Today, in an op-ed at the New York Times, David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, turn their attention to the Tea Party and determine that it’s not their desire for a smaller government that unites Tea Partiers, but their desire to “mix religion and politics.” This, Campbell and Putnam suggest, is counter to the will of the American people. They note that Americans have become more conservative economically, but less likely to support the commingling of religion and politics.

This would seem to blend with Andrew Sullivan’s rhetoric about “Christianists” that I addressed here last week. Sullivan suggests that Christians should express their faith in a more “libertarian” way; faith should be a private matter and citizens should not expose their politics to their beliefs.

If Campbell and Putnam suggest that this is what Americans want, and Sullivan’s libertarian Christianity provides a way forward, perhaps that should be the end of the debate. Except, of course, that there is a disparity between what Americans say we want, and how we actually live our lives.

The underlying notion that buoys the popular opinion that religion and politics should not be mixed is a good one. It is based on the understanding that we live in a pluralistic society that is ruled by a secular government. The founders of our nation sought to avoid the kind of religious intolerance and theocratic rule that had dominated history to that point. This is good. But maintaining a pluralistic society and a secular state does not require citizens to divide themselves into believers on certain days and citizens on others. It is both impossible and undesirable to maintain this kind of split personality.

It feels progressive to say that we should’t mix religion and politics, because it feels like by saying so we are upholding the dream of our founders, but when citizens allow their politics to be informed by religious convictions, they are not leading our country down a slippery slope toward theocracy, they are being fully engaged citizens. This requires dialogue and compromise, give and take; it is not the easiest way forward, but, really, it’s the only way.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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