One reason why the separation of church and state is a good idea is that uniting religion and politics tends to do more harm to both than either could self-inflict on its own. Indeed, many of the early settlers in America were people who came here to escape from the Christian nations of Europe, which is why the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights contains a prohibition against government establishment of religion. But the same phenomenon applies on a smaller scale as well, and the current woes of the Republican party may be a case in point.
I remember the last major crisis in the Republican party. I had just turned old enough to vote when President Nixon resigned in disgrace over the fallout from the Watergate break-ins. It was a toxic time to be a Republican, and there were those who wondered if the party itself could ever regain the respect and support it had lost. But another element was rising to power, led by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson (or at least those are the three who made the biggest impression on me at the time). The “Moral Majority” had arrived.
It was, you should pardon the expression, a marriage made in heaven: conservative Christians got access to the political power they craved, and conservative Republicans got back the moral respectability they’d lost under Nixon. For a while things were going great, and in an astonishingly short time, conservatives found themselves back in control again. But the seeds of future problems were being sown even then.
The thing about True Believers is that they value a particular narrative above almost everything else. Believers have a seemingly boundless capacity for rewarding those who most convincingly deceive them (as any number of multimillionaire faith healers demonstrate). Combine this with the promise-me-anything atmosphere of the political arena, and you have a recipe for a system that produces leaders whose power is based on loyalty to dogma rather than on actual performance and effectiveness.
In the early days of the union, this was a strength: believers united in large numbers around the new-found champions of their religious ideals. But the disconnect between faith and facts set the stage for leaders who were (and are) out of touch with the realities of government. Criticism of religious programs and policies is apostasy, unforgivable. Staying in power means getting good at denial, rationalization, scapegoating, and projection. And since these techniques are more adept at manipulating emotions than at resolving actual problems, the result is a leadership that becomes increasingly out of touch the more time goes by, leaving the real problems unaddressed, and often unacknowledged.
Eventually, believers begin to turn on one another. By promoting a common core of religious beliefs within the party, believers inadvertently level their own playing field, and prospective leaders have to adopt increasingly extreme positions in order to distinguish themselves from the competition. And these extremes end up being even more out-of-touch with reality than the mainstream religious party view, and thus less effective at dealing with real-world problems, taking the party even further into its downward spiral.
This all seems far too simplistic and trite to be a genuine, real-world description of actual political dynamics. And yet, I look at the current presidential campaign, and I see all the people who have moved their minds into some kind of political space where Obama is a Muslim socialist, and gays are trying to destroy “traditional marriage,” and the economy just needs to shift more money into the bank accounts of the already extravagantly wealthy. The common thread is an overwhelming preference for belief over evidence, and faith over fact. Or in other words, religion.