Judging the President: The Perplexing Role of Religion in Public Life

Considering that the problem of church and state goes back at least to the time that Jesus proposed a division of labor with Caesar, it can hardly be surprising that America has never quite settled the role that religion should play in public life. Indeed, if Americans can be said to have made distinctive contributions to the problem, they appear to run in exactly contradictory directions. On the one hand, our First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, establishes a “wall” between church and state higher and more difficult to scale than those in other liberal democracies in Western Europe, where established state churches can still be found. (Sweden abolished its official ties to Lutheranism only a couple of years ago.) On the other hand, Americans seem to be far more pious and church-going than Europeans; Swedes, once again for comparison’s sake, tend to disdain the religiosity that pervades so many aspects of American public life.

Two hundred years after the brilliant writings of Madison and Jefferson on the topic, Americans cannot make up their minds whether religion is primarily private, public, or some uneasy combination of the two. A generation ago the Warren Court issued pronouncements that seemed determined to root out even the faintest odors of religiosity from the public square. Recently, both President Clinton and those who sought his removal from office appealed to religious imagery to buttress their cases. If we are confused, however, we have good reason: religion is too much part of American self-identity ever to be ignored, especially by institutions that shape our identity as much as government institutions do. Yet nearly all efforts to bring religion and politics closer together seem to end badly, especially in a society populated by people who love God but hate politics.