If you want a cautionary tale of why it’s important to maintain a separation of church and state, look no farther than the Republican party today. Once they were liberal (no, really, they started out as liberals), and for a very long time they were secular. But then they decided, as a political move, to abandon separation of church and state, and embrace its opposite. I’m not entirely sure what the opposite of “separation” is—the phrase “incest of church and state” comes to mind—but they embraced it. And now look at them: paralyzed by internal divisions and bickering by leaders whose vision ranges from the intransigent to the hallucinatory, always sliding deeper and deeper into an agenda that none dare call fascist, promising “security” in exchange for liberty, and delivering neither.
And they want to make America Republican. Think about that.
Naturally, the decline of the Republican party is a complex issue, and a lot of factors come into play. But I want to highlight the role religion has played in their decline, because I think so many of their modern day woes stem directly from their failure to maintain an appropriate separation of church and state. By failing to keep religion out of politics, and worse, by openly opposing the whole idea of separation, they’ve embraced a worldview that frankly elevates belief above all else. And belief, unconstrained, is the gateway to all that is irrational, mistaken, and unreasonable in human nature.
Religion is simply not a healthy approach to politics. It may seem, in the short term, like a quick and easy win for whoever resorts to it, because it promotes pandering and demagoguery. You don’t need to be able to back up claims with data and sound reasoning. Just appeal to whatever people want to believe. They’ll love you for it—in the short term.
But there’s a hidden cost to policies based on ignoring the data and appealing to base prejudices, superstitions, and personal ego. The policies don’t actually work. Reality is not impressed by your bluster and your piety and your squeaky-clean sincerity. If you want to succeed, you need to know what you’re doing, which means being able to make decisions based on fact and sound reasoning, and not myths. Policies that ignore reality, and substitute a more self-oriented fantasy, begin to accumulate failures and deficits.
Dogma, however, is based on the idea of Eternal Truths that are never wrong, so you can never admit that you’ve made a mistake, even when your faith-based decisions lead to disaster. The politico-religious solution? Find some scapegoat(s) to blame, in order to exploit the problems to score political points, without actually acknowledging the role your incorrect beliefs played in creating the crisis in the first place. You don’t even need to change your doctrines. Just pass the buck, and blame everything on somebody else.
This results in polarization, not only in the larger context of the nation as a whole, as you blame everything on liberals and unbelievers, but also within your own party, because your reality-denying approach to leadership doesn’t work any better internally than it does nationally, and you end up needing internal scapegoats as well. That, in turn, leads to the kind of bickering and division and political paralysis that are becoming the hallmark of Republican politics.
As we watch the upcoming presidential race, it will be interesting to see just how far down the slope the incest of church and state has carried the Republican party. So far, it’s still a viable political entity. But one thing I think is becoming increasingly clear: we don’t want America to suffer the same fate as the Republicans are currently suffering.