A Crowded Intersection: The Battle Between Religious and Secular Interests in the US Political Sphere
By Georgia Ray
Georgia Ray is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Cognitive Science and Urban Studies
The leaves are finally beginning to change, the weather is getting colder, and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Soon, families will gather to prepare mash potatoes, eat so much turkey they have to loosen their pants, and avoid talking about religion and politics at all costs. Discussing politics is provocative and the only thing that rivals politics in its divisiveness is religion. The intersection of religion and politics is a collision of ideals, morals, powerful people, hidden motives, uninformed beliefs, good intentions, and age old traditions. The old meets the new as millennia old belief systems try to reconcile their power with new age democracies, creating the United States as we know it today. However, in the modern battle between church and state, religious institutions have learned to harness their power in cohesive institutions to create a balance tipped in favor of those practicing a faith.
Much of the power that religious groups hold comes from their ability to mobilize like- minded individuals. As defined by Wikipedia, “A voting bloc is a group of voters that are strongly motivated by a specific common concern or group of concerns to the point that such specific concerns tend to dominate their voting patterns, causing them to vote together in elections” (Voting Bloc). Religious institutions are unparalleled in their ability to create voting blocs. Their beliefs are ingrained in followers since birth and religious values are taught to be appreciated above all else. Because religious institutions have established such a strong following with their “my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27) attitude, they are able to influence legislators who are too fearful to lose such a large constituency of votes.
Legislators are predisposed to be generous towards religious legislation, but this predisposition can lead them to be blinded by flashy titles and clever tactics, preventing research that would reveal the extent of the consequences of certain legislation. In a landmark case that built up to some of the most meaningful religious legislation to date, Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that two drug counselors, who had been fired due to their religious use of peyote, could not collect unemployment benefits. Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, explained that while religious persons were allowed to believe whatever they wanted to believe, thanks to the Establishment Clause, they are not allowed to supersede the laws of the nation to practice said beliefs. He proposed that the litigants pursue a legislative path to get an exception for the religious use of peyote, rather than working through the courts. They did so, but religious lobbyists took it even a step further, by convincing legislators to pass The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). They used the decision in Employment Division v. Smith as a rallying cry to convince others that the state of religious protection in the United States had decreased. The new protections provided by RFRA were unprecedented compared to what had been seen before in the United States (despite the use of the word restoration) and they were levied heavily in favor of religious persons, but because the title, many a legislator (and lobbyist) assumed that this act was simply a return to the religious protection of days past. In fact, even the ACLU backed the act, only to renege their support years later when they learned religious persons were invoking it to deny service to LGBT persons and other minorities (Melling). RFRA clearly used a clever title to mask its real intentions, which was to raise the interests of religious persons above all other interests in the United States.
Even when lawmakers do their research, there are ways for societally condemnable practices by religious people to slip through the cracks. This is seen by the actions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, two influential Christian Scientists in the Nixon administration. One of the last things Nixon did while in office was help pass the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. This act, wrought with good intentions, was undermined by Halseman and Ehrlichman who inserted a clause reading “No parent or guardian who in good faith is providing a child treatment solely by spiritual means — such as prayer — according to the tenets and practices of a recognized church through a duly accredited practitioner shall for that reason alone be considered to have neglected the child” (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act). This exception allows parents to continue faith healings which can lead to painful and unnecessary deaths for their children. Polygamy is another example of a religious conviction slipping through the cracks. Despite having been technically outlawed, polygamy is all but ignored in Utah, on a legal level. More than 90% of Utahns believe polygamy should be punished more harshly yet, “state and local officials seem reluctant to confront the issue head-on, leaving the furor to dominate discussions around water coolers instead of talks at the state's highest levels” (Byram). This hesitation in persecuting religious groups stems directly from the religious blocs they have created. Politicians in Utah know that if they cracked down on polygamy, they would lose the votes of that community, and that is simply not a risk they are willing to take. Too often, lawmakers are afraid to risk their official position, and in doing so they end up ignoring the opinions of majority voters, out of fear of losing the votes of the vocal minority.
This is only a fear that is confirmed in the recent midterm elections. Of all voters, 72% report attending church and 26% of all voters were white Evangelicals or born again Christians (Sciupac). Politicians see these numbers and are too afraid to cross religious groups because they make up such a large section of the voting population. In fact, Senator Manchin, who was just up for reelection is a great example. He was “up for reelection in a state the president won by nearly 42 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election” (King), and as such he was the only Democrat to vote for highly religious Kavanaugh in the Senate confirmation hearings leading up to election day.
This disparity between the treatment of religious and secular interests is not in line with how our country was conceived. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “separation between church and state,” but since its inception, his words have been twisted to create an America that is church over state, rather than a separation between the two. As The Nation reports, “Somehow the separation of church and state has come to mean blocking the state from protecting the civil rights of citizens and forcing it to support—and pay for—sectarianism, bigotry, superstition and bullying” (Pollitt). Religious persons are winning the battle at the intersection today, as they are able to control legislation from behind the scenes and form powerful voting blocs that bend the decisions of lawmakers to their wishes.
Religion is not an evil entity, and good reasons exist for protecting in many circumstances, however not in a way that disproportionately champions it over secular interests as is happening today. The time has come for lawmakers to do their research, stand up against religious convictions that are slipping through the cracks, and critically question whether supporting religious ideas is truly best for the community, or simply the best way to get a quick group of votes. Of course, this is easier said than done, and to assume that it would happen overnight would be the picture of nativity, but the power of a democracy, the power of America, is that one can always dream.
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Photo Credit: Unsplash: Jomar https://unsplash.com/photos/1HtojWDvEWE
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