Religion–But Not Too Much

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting reflection on the state of religion in American politics at Tech Central Station, “Religioso, Ma Non Troppo.” He discusses the delicate balancing act that we have had between being a religious nation while also demanding separation between church and state.

This is captured in two provisions from the Tennessee Constitution, adopted in 1796. Article IX, Section 2 provides that “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” On the other hand, Article IX, Section 1 provides that: “no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.”

An interesting juxtaposition. Both provisions, of course, would be unconstitutional today because of creative judicial interpretation of the 1st Amendment via incorporation via the 14th Amendement.

Glenn’s summary is about right:

I think there’s a lot of sentiment in favor of people being able to practice their religion, and talk about their religion, without discrimination or ridicule. And I think there’s some support (though less so) for efforts to inform legislation with religious values. There’s also a commonsense attitude toward de minimis expressions of religion: Americans are not, for the most part, offended by references to God, or by things like prayers at football games.

But Americans really don’t like busybodies telling them what to do. The decline of the Left as a political force in America coincided precisely with its shift from a politics of individual freedom to that of tut-tutting politically-correct nanny-statism. I suspect that if the religious Right decides to emulate the Left in this regard, its influence will evaporate in similar fashion.

Religious, yes. But not too much.

Being religious, even openly so, is an advantage in American politics. In most states, one can’t get elected dogcatcher without the proper homage to God and family. Certainly, an open atheist could not get elected president. But Americans are leery of too much religion in their politics. The question, as John Hawkins implies, is exactly where one draws that line.

Update (1029): The Rev. Donald Sensing agrees, although with an important qualifier:

The prospect of theocracy of any kind (or any other extremism) will find more than a very temporary foothold in American politics is dim, indeed. But fearmongering about it – like [Hillary Clinton] did – always pays off, at least in the short run, and makes for great fundraising fodder.

Quite true. Of course, so does fearmongering about Secular Humanists taking God out of our society.

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Reynolds also has linked to a Donald Sensing post responding to that one — also woprth reading.

  2. Slider says:

    It’s not fearmongering if it’s true.