Religious Identity is Killing America

update: the degradation of the separation of church and state seems to be increasing under the Trump administration, see NYTimes article on religious conservatives having increased access to the White House here. See especially the notation regarding Jeff Sessions questioning the separation of church and state:

Mr. Trump’s cabinet is filled with deeply religious people who hold conservative views on religion, morality and social policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Methodist, has questioned the wisdom of separating church and state.


Several years ago, I was disturbed by a discussion that took place in a national level church meeting. Some very well-intentioned members were advocating for the church to produce official statements on current issues, and to publish a series of pamphlets for distribution to local churches and temples. While I in large part agreed with the specific positions for which they were advocating, what I found disturbing was the logic of saying “Because I’m an x-Buddhist, I hold y-opinion.” Or, as an all-too-easy slide into more active social control, “If you are a good x-Buddhist, then you will hold y-opinion.”

Religious identity has become a corrosive factor in American society. This is a problem that has been on the rise for decades and which we have seen in the recent election, when Christian fundamentalists supported Trump because of the litmus test of abortion. The separation of church and state as we know it today is an artifice, created by such Enlightenment figures as John Locke as part of the development of the modern nation-state. Under our system, religion is held as a private matter, as distinct from politics, which is held as a public matter. Religion is a matter of individual choice, and is held privately. Citizenship is the domain of one’s public identity, and one’s commitments within the social order.

Since the 1960s some Christian theologians have developed the idea of “dominion theology,” which is the teaching that the United States should be governed by Christians following Biblical law. (No wonder the contemporary discourse against Islam often focuses on the questionable belief that Muslims will attempt to institute Shariah law in the US—they project the negative aspect of their own desires for supremacy onto Muslims.) It is this socio-political goal that has led to the placement of one’s religious identity as primary over one’s identity as a citizen. The assertions that religious “liberty” is being infringed by government regulations, such as those that require equal treatment of minorities by private business, depends upon the idea that religious identity is more important than civic identity. (On the rhetorics of religious liberty vs. religious freedom, see Stephanie Russell-Kraft’s essay in Religious Dispatches here.)

Any rhetoric that asserts that a religious identity, whether Christian or Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu, determines one’s social values and that one should act in the public sphere by asserting the primacy of their religious identity over their identity as a citizen undermines the basis of shared civil responsibility. It in fact points toward undermining the protections of religious freedom for all minority religions as a religious majority seeks to impose its religious beliefs on everyone. The different versions of Protestantism that informed the American colonies had to come to some agreement to put up with one another in order to form the United States. (My Quaker ancestors who saw their co-religionists hanged in Boston in 1659, 1660, and 1661, understood what was at stake.)

I am both a citizen and a Buddhist, but I make my civil decisions in relation to my values informed by Buddhist thought along with several other sources of value, not determined by Buddhist thought, much less exclusively determined by some partisan interpretation of Buddhist ideology.

Although the system of separation of church and state as we have come to know it in the United States is an artifice, it is an artifice much preferable to the domination of civil society by religious ideologues willing to impose their beliefs on others.


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