and therefore they turned away from their historic faith. This suggests that possessing and following religious beliefs can help political leaders avoid making unprincipled, unethical or immoral decisions. Therefore, religion is more than just a personal system of belief but is an important ingredient in building a moral and ethical society. For example, according to the PEW poll, approximately 61% or six-in-ten stated that “it is important that members of Congress have strong religious beliefs” (PEW Forum, p. 4, 2010). Accordingly, this can be extended to any religious belief that is based upon strong morals and ethics that defend the defenseless, ensure equality and prohibit the powerful from taking advantage of the powerless.
In the above sense, religion can be seen as that protective canopy which shields one from the harmful radioactive rays of immorality and unethical practices by reminding them that someone or something “greater” hovers over them. Thus, as in Jeremiah 2:6 when the people failed to ask “Where is the Lord, Who led us out of the land of Egypt,” they often made poor decisions and fell into unethical behavior and immorality. This is one of the reasons that many adherents of many religious expressions cover their heads in recognition of the one who is “greater” than they are and such head coverings are a continual reminder.
Religion therefore, is not so much about practice as it is about guidance. In other words, religious belief is similar to the constant reminder of what “mother told you” and influences all decisions, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously because the lessons are so well ingrained. This can explain, in part, why so many Americans believe that religious belief is an important attribute that all political leaders should possess and practice when making decisions that will affect the people they have been trusted to represent.
Therefore, it appears safe to suggest that religion rather than being an impediment to good governance, may instead be an important leavening in the unique American “melting pot” recipe.