Message from Philadelphia: The Framers Kept Religion Out of Politics

It is a sad irony that so many Americans are hoping that Pope Francis’s trip to historic sites in Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia will bring more harmony and less polarization to American politics. The whole point of the Constitution, which prohibits both religious tests for public office and the establishment of religion, was to create a government in which the people, not the prelates, hold power. Our constitutional government is based on common legal and political principles shared by all, not on idiosyncratic and particular religious beliefs.

The Framers understood that the European Wars of Religion, in which Protestants and Catholics fought to the death to combine their particular brand of religion with the power of the state, curtailed religious liberty, harming especially whatever group wound up in the minority.

We still have Wars of Religion today, as Pope Francis shrewdly noted in his address to Congress:

All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.

The Framers brilliantly struck that “delicate balance” by keeping religion out of government. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in 2005:

At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish.

In other words, the constitutional boundary that keeps religion out of government is the same one that protects private religious exercise.

It is not a criticism of the Pope to insist that his Catholic religion cannot provide common ground for American politics. Religions believe what they believe. Roman Catholics, as their name “Catholic” suggests, especially believe that their religion is universal. When Francis tells Congress that it must protect the “common good,” he understandably believes that his Catholic moral teachings on immigration, poverty, labor, climate change, abortion, contraception, women, and LGBTs are universally shared by everyone and therefore provide an appropriate basis for law and public policy.

They are not universal. They do not provide an appropriate basis for law and public policy. As the Framers understood, the only political common ground we have is the non-religious framework of the Constitution.

The main reason that American politics are so polarized is that politicians repeatedly campaign and govern based on religious instead of constitutional principles. This trend started in 1979 (as I explain here), when conservative Christians rushed into politics, forming the organizations of the Christian Right because they thought the devout Southern Baptist President Jimmy Carter wasn’t religious enough. They thought he was a secular humanist, which is surprising to anyone who has ever listened to the former president for more than a minute.

From then on, Left (Clinton, Obama) and Right (Reagan, George W. Bush) talked more and more about religion and less and less about the Constitution.

And so we find ourselves today, with Left and Right competing for the mantle of Pope Francis, with each side trying to turn religious arguments into political points while neglecting their duty to ask if their policies protect all Americans without imposing religion on anyone.

Pope Francis identified the problem for Congress:

The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization.

But is the Constitution, and not the Pope, that provides the best solutions for the United States of America to end polarization.


Picture Credit: Scene at the Signing of the U.S. Constitution, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 1787, Howard Chandler Christy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Leslie C. Griffin

Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. Professor Griffin, who teaches constitutional law, is known for her interdisciplinary work in law and religion. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.