I’ve expressed before that I have a deep discomfort with the obsession over faith (or lack thereof) in this country, and the way that God tends to be worked into a number of branches of government. So much for separation of church and state when every speech ends with ‘God bless you’ and every oath involves swearing on a religious text. So much for freedom of religion when it is automatically assumed that you must be Christian unless you actively prove otherwise, and when people of other faiths are viewed with extreme suspicion for their religious beliefs.
Yet another round of speculation over the President’s religious faith erupted last month, and I thought that a lot of people involved were asking the wrong questions. People demanded to know how it was that one fifth of people polled thought the President was Muslim when he’s made the fact that he is a Christian very clear and explicit; he attends church, he talks about God a lot, and he espouses many values associated with Christianity, including some values I happen to disagree with pretty vehemently, a pretty strong illustration of why we need to keep religion out of politics, because I do not appreciate having the values of a dominant religion forced on me by someone I elected to be a politician, not a religious leader.
But the question here shouldn’t be why so many people can get his faith wrong, but why his faith matters. The President’s religious faith shouldn’t be relevant to me or anyone else, other than himself and his family, because faith should be personal, not political. The problem here is not that extremists have used smear tactics to try and convince people that the President is Muslim, but that we have politicised faith.
This is hardly a new thing; talk as we might about enshrining the separation of church and state in the very documents used to establish this country, the founders were Christian, had Christian values, and expected the United States to be a Christian country. Faith was integrated into those founding documents just as much as shrewd politics was and it continues to be, thanks to the fact that most elected officials in this country are Christian, and overlay their values on their political practices. This is not entirely unexpected, as faith, while personal, also includes guidelines about how to live and how to treat others and these guidelines aren’t magically suspended when people step into the legislative chamber.
But it is troubling, and somewhat angering, to see the stranglehold that religious faith has over politics in this country. In my opinion, the faith of any elected official is not relevant to that person’s ability to serve in office. What is relevant is the person’s record, whether the person acts with integrity, whether the person is interested in promoting policy that I think would be good for this country. I don’t think that people should be required to perform faith for the public to get elected, to make a point of attending the right church and invoking faith-based blessings. I don’t think that sessions of Congress should open with a prayer. That offends me.
The politicisation of faith offends me, as I feel like it’s a constant reminder that non-Christians are lesser in this country, and always will be, and that people with no faith at all are especially low in the public’s esteem. We will always be reminded of our subordinate positions and lesser importance, every time we hear a speech on the radio, every time we are called upon to take an oath in court, every time we review policy recommendations where people drag religious subtext into how they feel about policy.
I think about this, for example, when reviewing the President’s stance on marriage equality. He says his position is informed by faith and he thinks marriage should be limited to being between one man and one woman. He is certainly welcome to think that; I have no interest in policing how people feel about things. But what he is not welcome to do is impose his personal views on the rest of the country. By stating them, he’s implying that he wants to see the status quo maintained. By approving defenses of things like the Defense of Marriage Act that compare homosexuality to beastiality and child abuse, he’s reminding us of exactly how he feels about us, and how he feels about equality for us.
I can see how he wouldn’t want to take a political position that contradicted with his faith, but at the very least, he could take a neutral position. And he is not the only politician in this position, so don’t think I am harping on the President. I am harping on all politicians who can’t put their personal values aside to make decisions about policy that are right for the country as a whole, on politicians who insist on forcing all of us to comply with their faith-based beliefs, with actions ranging from from abstinence-only education to teaching creationism in science classrooms. Because it’s harmful, and it runs contrary to the values we supposedly espouse, as a country.
If church and state are separate, than that is how they should be. We shouldn’t be passing legislation based on faith, and we shouldn’t be invoking faith in political speeches and in Congress and anywhere else. We shouldn’t be displaying the 10 Commandments or the hadith or anything else in government buildings. We shouldn’t be excluding citizens by reminding them that they, and their beliefs, are lesser and always will be. People talk about this country like it’s secular, but it’s not. How can it be, when Christianity is everywhere?