Entangling Religion and Politics Diminishes Both

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Rev. Welton Gaddy says our founders sought to put constitutional space between religion and the nation’s new government for a very good reason. They deeply valued both.

“What the authors of the Constitution knew well from experience is, every time, historically, religion and government became entangled institutionally, it’s been bad for both institutions. Religion loses. Government loses,” said Gaddy, national president of the Interfaith Alliance. He met with our editorial board Wednesday and spoke at Coe College last night.

“That’s a tremendous insight into government that’s more relevant now than when it was passed,” Gaddy said.

It’s the old double-edged sword, but we tend to focus only on one edge. There’s a lot of talk about how religion influences our politics, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle. Gaddy is worried about candidates who, for example, say their presidential campaigns are divinely inspired.

But there’s less focus on thge other edge - how politics and politicians are diminishing religion. When a candidate uses religion as a strategic political chess piece, or a weapon against rivals, he or she is also selling the priceless and sacred for a fistful of votes.

“That hurts religion implicitly, subtly, by making it just another conversation along with the economy, immigration, all of those issues,” Gaddy said. “It’s almost desacralizing religion, bringing it down to a commonality that religion doesn’t really fit.”

Religion is deeply personal. And personally, closely following politics for a long time has left me a disillusioned and troubled Christian. There are folks who insist that taking a stand in favor of marriage rights for gays and lesbians means I’m actually not a real Christian.

The faith I came to know and love for its comforting embrace has been wielded time and again as a club to intimidate and as a wall built to divide us. And it’s funny how the path to righteousness being blazed by our various pastors of politics always seems to lead to their own enhanced power and wealth. I must have missed that night in confirmation class.

Neither Gaddy nor I believe you can or should erase religion from politics. As he says, it’s never been done in the country’s history. Religion is important to many of us. People are free to bring their values to bear on their vote. And candidates are free to share how they’ve been shaped by faith.

But what we don’t need are candidates determined to impose the unflinching absolutes of their religious faith on a large and diverse republic, while at the same time transforming the sacred into the Super PAC.

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