Within a one-mile radius of my house, there are more places to pray than there are Starbucks coffee shops.
I know this because I tried to count each of them. After an hour’s walk around my neighborhood, I lost count of the many churches (in a multitude of denominations), synagogues (no less than five in one two-block stretch), temples, and mosques. That doesn’t even include the storefront places that advertise religious services of some sort. There were so many places to receive a blessing that I lost count after exceeding several dozen. That’s when I turned my attention to finding a cup of joe. It was easy—there are only three Starbucks locations within walking distance of my house.
My failed experiment proved something that our political leaders would do well to understand. Our nation’s founders knew what they were doing by not establishing a state religion. A nation as diverse as ours can never settle on a single set of faith principles to cover us all in glory. As a society America embraces all faith traditions, while as individuals many of us pray in spirit-filled fellowships of the like-minded.
Our nation doesn’t lack religious faith. What we lack is uniformity of religious expression. There are black Mormons, Latino evangelicals, Asian Protestants, and Muslims of all hues and races. Religion thrives in the fertile diversity of American culture. This is a good thing.
Unfortunately, some political and religious leaders fail to understand or appreciate the value in the blooming of faith traditions within a secular government. For them religion is a one-size-fits-all edict or a blunt weapon used to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with their narrow and exclusive views.
How else can we explain the pretzel-like contortions of Rev. Franklin Graham’s comments on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”? Employing logic that smacked more of political opportunism than spiritual conviction, Graham expressed doubts about President Barack Obama’s faith, despite the president’s repeated declaration that he is a Christian. Yet Graham said he was absolutely convinced that GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was a Christian.
Santorum has also questioned President Obama’s faith in the past but now says he accepts the president’s professions of his faith. Still, Santorum’s campaign seeks to make religion a centerpiece to his White House run. “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Santorum said last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” "The idea that the church should have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical of the objectives and vision of our country.”
Such an opinion stands in marked contrast to what President John F. Kennedy said during his famous 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said, seeking to overcome the anti-Catholic prejudice of that time and place in our history.
President Kennedy, who became the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, sought to ease some voters’ fears that he would take political orders from the Vatican. Rather, he expressed a vision of America where politics and religion coexist without undue influence upon each other. As he saw it, the United States is a place “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”
President Kennedy’s successful campaign shoved back the boundaries of religious intolerance. As if proof is needed to convince you that this is the American way of separating church and state, look no further than Santorum, who if elected would be the nation’s second Catholic president. Yet after re-reading Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said he "almost threw up."
Despite the cringe-worthy imagery, Santorum makes a valid argument about setting a place for the faithful in politics. He is right to call upon the religious to state their case in the cacophony of political discourse. But this is a two-way street, one that allows for vigorous and healthy debate across the spectrum of religious faiths and convictions.
Given America’s rich array of religious views, no single group or theology can claim universal supremacy. Conservative doctrines must be met and challenged by progressive views, and vice versa. Out of the jumble of competing beliefs, informed and enlightened citizens will be the earthly judges of public policy. (What you believe to come in the next life will, by necessity, remain the exclusive province of faith.)
If viewed in this light, free and lively expressions of public faith don’t harm our republic. There exists no greater damage to the fabric of American life for a conservative Catholic priest to preach—or try to persuade the public—against birth control or abortion than there existed three generations ago for a crusading black Baptist preacher to call on Jesus in the march for black Americans’ civil rights. Ditto for the charismatic imam who will surely speak out on matters of public policy in the generations to come.
A believer at the pulpit is no different from a politician on the stump or a merchant in the town square. All must sell their wares to the public. In today’s America, where all sorts of people and creeds coexist with greater equality than ever before, the marketplace of ideas is all the more vast, crowded, and competitive.
This is precisely what President Obama believes. In a speech delivered at evangelical writer Jim Wallis’s “Call to Renewal” conference on June 26, 2006, then-Sen. Obama articulated a vision of how religious views and public policies can—and should—face citizen scrutiny. “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religious-specific, values,” he said. “Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality.”
With respect and tolerance for all faiths, only the best of public debate will prevail and persuade. Or, to put it another way, none of the many places of worship in my neighborhood poses a threat to the believers of the many faiths represented. And the folks at Starbucks won’t mind either.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.