What Place Do Religious Ideas Have in American Politics?

A Director's Forum with Hunter R. Rawlings III, President of Cornell University

May 11, 2006

Though admittedly a separationist, Rawlings said religion is inevitably ever-present in the public square. "In spite of our constitutional separation of Church and state, America's chief executives rarely deliver a major address without a direct appeal to God," he said. "The largest, deepest issues require religious engagement for political resolution."

Today, such controversial issues as abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty, and intelligent design-—debated at all levels of government and in schools-—reveal the power of religion. Rawlings said religious views will play a large role in the outcome of such issues and urged those on either side of these debates to show greater respect to the moral foundation of the other side's arguments.

President Bush repeatedly makes references to the importance of faith in his life. Recently, 55 House Democrats issued a joint statement clarifying the central role of Catholicism in their policymaking. And the nation was transfixed and polarized during the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case last year.

Religion has long held a place in the public square, said Rawlings. On March 4, 1865, President Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, which essentially was a sermon, expounding on the purposes of God and the consequences of practicing slavery. This prophetic speech, filled with biblical references, had a powerful effect upon subsequent presidential speechwriting, said Rawlings.

That year, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White founded Cornell University, of which Rawlings currently is president, as a different kind of university for its time. Cornell was founded as a nonsectarian university and its charter— modeled after principles found in the U.S. Constitution—-stipulates that people from any, or no, religion are welcome to teach or study there.

Rawlings said that in its early years critics attacked Cornell as a "godless" liberal institution. Yet this "godless" institution soon had a large Christian chapel built in the heart of its campus that accommodates 500, and still holds weekly services and welcomes all faiths to worship there. A center of science, agriculture, and humanities, Cornell also is home to thousands of students and faculty who worship on campus and 28 registered religious groups. "Religion is a force on campus today, just as it was at its founding," said Rawlings.

Like Cornell's founders, a century earlier the U.S. founding fathers had sought to impart separation of church and state through legislation and the First Amendment. In the late 18th century, said Rawlings, "To use religion as an instrument of civil policy is, in [James] Madison words, ‘an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.'" He also believed state support was detrimental to religion. For example, said Rawlings, Madison argued that Christianity flourished in the early centuries before Emperor Constantine made it Rome's official religion. In subsequent centuries, the state-established church produced insolence in the clergy, bigotry, and persecution. As a wartime president, Madison opposed public support for chaplains in Congress, avoided appeals to God and, late in life, regretted calling for a day of public thanksgiving during the War of 1812.

"Madison was wrong," said Rawlings. "The state must take cognizance of religion. It's too important a source of ideas and values to ignore or to privatize completely. Religion shapes most Americans' values, aspirations, beliefs." He added that grassroots democracy and religion often reinforce one another.

Madison had wanted to prevent America from enduring Europe's long history of religious conflict. But, Rawlings said, religion cannot be excluded from the public square in any country. "The problem is that the absolutist tendencies of religion frequently become incompatible with democratic pluralism and the need for give and take in politics," he said. The challenge, then, is to divine how to ensure religion informs and improves policy debate without polarizing it.

In history, religion has proven anathema to the state. Religion has "embarrassed itself by confronting science," Rawlings said, when, for example, the Catholic Church took on Galileo or today when "intelligent designers" go to court. "Religion emanates from authority and can thus appear arbitrary and ill-informed in the realm of policymaking," said Rawlings. And, when linked with state power, he said, religion tends to be "repressive and exclusionist."

State power also has threatened religion, Rawlings said. By inserting faith into politics, people risk "compromising their ideals and politicizing their religious values," he said, adding that it's damaging when government leaders use the church for partisan advantage.

"Religion is most effective publicly, not when it joins with the state and speaks prescriptively, but when it acts in its prophetic role," he said. "Faith can be a great moral force to reform society when government and science fail, as they often do."

Madison didn't end slavery; the abolitionists and Lincoln did. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his southern Baptist colleagues fought and won a religious and moral battle to achieve civil rights. Today, Rawlings said, the divisive issue of abortion likely won't be solved by science and law but by religious and moral sensitivity. Many academics, he added, have misunderstood and undervalued religious arguments about abortion, which "lessens their influence in the public square."

President Lincoln's second inaugural made God a central figure, linking church and state, and "setting a dangerous precedent." But, Rawlings said, in Lincoln's defense, he used religious thought with care, not proclaiming to know God's will. Lincoln didn't believe in personal salvation or belong to a church but he recognized slavery was a sin and believed America would be punished: "Judgments of the lord are true and righteous altogether," Lincoln had said.

"The state serves religion best by allowing it to function freely on its own and itself best by listening to the voice of religion and enabling it to contribute to the resolution of critical, moral dilemmas," said Rawlings. "To disdain religion is to antagonize and radicalize many Americans with deeply held beliefs. To use religion for political purposes, to create political religion, is an affront to religious values and a violation of the great American tradition established by Madison and deepened by Lincoln."

Division of U.S. Studies Director Philippa Strum's asked what universities could do to prepare their students to utilize religion to inform politics but with restraint and separation. Rawlings said, "I hope religion will inform politics but not create the kind of polarization that I think we see today in American society." He said intelligent design is an important course but should be taught as a humanities or social science course, not as a science course. Campuses should take this issue more seriously, he said, as it's an important phenomenon and offers an alternative to evolution.

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