The United States prides itself on maintaining a strict separation of church and state, denouncing the entanglement of religion and government and permitting citizens to practice any religion of their choice. However, aside from the occasional court decision prohibiting prayer in a public school, evidence suggests this “strict separation” is more of a hanging sheet: a barrier, but not one that fully prevents mingling between sides. Though civics classes may have informed you otherwise, the line between government and religious involvement is often blurred. The historical use of religious beliefs to ridicule candidates for government office, as well as the strong correlation between religious beliefs and voter behavior in the U.S.,, make it hard to believe church and state are truly separate.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison originated the concept of a separation of church and state in the government of the United States. In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, Jefferson called religion a “matter which lies solely between Man & his God,” adding that there should be a “wall of separation between Church & State” in the U.S. government. The establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution serves as the manifestation of this idea. By including it among the first additions to the Constitution, Jefferson and Madison indicated the importance of the separation of church and state in the U.S. government, yet it seems not to be upheld in the modern day.

After Theodore Roosevelt opted not to run for another term as president, the Republicans nominated William Howard Taft as the party’s candidate for the position in 1908. Democrats began attacking Taft, citing his religious beliefs as evidence against his ability to serve as President, despite the supposed governmental separation of church and state. Taft identified as a Catholic and a Unitarian, which ruffled the feathers of many Protestants, who felt these beliefs meant Taft did not recognize Christ’s divinity and would act with hostility toward Protestants in the country. In spite of these criticisms, Taft won the election, with remarks from Roosevelt. He deemed it outrageous “even to agitate such a question as a man’s religious convictions for the purpose of influencing a political election,” warning Americans of the dangers of allowing religion to influence the government. 

Did Americans heed his warning, though? No — the religious views of candidates continued to serve as evidence for or against their abilities to lead. Al Smith, presidential candidate in the 1928 election, received criticism during his campaign from William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette at the time, who labeled Smith as a threat to “the whole Puritan civilization which (had) built a sturdy, orderly nation” in accordance with his Catholicism.

In the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, the candidates “who most explicitly appealed to religious voters” were preferred by Republicans who reported the most frequent attendance at religious services, and there was a direct relationship between the likelihood of supporting these candidates and the frequency of attendance at religious services. Even now, approximately half of Americans claim that the possession of strong religious beliefs is a factor of reasonable importance when considering political candidates.

The integration of church and state will not be put on pause for the 2020 presidential election. Despite most Americans viewing President Donald Trump as the least religious of the 2016 presidential candidates, the majority of white Protestants, who make up a sizable portion of the American population, now express support for his presidency and reelection. Trump has made a considerable effort to appeal to the Protestant population throughout his term, notably taking a photo with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. this June to publicize his supposed commitment to Christianity.

Trump continued to vocalize his newfound dedication to Christianity by diminishing the religious beliefs of presidential candidate Joe Biden. “He’s against God,” Trump declared, adding that Biden’s presidency would allow for “no religion” and would “hurt God.” Biden is openly Catholic, like past political leaders William Taft and Al Smith, so these remarks bear a striking resemblance to those made by past critics of such leaders. Trump capitalizes on the historical prejudice toward Catholics in the U.S. in order to obtain and maintain the support of Protestants, who make up a large proportion of American voters. He takes religion, what Jefferson called a “matter which lies solely between Man & his God,” and exploits it for political gain.

The many religious populations in the U.S. contribute to the diversity of the country, to the broad range of ideas and beliefs that make the nation so advanced. By pitting these groups against each other, Trump demonizes the very differences that make the U.S. special. He also, in weaponizing religious beliefs, destroys the sanctity of religion itself. Though he has attempted to make himself out to be a man of faith, Trump sees religion only as a tool he can use to manipulate voters.

The most concerning part? It works, and it works because the separation of church and state is a facade, a term thrown around to conceal the reality that, though religion may not explicitly be included in political documents and systems, it is deeply rooted in our government. Political leaders, religious critics and biased voters planted that seed long ago, and it only continues to grow.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu.

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