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God and Caesar in America
Why Mixing Religion and Politics Is Bad for Both
DAVID E. CAMPBELL is John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C. Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. ROBERT D. PUTNAM is Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. This essay is adapted from the paperback edition of their book, American Grace (Simon & Schuster, 2012).See more by David E. Campbell See more by Robert D. Putnam
Deepening the mystery of the GOP's turn to God is the emergence of the Tea Party, which ostensibly formed to shrink government with a relentless focus on fiscal issues.
What gives? A careful look at the trends in our politics over the last generation, including the rise of the Tea Party, solves the religion riddle. Not only have the Democratic and Republican parties been increasingly separated by a "God gap," but our data clearly show that Tea Party supporters sprang from the ranks of the Religious Right -- conservatives who advocate a fusion, rather than a separation, of church and state. Tea Partiers are thus the natural constituency for a culture warrior like Rick Santorum. They are fiscal conservatives, but religious issues really resonate.
Time will tell whether all this God talk will be good for the Republicans in November -- we suspect not. Tea Party supporters constitute the most energized part of the Republican base and roughly two thirds of the primary electorate. However, they constitute barely a quarter of the November electorate and are reviled by much of the rest. While the Republican base has become ever more committed to mixing religion and politics, the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction.
Whatever the tactical consequences may be in the short-term politically, the intertwining of religion and partisan politics has longer-term implications as well. When the otherwise prophetic voice of religion is reduced to partisanship, it impoverishes American politics. Political progressives and moderates are increasingly leaving the religious ranks, as it has become synonymous in the public mind with right-wing politics. As we argued in the magazine (below), mixing God and Caesar turns out to be bad for both.
"God and Caesar in America" from the March/April 2011 Issue: