Why “Religion or Politics?” Is the Wrong Question

1947. National Park Service image of the installation of the bronze statue of Jefferson that replaced an earlier plaster version.

Our new president has encouraged America’s long-simmering conflict over Islam to come to a raging boil. The past few weeks’ headlines have included both anti-Muslim violence and pro-refugee rallies. But there is one assumption generally held in common by North Americans across the political-religious spectrum: the idea that “religion” and “politics” are two separate things.

To wit, a Washington Post headline recently asked, “Why do so many Americans believe that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion?” By “religion,” author Michael Schulson seems to mean “an ancient tradition with practitioners who believe in one God, pray and try to live their lives in accordance with a scripture.” Such an understanding of religion is apparently distinct from understandings of “politics,” “political-social ideology,” “political movement”—or indeed anything having to do with how people live their actual lives. “Certainly, some Muslims may believe that faith touches all parts of their lives, including their political involvement,” he concedes. “But the same could be said for devout members of almost any other religious tradition.”

I’m fighting the urge to say, “No, duh.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin critiquing the implicit assumptions here about what is or isn’t religion, and how it does or doesn’t differ from ideology or politics. To identify just a few, there is an assumption that faith is belief only, something that belongs in one’s mind but not in one’s body; an assumption that Christians are somehow better than Muslims at separating their beliefs from their actions; an assumption that people’s actions should not reflect or shape what’s in their heads and hearts; an assumption that you can police one without policing the other. An assumption, in short, that what we do with our bodies in space and time accords with some other ethos than the one we actually agree with. No wonder Americans are so unhappy—we have made a virtue of denying ourselves integrity in favor of psycho-somatic division.

Personally, I blame Thomas Jefferson for this state of affairs. Granted, he did his best to ensure that the religion of “Mahometans” would be as well-protected in the United States as those of any Protestant or Jew. But then he went and wrote that danged “wall of separation” letter to a Connecticut church in 1802—not knowing at the time that his words would become American gospel—in which he condemned Americans to centuries of shallow conversations (or better yet no conversations) about religion. He states, “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god,” and furthermore, “that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” In other words, “religion” for Thomas Jefferson meant something inward and private that governments can’t see, hear, taste, smell or touch.

Having just given government the right to deal with citizens’ actions only and not opinions, he then turns around and says that Congress is “inhibited from acts respecting religion,” and thus “occasional performances of devotion” are subject “as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.” So which is it? Do the nation’s elected officials have any legitimate interest in humans’ various religious practices, or not?

Exasperated readers will say, Come on, you know what he meant! Well yes, I suspect he meant only such “religious exercises” as prayers and communion that happened behind closed doors. The trouble is, people who pray or perform devotions tend to want their everyday lives to conform to those things. People who pray in a racist society may sometimes want to fight the status quo, engaging in abolitionism or civil disobedience. If they are pacifist, they may choose not to pay taxes to a government that engages in drone bombing. If they are atheist, they may refuse to say the pledge of allegiance with “under God” in it. If they are rabid football fans, they may come to work depressed and hung over after a particularly devastating loss (with condolences to Atlanta).

My point is perhaps too simple to be worth so many words. But it continues to be exceedingly difficult for most Americans to see that putting “religion” in a special box is the cause of a great many of our ailments. The Founders were absolutely right (gods bless ‘em) to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but they were a bit naïve about “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because they’d grown up in societies where pretty much everyone was white and Christian, they understood religious practice too narrowly—as that which took place inside church buildings. Their own cultural practices (like slavery, or nuclear families) were so normalized as to seem “natural” to them. Not until they encountered others for whom different practices came “naturally” did they realize their mistake. American history is thus full of debates over what is legitimately “religious” and protected by the Constitution, and what creeps into the realm of “politics” where crackdown is warranted.

A better question that I wish more Americans would ask is this: What kind of politics is X religion? What kind of politics is embodied by my Muslim neighbor? What kind of politics make the Amish distinctive? What kind of politics motivated the Civil Rights Movement, and how does it differ from the politics of the Movement for Black Lives? What kind of politics makes “nonreligious” people more generous than others? What kind of politics characterizes American evangelicals who voted for Trump? What kind of politics are we working toward as a nation?

But here we are, with a president who claims “Islam hates us,” conservatives who claim Islam is not a religion, and liberals who are okay with Islam as long as it doesn’t become “politicized.” There is, in short, little reason to hope that the conversation will change anytime soon.


Michael Schulson responds here.