Religion’s Role in America

‘Last Freedom’ Explores How Issue Is Handled in Elections and Policy

Posted July 16, 2007 at 3:54pm

How do you solve a problem like religion, which simultaneously is bringing people together while pushing them apart? How can a politician assert his or her spiritual convictions without crossing that notorious line between church and state? From debates over abortion rights to prayer in public schools, can’t the “Religious Right” and the “Secular Left” learn to get along? [IMGCAP(1)]

In his new book, “The Last Freedom,” slated for release on July 25, Joseph Viteritti takes up these questions and arrives at surprising conclusions. While he draws on case studies over the past several years to illuminate the nuances of battles being fought in schools and courts, and harkens back to the work of the Founding Fathers to determine what “freedom of religion” really means, a major focus of Viteritti’s book is on what politicians need to do to effectively referee the most heated of political arguments surrounding religion.

“The key here is understanding what Americans mean by ‘religious,’” said Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College in New York City, in an interview. “According to a lot of polls we’ve seen over the last 25 years, America is considered the most religious country in the Western world … and that, while Americans don’t want to be governed by religion, they don’t want to see religion forced out of the public square entirely.”

The question of how religion should be addressed by policymakers in the Democratic and Republican parties is perennially asked, but it has gained a high profile recently. For example, a recent New York Times article focused on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) identification with “a liberal-leaning brand of Methodism … [which] places a premium on social activism,” while the July 23 issue of Time magazine ran a cover story on “How the Democrats Got Religion.”

Newspapers also are acknowledging religion’s importance in determining the outcome of the 2008 election, particularly in the case of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is Mormon.

In Viteritti’s view, both Democrats and Republicans are “getting it wrong” because they believe they must pander to one side or the other — for instance, some Republicans suggest they will legislate with Christianity to win the churchgoers’ vote, while many Democrats completely avoid religion to please voters who extol secularism. Viteritti says it is troubling that politicians have been unable to make sense of this duality, particularly Democrats, who he says lost the 2004 presidential election partially “because of a perception that the party is dismissive or hostile towards people of faith.”

“Politicians need to come to terms with the fact that, while most Americans believe in God, they don’t want [religion] to guide their lives,” he said. “This is a very important lesson. [Politicians] got it wrong the last [presidential election]. There was a mythology that was created about what religion means in America, and a real misunderstanding.”

In addition to identifying the will of one’s constituency, politicians also must be sincere: “It’s not for me to question sincerity of faith, but you get the sense listening to [some politicians] talk that it’s a prop. They say one thing and do something else.”

Viteritti does not dispute the importance of secularism; however, he proposes that since Americans place such a high premium on religion in their daily lives, it may be OK for a politician to publicly acknowledge his or her faith and the ways in which it might serve as a “moral compass.” In fact, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll in 2004 reported that 68 percent of respondents said it was important for politicians to have strong religious beliefs.

Candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 are starting to vocalize their religious beliefs, whereas before they left discussions of God to the Republicans, fearing they would alienate secular liberals, Viteritti said, adding that he respects Clinton’s work to find middle ground.

“Hillary is pro-choice, but she [acknowledges] the other side’s point of view,” Viteritti explained. “I think that’s an important step. I think [it shows] that both parties have learned from the mistakes in the last [presidential] election.”

The abortion debate is an example Viteritti returns to often, both within the text of “The Last Freedom” and in his discussions of the themes it covers. In his estimation, the two sides represent not necessarily religious standpoints, but rather standpoints of conscience. Religion may inform one’s conscience, but the discussion over when life officially begins is a “moral issue,” he says.

“If an individual truly believes that an action by the government is immoral, how could he or she in good conscience go along with it, even as a government official?” Viteritti writes. “Is one expected to take leave of one’s conscience upon entering public life? Or is it only religious convictions that one is obliged to leave behind in the name of church-state separation?”

This argument rings true for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who stated at the Sojourners/Call to Renewal gathering, as reported in the Time article by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”

Viteritti’s proposal that religion cannot disappear from politics may seem radical to readers accustomed to the standard of secularism in public life. He emphasizes, though, that he does not argue for religion to dictate policymaking; the majority of Americans don’t want that, anyway. In the end, it comes down to his belief in the good that religion can do in the lives of individuals, in moderation. Politicians should recognize that.

“Generations of social science research have informed us of the positive effect that religion has on civic and political life. It is indispensable in both spheres,” he writes. “The same religious convictions that include people towards moral judgment … incline them to do good deeds.”