A recent Pew Center survey found that Americans are rethinking the role of religion in public life. For a decade, a majority favored organized religious involvement in the political arena — to the consternation of most liberal American Jews but with the general support of the Orthodox community.
Now, a narrow majority (52 percent) believes the nation would be better off if religious leaders stayed out of political discourse, according to the Pew Center, a leader in religious polling.
Most of this reconsidering has taken place among conservative Christians, the group most identified with the mingling of religion and politics on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the public financing of religious-run educational and social institutions. Four years ago, 30 percent of religious conservatives said houses of worship should stay out of politics. Today, 50 percent express this view.
How do we reconcile the poll findings with the presidential candidates and their parties’ continuing efforts to establish their religious bona fides? A flip, but not entirely incorrect, answer is that politicians are always a step or two behind public sentiment, no matter how visionary they try to sound.
A better answer is that because polling questions are narrowly focused, they produce equally narrow answers; when Americans say they want religion out of politics, they are differentiating between the often harsh and self-serving judgments offered by media-savvy religious politicos and their own deep-seated religiously derived values.
To put it another way, Americans favor the separation of church (or synagogue) and state — even as they make their political decisions through a prism of personal faith.
Here’s how New York-based Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, put it on the Washington Post Web site On Faith:
“The separation of church and state is one of the great ideas of the modern world. It attempted to end the thousands-year-old tradition … of people using state power to kill other people in order to make God happy. But the idea that faith should be separated from politics is one of the worst expressions of ‘baby-out-with-the-bathwater’ thinking that has come along in almost as many years.”
Faith, he rightly explained, shapes values, which give rise, in turn, to political inclinations. Simply put, there is no getting around the influence that personal religious values — be they liberal or conservative — have on political beliefs.
But it’s not just people who profess to have faith whose politics are shaped by it. This is because all cultures are, at their core, vessels for disseminating the values of the religion that shaped their development. Whether we like it or not, we are influenced in virtually all matters by the religious culture into which we are born, whether we are personally observant or not.
American culture — as is Israeli, Indian, British or Dutch culture, for that matter — is infused with religious values simply because all civilizations spring from a set of religious ideals. As Huston Smith, the renowned religion scholar, notes: “It’s [religious] revelations that set civilizations in motion and establish their trajectories.”
Here’s how this works, using justice as an example: We take it for granted that justice is a good thing, that a moral person strives to act in a just manner, and that justice is a basic human right. Where do these notions come from? From the Hebrew Bible, of course, the root of all Western religious thinking (including Islam) and, hence, all Western notions of justice.
We might disagree on what constitutes justice, but the belief that justice is preferable to injustice is a universally accepted value of religious origin, despite the persistence of injustice everywhere.
By way of comparison, Eastern religions traditionally did not speak about justice. Their closest equivalent was harmony. One acted not out of a sense of what is just, but out of what advanced communal and personal harmony — a subtle difference, but equal to justice as a force in ordering human activities.
The United States consistently ranks among the most religious of industrialized Western societies. Americans are, I believe, also among the most just of people, not withstanding some obviously egregious failings. So don’t be fooled. Americans may tell pollsters they are fed up with those religious leaders who loudly seek to control the political conversation — in particular those from the Christian right, as the Pew survey makes clear, who have tarnished religion by aligning it too closely to partisan politics. But their desire for political leaders who espouse faith-derived personal values and make no bones about it remains undiminished.
And Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain know this. Look for both candidates to continue playing the personal faith card to the hilt.
Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization.” This column originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.