Students joined with Assistant Professor of Political David O’Connell for a discussion on the role and influence of religion in American politics.
O’Connell gave some remarks before the group discussion. He described the relationship between religion and politics as “the most difficult question” in our politics. He gave a few examples of issues that have religious implications, including religious objections to vaccinations, teaching evolution in schools and tax dollars going to stem cell research.
O’Connell separated his remarks into two different questions. The first was “What role do we want for religion in our politics?” According to O’Connell, the public tends to say that religion should not be a part of politics in opinion surveys, with 55% agreeing with the statement “there should be a high degree of separation between church and state,” and 54% of respondents agreeing with the statement “religion should be kept out of politics.” O’Connell said that “Despite this abstract support, the public accepts the role of religion in politics.” Additionally, the national motto is “In God We Trust,” and is printed on all currency. According to O’Connell, this shows that Americans do not agree on a clear role for religion in public life.
The second question was “What’s the ultimate impact of religion on the health of U.S. politics?” O’Connell gave several examples of how religion is detrimental to politics. Women involved in religion are often impeded from involvement in politics. In a survey during the 2012 presidential election, 24% of respondents said that they would not vote for Mitt Romney because he was Mormon, or a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In extreme cases, anti-abortion activists have murdered doctors who work at abortion clinics based on their faith.
Yet faith plays a key role in the many aspects of civic life. O’Connell said that religious people are more likely to give to charity and volunteer more hours. According to O’Connell, religious life empowers many people and gives them practice with civic skills. Faith played a key role in the Civil Rights movement. It gave activists “the strength to stand tall,” O’Connell said. Faith also gives people the means to confront the morality of important issues like physician assisted suicide and capital punishment. Again, the answer is unclear. Faith has a mixed impact on how American politics works.
The conversation addressed how faith played a role in the 2016 presidential election. Some attendees wondered how evangelicals could support President Donald Trump. O’Connell said that it was “easy to understand,” despite Trump having “no personal involvement with religion and the way he has lived his life.” Evangelicals have long had tension with the Republican party. Even though they supported many Republican presidential candidates, Evangelicals did not see advancement in many issues that they care about. Trump shares their “broad frustration with typical political leaders,” O’Connell said. Trump also shares the perception that there is discrimination against Christians, which is prevalent among the evangelicals.
O’Connell suggested that Hillary Clinton missed an opportunity in the election. “Despite Hillary’s deeply held faith,” she did not discuss her faith at all, O’Connell said. “A slightly different pitch could have made the difference in a race that came down to 30-40,000 votes in three states,” O’Connell said.
Geoffrey Cole ’20 said that it “is only a modern phenomenon that there is a disconnect between faith and politics,” noting that historically the two were closely associated. That has shifted since the 1990s. O’Connell described how the political differences are now within religious traditions, not between religious traditions. Major disagreements are now between liberal protestants and conservative protestants, not between Catholics and protestants.
Kathryn Baker ’23 said she attended the event because she “grew up religious, see it interacting with people in my home state, and I was curious about it plays a role here.” Baker was surprised to hear that religious people were more likely to give to charity.
Aidan Birth ’21 appreciated the discussion of how political views influence religious views. Most discussion about religion in politics looks at how religious affiliation impacts political views. Birth asked if the opposite occurred, and O’Connell said that recent research has suggested that it does. although He said “surprisingly new. I thought there might have been more, especially from my own experiences.”
The event is part of CSSJ’s “Faith and …” series “that strives to connect faith and spirituality with various topics.” Cole organized the event for the CSSJ, said he was “glad talk about current events and Trump without getting to bogged down. The conversation was constructive, and Professor O’Connell deserves to be praised for that.”
The discussion was hosted by the Center for Spirituality and Social Justice. Titled “Faith and American Politics,” the discussion was held at Landis House on Tuesday Nov. 12.