Thursday, September 15, 2005

Separation of church and state

Paul Reynolds takes a minor swipe today at the US, in an article about the results of an annual Gallup poll on the opinion of various populations with regard to their own respective governments. One question the poll apparently asked was “Who would you like to give more power to in your country?” one of the possible answers to which was “religious leaders”. Reynolds says that “Only in some areas do a majority think that religious figures should have more power” and goes on to report that one of those areas, by a “narrow” majority, is North America. He then asks parenthetically, in an obvious jab at the US, “what happened to the separation of church and state?” At first glance this might raise a bit of a chuckle, but anyone actually familiar with the provenance of the phrase will know that it is a rather unthinking dose of sarcasm.

First of all, given the other choices offered as answers to the question (academics, journalists, sports stars, musicians), it seems clear that the "power" to which the question refers is not necessarily meant to be understood as political power. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it does. The notion of the separation of church and state was written into the Constitution via the Bill of Rights, specifically the 1st amendment, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. In other words, the notion of separation of church and state, at least as regards America, actually anticipates what Reynolds claims to have found, ie the existence of a majority of people who might wish to impose their religion on the rest of the country via democratic means. And it is designed to prevent them from doing so. If it was to be expected that no such majority would ever materialize, then there would be no need for the clause to have been written into the Bill of Rights in the first place. Far from raising doubts about “where” the notion has gone, if anything the poll results (if true: see below) simply validate the need for it.

A far more sensible parenthetical than the one Reynolds provided would have been “Thank goodness for separation of church and state!”

But is it true, in any event, that the poll shows that a majority of Americans (or, rather, North Americans) want to give more power to religious leaders? Reynolds says so, but a link attached to a graphic in the middle of his article which says “Selection of facts and figures from the global survey” brings us to another series of graphs, one of which (#4) shows that less than 40% wanted to give more power to religious leaders. Less than 40% is, obviously, not a majority, narrow or otherwise.

However, the information in the link is said to be from a “BBC poll of global opinion”. There is no mention of Gallup. Is this a different poll to the Gallup poll Reynolds was writing about? If so, why did the BBC link to it within Reynolds’ piece, as if it were the same information, and what good is the information if the same question can produce such disparate results? If not, then either Reynolds or the graph is simply wrong, and the BBC is claiming credit for a poll done by someone else.

Ultimately, I don't want to make that big a deal about this. But it does, I think, give us some insight into a) how sloppy the BBC can be at times and b) how its inclination to take a shot at the US trumps a clear headed understanding of the US.


Anonymous James Hamilton said...

On the subject of the poll, the most likely scenario is that the BBC commissioned Gallup to do the poll on their behalf.
Reynolds is making a bit too much of this, but I can see why you don't want to make an enormous issue out of that. His is somewhat of a first-past-the-post type of "majority", and the poll doesn't go into what stamp of religious leader is referred to by the people voting for them - let alone what "more power" would actually mean. The trouble with the way Reynolds talks about this is he makes it sound like this refers to total dictatorial power for the most extreme and risible sort of televangelist. I don't think that's what he thinks it means - but that's how it comes across in a casual reading.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Reynolds's analysis is interesting, but I agree with Scott that while Reynolds's rhetorical question "whatever happened to separation of church and state?" is a question that some liberals would ask here in the U.S. when presented with the same information, it's the wrong question to ask.

I recall in my U.S. history course in high school our teacher, talking about the concept of the Separation of Powers envisioned by the Founding Fathers, said that we should be able to elect someone like Adolf Hitler president (in the theoretical), someone with dictatorial ambitions, and not feel that our rights will be significantly infringed upon, because the government was designed to restrain power, via. competing branches of government. In other words, even if we elected someone who wanted to be dictator, they would not achieve their desired aim in effect, because the other branches, legislative and judicial, would restrain his power.

Likewise, we should, in the theoretical, be able to elect a religious leader and not feel threatened that we would become a theocratic state, since the other branches would tend to prevent that from happening.

In reality, there have been religious leaders who have run for president, but haven't gotten far. Pat Robertson, a televangelist, ran for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1988, but lost. And so he didn't get the opportunity to actually run for the presidential election. Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, but lost the nomination both times. Just recently, Rev. Al Sharpton ran for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2004, and lost.

Religious leaders can run, but I can't think of an instance where they've won public office. Contrary to what the poll says, when it comes down to it, voters like a presidential candidate that professes religious faith, but they don't like it when a candidate emphasizes religion too much. They like it if he's a follower of a faith, but not a leader of one. Voters recognize that there's more to government, and expect candidates to demonstrate secular competence in government policy.

An oft neglected part of the Constitution is the part that says that there shall be no religious test for public office. In other words, it explicitly forbids discrimination in the law on someone's eligibility for public office based on their religious faith. I believe this extends to public officials as well when they approve/disapprove someone for public office.

While this is true in law, it's interesting to note that the voters have tended to prefer electing officials of a Protestant background, over those of other faiths. The Constitution doesn't extend that far. JFK was the only Catholic president the U.S. has ever elected. Pres. Carter was Baptist. They were the exceptions, though. We've yet to elect someone outside the Christian faith.

10:41 PM  

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