Booman diarist hfiend wrote about this poll yesterday, but I want to renew the conversation here.

The results, I thought, didn’t actually say very much. 2% of Americans say they don’t believe in God, and better than 60% want religious leaders to keep their nose out of politics. Those figures are much lower than some other countries.

But this study mixes apples and oranges: unless I’m missing something fairly significant, the US and South Korea are quite different in socio-economic measures. And how in the world can you compare Mexico with Western Europe?

Even where there are points of comparison–as between the US, Canada, and Europe–it’s long been acknowledged that the US is a religious anomaly. We’ve also had a distinct history. Go figure.
For that matter, judging a nation’s religious fervor by asking if its citizens believe in God is a piss-poor measure. Though these responses match those of other polls on the subject, it’s the wrong question to ask. A better one would be frequency of participation in worship. Ask that, and you’ll discover that while the US is still more religious than other countries, the gap between them is smaller than the AP/Ipsos poll shows.

As for whether or not religious leaders should try to influence government decisions, let me just say two things.

First, I am a religious leader. Should I not try to influence government decisions? I’m not being facetious here. I just want to bring out a quintessentially American point: while I may be a pastor, I am also a citizen, and as such, entitled to my First Amendment rights.

More important, what is unique about America is the paradox at the heart of our separation of church and state: while the church may have lost formal power with the state, it has gained informal power, the power of moral persuasion, in our society. It’s as if the further dance partners stood from one another, the more clearly they could speak to one another.

Which is not an argument for or against the separation clause or the normative position religion holds in American society. It is to say, however, that as long as there is a separation of the two elements, the one will have the ability to speak truth to the other–and their relationship will remain fraught. As long as there is the separation of church and state, in other words, the church will criticize the state and suggest that changes be made. That in turn will make folks in civil society very nervous, which in turn…

This democratic experiment of ours looks like high-wire act sometimes, doesn’t it?

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