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The West Wing - Down in Albion ... young love tripped up on a Rainbow

About The West Wing

Previous Entry The West Wing Oct. 27th, 2010 @ 12:01 am Next Entry
I know that this is a TV show, and thus not 100% real life, but hear me out.

What I don't understand is this: if there is a constitutional separation of Church and State, why do politicians in the US spend so much of their time promoting/campaigning/lobbying from religious perspectives?

In all the crap leading up to the General Election in May, I don't remember any MP explicitly referencing their faith-based beliefs on political issues. In fact I don't remember anyone's religion being mentioned at all, except perhaps to criticise the Blair government for Blair being Christian (or perhaps to question the 'collective act of worship in schools' rule, though this might more be me projecting my own question). All of which is odd, when you consider that we have a national religion. We are in fact, in a way made impossible by the US Constitution, one nation under God, since we have a state faith and a head of state who is head of said faith.

Perhaps it goes back to Elizabeth I and her radical assertion that she 'did not wish windows into men's souls'. Perhaps even as far back as that, when CofE was a mere fledgling, we were moving towards an ambivalent attitude to religion in government, and perhaps the ease with which the church ceased to be biblically literal and accepting of the theory of evolution has developed into the take-it-or-leave-it approach taken by the electorate. Or perhaps, in having CofE we negate the need for a religious debate for just that reason: we are officially all members of said church, and thus we adopt a 'no windows' approach to the possibility that governing persons are not members: they must accept that parliament begins with prayer (though they are not obliged to attend) and remember the church's role but thereafter... I don't actually know the official rule for the Commons (though I would imagine there is no such legal discrimination by faith), but we shouldn't forget that 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords.

I think as I have been writing this, I have argued myself into my opinion on the UK, but I still remain bamboozled by the US. If church and state must be separate, then why do you swear on the bible? If church and state must be separate, why does the Pledge of Allegiance talk of 'one nation under god'? If church and state must be separate, why do politicians spend such a lot of their time campaigning or endorsing religious questions?

Anyway, I think that ramble was more to get my own thoughts straight that anything else. Not illuminated, but perhaps the shape of an opinion might be beginning to form.
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Date:October 27th, 2010 09:40 am (UTC)
My knowledge of historical and contemporary political issues is very basic, and possibly wrong, but here goes nothing.

Some of the original immigrants who came to the U.S were fleeing religious persecution, weren't they? Granted, some of them had crazy religions, but they wanted to be free to have their beliefs, and proclaim them, and worship how they saw fit. Instead of a religious don't ask don't tell, they wanted to be able to proselytize and not get into serious trouble. So to start with, culturally, "Americans" are worried about other people preventing their communion with God.

Of course, because there were lots of people with different beliefs, they couldn't just establish one state religion, because it would create the same situation they had fled. So while the first amendment prevents the establishment of a single nationally adopted religion, it also preserves the right to worship to each person.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Essentially, you've got a lot of people who are pretty keen not only on God, but also the particular fashion in which they worship God. People who believe that their religion is right, while others are wrong, and who will never, ever be allowed to formalize that in law.

But again, an individual's right to have and express a particular religion is just as strong as the prohibition of religious legislation. But if your lawmakers are all of your religion, who needs an official law? If every legislator is Christian, the things which Christian religion prohibits will be prohibited, with or without the mention of God as the driving force behind those prohibitions.

The States are so big. There are so many people, and so many regions, and so many diverse issues at stake. While it would be better if we all addressed each candidate individually, looking at their voting record and comparing that to their stated positions and extrapolating their capacity for truthfulness and integrity. But it's exhausting. So we cheat. How do I know what kind of political decisions are right for a Senator of Illinois to make? I don't. So the voter looks more broadly at what kind of person a politican is. They look at party membership, and general values. And for some people, religion is a major factor. Plus, when it comes down to it, the political is personal. It's harder than it should be to talk about "political values" without being blinded by social issues.

It's one thing to dismiss a statement about "believing in traditional family values" as being unimportant. But if that person is going to go on to draft and vote on legislation that concerns welfare, or maternity leave, or support for single parents who need childcare, maybe weighing a social position is important.

As for the swearing on the bible, and the pledge, I think it's more traditional than anything else. A promise is a promise, however you verify it. It was seen as the most important thing to swear by, so people swore by it, and it was enshrined by tradition.

Here, you have an established religion, and the history of bloodshed that unfolded in its wake. So eventually you produce more robust protections to prevent that kind of chaos happening again. At least, that's how I imagine it.

I feel so thoughtful now.
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Date:December 18th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC)
That was a very thoughtful response, Kate. I was about to be more flippant and say it's because we're a nation of hypocrites.

But I do think that the history of religious persecution and the absence of a state religion creates the idea that in order for the values of a certain religion to be protected, we must continually fight to get representatives of the religion into the government, because the government in itself if not a protector of the religion in the way it is in England. By "history of religious persecution", I mean not that Americans actually remember being persecuted, but that the strains of Christianity that are prominent in America tend to be derived from the more extreme ends, because they were the ones who were persecuted in England. So we have religions that already tend toward the extreme and the paranoid, in a society where the government is not by default a protector of religion, and it becomes even more important to people that they see their own religion represented in the person of Senators and Congressmen.

We've made so much progress with different races and genders among elected officials. And still, the worst thing you can say when you're running for any elected office is that you don't believe in god.
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