Many Americans are uneasy with the ways religion has been infused into politics. Religious beliefs that conflict with laws, court rulings, and personal freedoms have been divisive in our nation. Religious freedom was nevertheless central in our nation’s founding. Politicians’ religious beliefs are qualifying factors for public office and government service. Religious affiliation and beliefs are considered indicators of one’s honesty and integrity.
Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers agreed on the principle of religious freedom. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion and guarantees the freedom of religion. Sometimes the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause come into conflict. The federal courts help to resolve such conflicts, with the Supreme Court being the ultimate arbiter.
The separation of church and state has come under scrutiny after the Supreme Court sided with religious conservatives in a series of rulings. One of the rulings allows states to fund religious schools indirectly, while another protects religious schools from federal employment discrimination lawsuits.
Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government throughout our history. The increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans seems to draw more attention to the issue. Church and state nevertheless remain intertwined in many ways, with majority public support.
The Pew Research Center has identified eight facts about the connections between religion and government in the United States:
1) The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention God, but every state constitution does. God does appear in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.
2) Most members of Congress are self-identified Christians.
3) Almost all U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump, have been Christian. Two of our most famous presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, had no formal religious affiliation. Most U.S. presidents have been sworn in with a Bible, concluding their oath of office with “so help me God.”
4) Half of Americans feel it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs.
5) Americans are divided on whether our laws should reflect Bible teachings, but half of U.S. adults say the Bible should influence U.S. laws.
6) Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) say churches should stay out of politics; and 75% believe that churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another during elections.
7) Only about a third of Americans (32%) say government policies should support religious values.
8) The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it is unconstitutional for a teacher to lead a class in prayer at a public school, though only 8% of public school students ages 13 to 17 say they have ever experienced this.
The saying that “politics and religion don’t mix” is supported by this national survey. But this is not an overall negative view of the church and religion. U.S. adults have a favorable view about the role religious institutions play in American life more broadly, beyond politics. More than half of the public believes that churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society. Likewise, there are far more U.S. adults who say that religious organizations strengthen morality in society and mostly bring people together.
What About “Religion and Truth”?
Is there evidence to support the belief of most Americans that religious organizations strengthen morality in society? Does this mean that persons with religious beliefs and church affiliation are more honest and truthful?
Two common public practices support a belief in “religion and truth.” Most candidates for public office are sworn in with their right hand on a Bible and swear allegiance to the constitution and the state. While no religious test is allowed, most oaths conclude with the statement “so help me God.”
The second practice that aligns religion and truth occurs in courtrooms throughout America every day courts are in session. All witnesses and persons testifying in a court of law must first take an oath by swearing (on a Bible or raising their right hand) to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
There are cultural and historical traditions that explain the origins of swearing an oath of allegiance, honesty, and truth. What seems most clear is the central emphasis of truth and honesty in Judaism and Christianity. The Hebrew and Christian Bible (the Old and New Testaments) feature repeated references to truth, honesty, and integrity before God and our neighbor.
The well-known “Ten Commandments” feature two that especially pertain to promises of honesty and integrity for those in public office as well as for all Americans all the time. Those commandments are the prohibitions against stealing, and against bearing false witness (Deuteronomy 5: 19-20).
Failure to “tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God” is a sin against God and a violation of judicial procedures punishable under the law for perjury.
When asked which commandment was the greatest one, Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
The Bible contains very few references or guidelines as to the proper balance between religion and government. But there is no doubt that “religion and truth” are invariably connected and recognized as essential for governmental and judicial procedures.
“The truth”? Yes, it’s something we ought to do. But it’s also what is best for me, my neighbors, and the nation.
Jesus said to those who believed in him: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
Truth and freedom? Now those are religious and national values worth striving for and working toward!