Print Edition

  Email News Updates

OPINION: Religion Plays an Important Role in Public Life

By Lee Hamilton


The question of what role religion should play in American public life is difficult and controversial. It produces a lot of heated debate and no easy answers.

My view is that religion has a role to play in our political life and that its impact on our democracy is largely positive.

It’s true that religion can be misused in politics. Some politicians wield religion as a weapon, using it to support their positions; they argue, in effect, that God is on their side. We pay attention to political figures’ religious beliefs and practices, and may often question whether they are sincere, suspecting their displays of religion are for show.

Not surprisingly, Americans have debated where to draw the line between religion and government since the beginning.

The founders, who were not uniform in their religious views, left room for disagreement. In the Declaration of Independence, they said we owe our rights to “our creator,” but the Constitution doesn’t refer to God. State constitutions often reference God or the divine.

However, religious language is ubiquitous in American life. The Pledge of Allegiance refers to “one nation under God.” Our currency bears the motto “In God we trust.” Almost all presidents and most members of Congress have been affiliated with a church and identified as Christian.

Americans have mixed views on these matters. According to Pew Research Center surveys, just over half say it’s important for the president to have strong religious beliefs, and roughly half say the Bible should influence U.S. laws. About a third say that government policies should support religious values; a majority say churches should “stay out of politics.”

In fact, churches are not infrequently restricted by law in their political activity, despite constitutional protection of free speech and religious freedom. We’ve long had laws to prevent churches and other tax-exempt nonprofits and charities from participating in election campaigns.

The First Amendment enshrines freedom of religion as a fundamental right: Government can’t prohibit the free exercise of religion, and it can’t compel religious practice. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that the amendment created a “wall of separation” between church and state.

Some Americans argue that means there should be no connection between religion and government.

My view is that religion is integral to people’s lives and should be a part of our political discourse. Why? It focuses our attention on transcendent purposes, not just our own self-interest.

Faith traditions teach that we are all children of the same God or part of the same web of life. Religion fosters qualities of compassion and empathy, which is needed in public life. Some think of religion as being aligned exclusively with conservative politics, but that isn’t always the case. Churches and clergy have been at the forefront of efforts to abolish slavery, welcome immigrants, promote civil rights, and prevent war.

Religion and politics are certainly separate spheres. Religion is concerned with faith, beliefs, spirituality, morality, and, in some traditions, eternity. The primary business of politics is, of course, political power. Sometimes religion and politics seem diametrically opposed. Those of us who participate in politics must be careful when we bring religion into the public arena. The temptation is to suggest God approves of our political views and is on our side on the issues.

But religion can be an antidote to the selfishness, cynicism, and nihilism that often infect our politics. For that reason, I hope religion continues to play a role in our public life.      

Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.