The U.S. is a nation where religion and politics have intersected uneasily. Although the two are officially separate, religious sentiments have repeatedly influenced U.S. society at key junctures. Abolition, temperance, the civil rights and anti-war movements, and the ongoing abortion debate all have drawn heavy participation from foot soldiers of the faithful.
And Justice Sunday, the Apr. 24 simulcast to churches to rally religious conservatives who want to deny Democrats the ability to mount a filibuster barring votes on President Bush's judicial nominees, is no exception. But the rancor surrounding the event has become so unseemly that it raises a vital question: After a quarter-century of arguing about the growing impact of religion on American politics, could this intermarriage with politics inadvertently take its toll on religion?
This is no small question. Although the Founding Fathers crafted the U.S. as "one nation under God," they enshrined in the Constitution that there was never to be a state religion -- and, by extension, no one religious group was to be held in higher esteem than any other. However, the heated rhetoric over Justice Sunday -- some organizers of the event suggested that Democrats were anti- Christian for not supporting the Bush Administration's judicial nominees -- suggests that more worldly forces are at work. In this nasty tussle over the procedural workings of the U.S. Senate, religion is being used as a cudgel to pound opponents who, like all citizens, should be free to voice their opinions without being demonized.
To be sure, Americans of faith have long been active in the political arena concerning matters that affected their beliefs. But even in the mid-19th century, another time of strong evangelical fervor in the U.S., these religious interests often worked outside the political establishment.
No more. Aided heavily by the growing number of U.S. evangelicals, the increased power of religious groups, and the GOP's courting of evangelicals, religious interests today are firmly on the inside.
But God isn't supposed to be Blue State or Red State. Turning Justice Sunday or any political issue into a kind of holy-vs.-heathen debate ultimately cheapens religion and weakens its power to transform and uplift.
The religious community should remain involved; that's the right and responsibility of every American. But what makes religion so potent is its ability to cross divisions like racial, regional -- and party -- lines. So when religion is used in the exclusionary manner we're increasingly seeing in some political quarters, it just seems like divide-and-conquer politics as usual.