Reconciling Religion and Politics in Post-Obama America

church and state

Hakim’s car smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, but it was clean and he greeted me warmly. Hakim was an African-American man with a raspy voice and a slight southern accent. This was my first experience riding Lyft, and it was a pleasant one. He asked me about my work and told me about his—he recently retired as a parole officer, and drives for Lyft on the weekends. Our conversation eventually turned to politics. I didn’t know what to expect. In the wake of an election that had been described as a “whitelash,” I wanted to tread carefully. I tried to say things that would assure Hakim that I understood something about the racial tensions that were unsurfaced and aggravated during and in response to the election. I wanted him to know that I appreciated President Obama and that I had not supported Trump’s candidacy. I was surprised when he said, “You know, I had a real hard time with this election. I actually voted Republican in the last two. Just couldn’t bring myself to vote for Obama. Religious reasons, you know? I had the same problem with Hillary. But Trump?” The way he said “Trump,” sliding into a raspy falsetto, made me laugh. That and my surprise: a middle-aged, middle-class African-American man voting for McCain and Romney rather than Obama, due to religiously-motivated objections (to gay marriage and abortion, as it turned out). Serendipitously, perhaps, our destination was a church. As I got out, he said, “God bless, my friend.”

I know that people of color are not monolithic, just as I recognize that many are forced to uncomfortable compromises when voting, trying to participate within a system that has often explicitly discouraged their participation, voting for what seems to be the lesser of two evils and the least likely to provoke direct harm to them and their loved ones. It is very likely that Hakim is not consistently conservative. But in a defining moment of American politics, he voted Republican. I’ve often wondered which candidate he voted for in 2016.  He never told me, but apparently it wasn’t a particularly straightforward question for him.

One of the reasons this conversation has stuck with me is that it was so different from the conversations I have with academics about people presumably like Hakim. Discussions of educational equity often center on race and the needs and desires of people of color. These discussions have never, to my memory, mentioned religion. This makes sense, because the majority of my professors and colleagues are not religious; it is unfortunate because the majority of people of color in the USA are. This has been suggested in research and supported by my own experience. When I taught middle school English in inner-city Las Vegas, most of my students (all but two of whom were people of color) were actively religious. Abyan played on the soccer team I coached, and she faithfully wore her hijab at our practices and games. Jorge often shares memes on Facebook about his belief in God. Dayvon has a slick suit and tie he wears to a local protestant church every week. The list goes on. While it is rather obvious upon inspection that religion plays an important role in the lives of many marginalized people, religion itself is often marginalized in much of public discourse. On a personal note, I regret that I didn’t do more to connect with my students’ religious lives. Religion mattered to my students, and that should have mattered more to me as their teacher, but I submitted to an unspoken taboo against mentioning faith in school.

There is some beauty in the way non-religious liberals, often from privileged backgrounds, advocate for non-privileged groups with religious backgrounds, and undoubtedly much good has come of it. However, I worry that progressive politics has tried to make minorities in its own image, rather than truly representing them as they are. Instead of religion, progressivism offers social justice—a scale skewed to one side, providing righteous indignation but no redemption, and solidarity but no sublimity. Religion, associated as it is with the Right, is reviled more than it is reverenced. The best kind of religion, from this perspective, is one that submits to the party’s agenda, one that people generally keep to themselves—a quiet, unobtrusive religion. I do not believe that is the kind of religion that motivates Jorge’s meme-sharing or Abyan’s hijab-wearing, and Dayvon’s tie is anything but quiet.

I am under no illusion that conservatism has done a better job at representing minorities. It may very well be worse than liberalism. But, by not eschewing religion, I believe it may be able to bridge gaps that liberals often ignore, and connect with marginalized people without marginalizing a core part of their identity. Of course, this alone will not make conservatism the preferred politics of people of color; conservatives will need to do more to diversify their representatives, and develop policies that truly help impoverished neighborhoods and protect marginalized people. But religion is a vital dynamic in the lives of many minorities, and representation that ignores or downplays something so fundamental will likely be somewhat superficial.

I am not suggesting that we tear down the “wall of separation” between church and state, but the way that wall is understood in practice is problematic. Too often, separation of church and state is construed to mean that religion should be purely private, playing only a nominal role in the public sphere. Even this is relatively benign. Other, more hostile understandings actively seek to delegitimize religion by suggesting that the purpose of separating church and state is to prevent an irrational and/or fraudulent entity from contaminating the government. This formulation casts government as virtuous and religion as a pollution. It would, of course, be equally problematic to assert the opposite, imagining religion as a purifying force that would cleanse and redeem the government from the ungodly. The problem with these perspectives is that they pit church and state against each other in a zero-sum game. What I am suggesting is that both the separation of church and state and the authentic validation of religion are virtues. They may at times be in tension with each other, but in general, are entirely compatible and equally beneficial to society. As such, we should seek to cultivate both, maintaining a separation of church and state without impugning the legitimacy of religion, and authentically validating religion without entangling it unduly in government.

Failing to validate religion will, I believe, result in continued social fragmentation on both personal and national scales. In many ways, I think that the absence of this reconciliation lies somewhere near the base of the political polarization we are currently witnessing. Religious people feel the need to defend against a secular siege, and secularists feel equally defensive against the faithful front. Left unchanged, the result will be further entrenchment and escalation. This will not serve anybody’s interest, least of all, our most marginalized (and most religious) groups.

Anybody opposed to Trump’s proposed border wall should be equally concerned about walling off the religious identities of immigrants who cross the border. To care about immigrant lives in any concrete way is to care about what makes their lives meaningful, and that often includes religion. Understanding the relationship of church and state along the lines I have proposed may help us both to care for the marginalized among us and to address the worrisome trend in our politics toward contentious division. (Perhaps, this could also help make some of Hakim’s voting choices less of a compromise.)

I know that the role of religion in public life is not the only issue at stake in politics today, and admit that I have painted with broad strokes here, but I believe this issue is particularly important. Consider, for example, how religion is implicated somehow in political responses to gay marriage, abortion, terrorism, and immigration. Questions of religion and its role in politics and in the world brim with potential energy. How that energy will manifest is now the question. People and parties all along the political spectrum can act to harness this energy by cultivating movements that embrace and validate their members’ religions. I do not pretend that embracing religion in a post-Obergefell v. Hodges, increasingly globalized America is simple, but I am convinced that it is both urgent and important. The other option is to stay the present course—and the potential energy may eventually fizzle out. But it could also explode.

6 thoughts on “Reconciling Religion and Politics in Post-Obama America

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful insight! I especially like that you’re not just identifying problems, which you do accurately, you’re also identifying solutions. My favorite part: “As such, we should seek to cultivate both, maintaining a separation of church and state without impugning the legitimacy of religion, and authentically validating religion without entangling it unduly in government.” I think our founding fathers did a good job of this.

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