One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. For a nation that claims to value the separation of church and state, the US’s pledge of allegiance is definitely not secular; in fact, the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge in 1954, after Reverend George Docherty and other religious figures appealed to President Eisenhower and asked that he request the phrase’s inclusion. “An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms,” Docherty once said in a sermon. “If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.”
About 22% of all Americans have no religious affiliation. Within that, some specifically identify as agnostic or atheist, others simply choose not to identify as anything. By Docherty’s logic, 1 in 5 citizens therefore ‘fall short’ of what it means to be an American, and that’s excluding everyone that identifies with a religion other than Christianity. Though his statement was one of personal opinion and is open to interpretation, the idea that ‘true’ American ideals and morals are Christian ones represents a small part of an ongoing struggle to separate American politics from faith and religion.
There’s a critical difference between, “my religion says I shouldn’t do this, so I won’t,” and “my religion says I shouldn’t do this, so you won’t”.
This is by no means a modern phenomenon. Religious groups have voiced in and influenced everything from slavery and early temperance (anti-alcohol) movements centuries ago to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the anti-war movement of the ’70s — it has shaped America’s history since the nation was founded. “What changed in the ’70s”, however, says political commentator Cokie Roberts, “was the willingness of evangelical Christians to get much more involved in politics”.
The term ‘Evangelist’ is an umbrella term that describes Protestant Christians. One quarter of all American Christians identify as Evangelical Protestants, and today, they are some of President Trump’s most critical supporters. Robert Jefferies, a right-wing conservative preacher from Dallas, praises Trump and VP Mike Pence, and many of the people in his community believe that Democrats are on the “on the wrong side of every issue”. In the last few decades, but particularly since Trump was elected in 2016, Evangelists have gone from being on the margins of the political sphere to becoming one of the most influential groups in politics, and see Trump as a way to implement the policies and laws they believe in.
So how, exactly, are religious groups shaping politics? Take abortion rights, for example.
After the landmark Roe V. Wade case in 1973 that affirmed a woman’s right to choose, numerous evangelical opposition groups like Focus on the Family and Operation Rescue began to push the issue of abortion to the very center of the Republican party’s interest. Some groups used hands-on, physical tactics like blockading abortion clinics and using violence to draw attention to their cause from all the commotion. Others, like Right to Life, began to appeal to state legislatures and pushed for incremental laws to be put in place that placed more and more restrictions on abortion access. Even today, these groups have been the loudest voices in the push for more pro-life legislation, like the heartbeat bills that 6 states implemented last year, making it essentially impossible to have an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
In the abortion debate, there is an important distinction that religious pro-life groups have failed to recognize. There’s a critical difference between, “my religion says I shouldn’t do this, so I won’t,” and “my religion says I shouldn’t do this, so you won’t”. The first amendment to the constitution establishes the free exercise of one’s religion, but that does not extend to the free imposing of one’s religious beliefs on others.
When it comes to immigration, white Evangelicals are “significantly more conservative than the average American”; 60% of a surveyed group wish to eliminate family-based migration, and 75% supported witholding federal funds from sanctuaries for asylum seekers.
But in this debate, a selective religiosity comes into play; faith is a valued pillar of the GOP—until it isn’t. In response to the overwhelming conservative support of these anti-immigrant policies, many critics were quick to point out that family-based migration was exactly how First Lady Melania Trump’s parents were able to come to the US. In addition, they recalled the Bible passage that reads, “when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.” Ultimately, the Bible is being used to justify bigoted views in America, and there is also an inherent hypocrisy in choosing to ignore the parts of it that don’t fit in with those views.
There is also a massive double standard in America about how religiosity in politics is perceived. Particularly in the conservative view of things, Christian politicians are viewed as godly, respectable individuals, but politicians of other religions are labelled much differently. For example, many internet users were shocked and infuriated that Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, muslim women, were sworn in on the Qur’an, some viral Tweets going so far as to say it was “unpatriotic” and “satanic”. Whether this rhetoric comes from a lack of education about – and exposure to – religions other than one’s own, or a genuine deep-seated dislike for the values of another religion, it doesn’t matter – the impact is the same. In America, it’s okay to bring your religion into your politics… so long as it’s the preferred one.
Yes, it is true that the large majority of Democrats are openly religious, just as many of their colleagues across the aisle are. The issue is not that politicians identify as religious. It’s the act of allowing one’s faith to be the justification for political views and decisions that’s the problem, and it’s one that’s hard to avoid. Religious beliefs have become so inseparable from the Republican party itself that it has almost merged into one thing – the shared values, and largely, shared population, have made conservative politics go hand in hand with religion in a way that left-leaning politics does not.
Though more and more individuals today, particularly young people, are identifying as non-religious, the fact is that America still remains a country deeply influenced by faith. When trusting God is imprinted on the currency of a nation and the President is sworn into office with the words, “so help me God”, that’s definitely clear – and it’s difficult to make the argument that this alone is discriminatory. But when when complex issues that affect millions of individuals are reduced to a moral debate of what is ‘right’ under the values of one religion, this is where the danger lies.