Election Primer 2012: Religion and Government
Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. His books include "Sources of the Holocaust" (2004) and "Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich" (2012).
Engraving of Roger Williams meeting with Narragansetts Indians, 1856.
The religious beliefs of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have persistently been a major talking point in this presidential campaign. Some Christians do not consider Romney’s Mormon faith to be truly Christian. Although Obama’s beliefs should be popular among American Protestants, a surprising number of them believe that he is secretly a Muslim, as they also believe he was really not born in the United States.
As usual the media obsessively focuses on personal details rather than substantive issues. More important to this election are the parties’ views about the ideal relationship between religion and government.
Since the European settlement of New England in the seventeenth century, two opposing ideas about government and religion have existed in America. The Puritans fled religious persecution in England. In Massachusetts Bay Colony, they created one of the earliest protections of individual rights in America, the Body of Liberties, which included the freedom of speech and the right to bail and a jury trial.
But they also retained the European belief that citizenship should be based on religion, and that the state should enforce religious purity. Only men who had been examined for their religious views could vote. Christian ideas that did not conform to Puritan theology, as enunciated by their political leaders, were not tolerated. So-called "heretics" were fined, whipped, imprisoned, banished, or executed. Four Quakers were condemned and hanged between 1659 and 1661. Slavery existed in Massachusetts and some of the governors owned slaves.
One of those who was forced to leave was Roger Williams. He argued that the Puritans’ charter from the king was invalid because they did not pay the Native Americans for the land they took. Escaping imprisonment, he walked one hundred miles south to present-day Rhode Island in the winter of 1636, purchased land from the Narragansett tribe, and founded a new settlement called Providence Plantation.
Williams regarded any promotion by the state of religious ideas or practices as "forced worship," which "stinks in the nostrils of God." Williams invented the idea of a "wall of separation" between church and state to describe his vision of religious liberty.
Williams founded the first Baptist church in America, argued for equality between Indians and settlers, and organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in the original thirteen colonies. For decades the Massachusetts Puritans tried militarily and politically to destroy the Providence settlement.
These opposing views of religion’s role in government continue to animate Americans in the twenty-first century. Conservatives in the Republican Party bring up religious arguments to support public policy positions. The arguments made by those who want to challenge the teaching of evolution in public schools are all based on the Bible, not science, as a federal court in Pennsylvania found in 2005. Illinois Congressman John Shimkus opposed policies to deal with global warming by saying that the Bible did not support such an idea. Demands that state and national government prohibit abortion are made on religious grounds.
Some go further to demand that government funds and behavior support religious practices, always along Judeo-Christian lines -- for example the maintenance of a cross in the Mojave National Preserve in California or of a monument of the Ten Commandments at the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery.
Liberals in the Democratic Party argue that Biblical support for discrimination against gays or for the teaching of a creationist version of human origins should be irrelevant to government policy.
These competing views of religion and government lead to diametrically opposed reactions to the provision in the Affordable Care Act which compels employers to offer coverage for contraceptives in their health insurance. Republican politicians complain that the government is enforcing a law which compels some Christian institutions to violate their religious beliefs, but they wish to preserve the right of those institutions to enforce their religious beliefs on their employees.
Catholics in America do not believe that contraception is wrong. This is a religious dogma pronounced by a foreign religious hierarchy in Rome. In May, a Gallup poll found that 82 percent of American Catholics say birth control is morally acceptable. In February, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 58 percent of Catholics say contraception and birth control should be a required, no-cost benefit under their employer’s healthcare plan.
The argument between Democrats and Republicans, between supporters and opponents of making all institutions offer full health benefits to everyone, demonstrates how conflicting ideas about religion and government fit into struggles about private versus public powers. Conservatives argue that government should not make laws for anyone which contradict the religious beliefs of some. Private entities, like hospitals and companies and schools, should be allowed to enforce the institution’s religious beliefs on everyone connected with it. Liberals have argued, at least since the 1960s, that government’s responsibility to take care of all citizens can override religious beliefs.
It is ironic that the same people who argue that government health insurance policy, supposed to cover everybody, should make exceptions to accommodate a religious belief, also argue that the government should enforce a health policy, prohibiting abortion, because of their religious beliefs.
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