By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
In an interview with NPR this week, vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine was asked about his struggles to separate his personal faith from his political life. Kaine admitted that as a devout Catholic he faces a challenge, but explained the principle that guides his separation of religion and governance. “I don't think my job as a public official is to make everybody else follow the Catholic Church's teaching, whatever their religious background or lack of a religious background.” This statement seemingly contradicts the nature of Catholicism: namely its universality. Unlike states and or nationalities, who generally respect each others sovereignty over domestic citizens, the Catholic Church traditionally did not accept the right to practice other religions: there was only one true religion and its center was in Rome. For many years this was a struggle between the Church and states: see for example the French Revolution, the Thirty Years War and many others in Europe.
Tim Kaine represents both the new face of the Catholic religion and the uniquely American version of the separation of church and state. Under Pope Francis, Catholicism has made overtures towards different ways of practicing Catholicism and other faiths. Like Pope Francis, Tim Kaine turns to his religion on questions of broad morality, equality and poverty, but not on questions to which different faiths have diverging views. Kaine explained, “on many of the questions that I, you know, that I would struggle with, different religions have different traditions and preach different things. And I don't think, in fact I feel this is a really important principle and it's a moral principle, not just a governing principle, it's a moral principle: we are better off as a society when we're not trying to enforce the views of one religion over everybody. People can make their own moral decisions.”
This reflects the nature of faith in the modern world, where some people are believers and others are not, and they all must live together. It also reflects the long-standing American tradition of high religiosity combined with religious freedom. In states that have a high level of participation in religions practices, there is often a state religion. Others like France have managed to separate church and state thanks to secularization. As we see today, when faced with an influx of a community of believers, these states struggle to adapt. One example of this is the ongoing controversial attempt to regulate religious practices in the public sphere by banning hijabs and more recently “burkinis” on French beaches.
But even in the US, religious tolerance is not unidirectional. While Tim Kaine may be leading by example, others are trying to overturn the long-standing place of religion in public life. In his recent speeches, Donald Trump refers to the American people “under one God”. Calling for unity under one God excludes non-believers and believers of non-monotheist religions. Even within the monotheist group, it is unclear if the one God is the same one. In the US politicians often talk about religion as a source for both their own and communal values. But these statements usually assume the plurality of religious faiths. Just like Fox News’ allegation of a “War on Christmas”, this is in contradiction with the very principles of the American constitution.
On this, and on many other issues, Donald Trump is emulating global trends. Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and Modhi’s India are all moving towards an explicit establishment of state religion, in which all citizens must participate. This is a source of conservative identity that connects nationalism to the masses in an apolitical way while also undermining liberal values. If this American version of the separation of church and state represents a modern idea of religious practice in a plural world, then the new state religion ideologies are a backlash against the very idea of modernity.