Religion and Democracy

Current events have brought the separation of church and state and the role of religion in the affairs of the state to the forefront of modern democratic discourse. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 created a wave of fear against those perceived foreign and non-Christian, particularly for those who were Arab-American, Muslim, or Sikh. In the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, President Barack Obama, a Christian, would be accused numerous times of being a secret Muslim, a socialist, and foreign-born. Bans on gay marriage were erected and destroyed. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act would be created and eliminated. And in this modern time, we now see attempts to create religious freedom laws ostensibly to protect the religious values of American citizens who might otherwise have to provide gay men with wedding cakes or provide birth control as a pharmacist. A fear of moral decay and religious irreverence has motivated many social and religious conservatives to push religious freedom laws as a means of preserving religious and political power for their own gain in temporal power.

What does Tocqueville offer us on this point? Tocqueville wrote:

“In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country. My desire to discover the causes of this phenomenon increased from day to day. In order to satisfy it I questioned the members of all the different sects; and I more especially sought the society of the clergy, who are the depositaries of the different persuasions, and who are more especially interested in their duration. As a member of the Roman Catholic Church I was more particularly brought into contact with several of its priests, with whom I became intimately acquainted. To each of these men I expressed my astonishment and I explained my doubts; I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone; and that they mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country to the separation of Church and State. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet with a single individual, of the clergy or of the laity, who was not of the same opinion upon this point.” [1]

Sadly, our modern times has seen a great resurgence of interest by certain members of the faithful to interpose their religious beliefs upon other American citizens in a sort of Christian imperialism. Indiana has become the most recent state to enact a religious freedom bill into law. 19 states have laws similar to Indiana’s and the federal government has one as well [2]. These laws were created to protect discrimination against certain American citizens by other Americans in the name of God. As Tocqueville observed, this is nothing new, for he describes what happened to a witness who did not subscribe to the religious majority’s viewpoint; “Whilst I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester (State of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God, or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all the confidence of the Court in what he was about to say.” [3] When faith is used to discriminate and dispossess people of their rights, it transforms democracy into a tyrannous theocracy.

De Tocqueville warns against such marriages of church and state. In his own words,

“I am aware that at certain times religion may strengthen this influence, which originates in itself, by the artificial power of the laws, and by the support of those temporal institutions which direct society. Religions, intimately united to the governments of the earth, have been known to exercise a sovereign authority derived from the twofold source of terror and of faith; but when a religion contracts an alliance of this nature, I do not hesitate to affirm that it commits the same error as a man who should sacrifice his future to his present welfare; and in obtaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks that authority which is rightfully its own. When a religion founds its empire upon the desire of immortality which lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself with a government, it must necessarily adopt maxims which are only applicable to certain nations. Thus, in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few, and forfeits the hope of reigning over all.” [4]

We would do well to heed this advice and keep church and state separate.

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3 Responses to Religion and Democracy

  1. azucenagonzalez598 says:

    It is interesting to think of the separation of the church and state, especially when the reference to God (the Christian God) is made in various ways:

    -Currency having the phrase “In God we trust” on it
    -Being sworn into office and one needing to place their hand on the Bible
    -Testifying in court in which one needs to place their hand on the Bible

    I could not agree more with John F. Kennedy when he said that he should be voted on based of his standing on issues rather than his religion. What I find even more interesting is the notion of freedom and how that seems to be thrown out the window in regards to religion. John F. Kennedy was Catholic and a huge commotion was made over it. Thank goodness it was a Christian religion! Can you imagine what would happen if he happened to practice Hinduism? It could be seen as very un-American. Hopefully we can get to the point where the separation of the state and church actually happens. However, with the bills that are passing that allow for discrimination are disheartening and seem to point in the opposite direction of what I would think is progressive.

  2. zinbad says:

    I came across an article relevant to this topic as it challenges three misconceptions about Indiana’s new religious discrimination law, some of which are found in my second citation from my post above. The first misconception was that the Indiana law is similar to the federal law I mention in my original post. According to this article, the Indiana law is far more powerful and overreaching than the federal law. Additionally, the intent behind the two laws is different. The Indiana law was intended to allow religious people (primarily socially conservative Christians) to discriminate against the GLBT community. According to the article, the federal law was intended to protect Native Americans using peyote in traditional ceremonies or Muslim men in prison wearing short, trimmed beards. The second point of the article is that the Indiana law is the first to recognize corporations and businesses as religious “persons” in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision. The last claims President Obama supported a religious freedom bill as a Senator. He did support something similar to the federal law which was intended to protect religious minorities from discrimination, not something like the Indiana law which allows businesses to discriminate against people on religious biases.

    The Source:

  3. Interesting post! The questioning the separation of church and state is a topic that can be discussed a whole class period if we had the opportunity. We were founded by a bunch of individuals escaping religious prosecution. Our ideas in the Constitution are heavily influenced by religion. The United States has claimed to have a separation, but there are many examples that would prove otherwise. For instance, I think about the pledge of allegiance. We tell our students to recite this every morning in class. I recall myself doing this everyday with my hand over my heart. Although god is mentioned, it does not really mean anything, right? We are supposed to separate church and state, but we all are asked to do this. Some say that schools are not trying to influence the young with religion since that is the choice of the parents rather it is an attempt to develop a connection in the young. Is it an attempt to create a connection between kids and this country? I mean, it is titled the pledge of allegiance. Are our kids swearing to god to be loyal or are we trying to have them accept the notion of god? According to multiple sources, the original Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister.The topic you bring up is interesting and I just figure that this action may be small, but what is the impact? This is a question of the need for students to say this would lead to the idea of separation of church and state. How much of an influence does it have? I do not know, but the United States has historically claimed we are separate, but this is a questionable claim.

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