Paul Pillar

The Toxic Mix of Religion and Government

Our mostly deist founding fathers had a really sound concept in keeping church and state separate, as expressed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They had in mind, of course, a background not yet very distant in their own past, involving a colonial power with an established church and colonies that had been populated in part by religious dissidents seeking to escape persecution. But their concept has just as much value today. Whenever some issue comes up that entails commingling of government and religion, careful examination almost always would lead to the conclusion that the best way to have avoided a mess would have been to follow the founders’ principle of keeping these two things separate. The brouhaha over contraception and health insurance—for a good perspective on this flap, see the commentary on it by Garry Wills—is only the most recent illustration. It demonstrated the downsides of sectarian religious interests trying to shape a government program according to their doctrinal preferences, including the downside of some politicians picking up the sectarian cause because they see a wedge issue that might help them.

The opinion pages in Tuesday’s newspapers have some useful insights on this subject. An op-ed by Samuel Rascoff, a law professor with practical experience in the New York Police Department, criticizes well-intentioned attempts by governmental authorities to discourage radical interpretations of religious doctrine. (His opening vignette involves White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan lecturing to a Muslim student group about what jihad does and does not mean.) Such attempts entail both a strategic and a legal problem. The strategic problem is that government is not a credible authority for religious interpretation. “Young Muslim men in the thrall of radical teachings,” says Rascoff, “will not embrace a more pacific theology because the F.B.I. tells them to, any more than Catholic bishops would have yielded to Mr. Obama’s plan to mandate coverage of contraceptives at Catholic hospitals if he had invoked canon law to defend his position.” The legal problem is that “a government official who sets out to determine what a contested concept within Islam means, or which imams have the right to speak for a particular community, would be in danger of transgressing one of the cardinal tenets of the Establishment Clause: the secular state shall not become an arbiter of religious content.” Rascoff has no problem with attempts to influence religious thinking in nonradical directions, but government will have to take a back seat to private efforts in doing so.

Rascoff notes that if voicing this sort of concern sounds unusual, it is because most cases involving the Establishment Clause that have made it to the Supreme Court in recent decades have concerned not encroachments by government on religion but instead encroachments by religion on government. We still see plenty of this sort of issue today, with many of the latest examples provided by the current non-Romney Republican front-runner, Rick Santorum. Last weekend Santorum voiced one of the odder accusations against President Obama: that the president is motivated by “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” As columnist Eugene Robinson aptly puts it, the position for which Santorum seems to be campaigning is theologian in chief.

If we're going to ignore any distinction between the political and the religious, maybe newly red-hatted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York ought to change hats (and sweater vests and vestments) with Santorum. Cardinal Dolan seems to have plenty of political skill, including a common touch. I'll bet if he threw his biretta into the ring right now, he would do pretty well in the Michigan primary. And Santorum sounds like he is running for pope rather than for president.

Another Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, adds a final perspective on all this. His column is about Saudi Arabia and especially about Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer who faces a possible death sentence for an irreverent tweet about an imaginary conversation with the prophet Muhammad. Cohen's piece reminds us that whatever is admirable about a state that is modernizing itself as much as Saudi Arabia is in important respects is overwhelmed by frightening medievalism when intolerant religiosity is merged with political power. The United States isn't yet close to Saudi Arabia in that respect, but we ought to be concerned about any steps that bring it closer.