What Role Does Religion Play In American Politics?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Religious organizations of varying denominations spoke out against the Trump administration's policy of separating children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. President Trump has signed an executive order to end this practice, but the response from religious groups has renewed questions about the role religion plays in American politics. One of the most notorious clergymen of the political scene in the 1930s was the infamous Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio program and rallies enlisted thousands.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHARLES COUGHLIN: I wish to leave this thought with you, that at each congressional district here in Illinois, we will endorse a candidate who can rise above his party and put patriotism first.
GREENE: Now, today a church could lose its tax exemption for actually endorsing candidates, but the extent to which faith should overlap with government remains a debated topic. You, our listeners, had many questions about this, and Rachel Martin posed them to commentator Cokie Roberts.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: OK. Our first question gets to the basics, and it comes from Twitter, from Eva Moore. She writes as follows, quote, "has religion always influenced public policy in America?"
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Well, it's always played a role. After all, our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, cites the creator as the bestower of unalienable rights. But the Constitution's only mention - before the Bill of Rights was passed, guaranteeing freedom of religion - is to say that there's no religious test for public office. Interesting, Rachel - some states still have religious tests on their books, saying no nonbelievers can hold office, but, of course, it's never enforced.
MARTIN: All right. Listener Patrise Henkel asks - which presidents have defended separation of church and state most ardently?
ROBERTS: Well, in the last century, that would be John Kennedy because he was under such suspicion as the only Catholic to be elected president. And just before his presidency, a Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus, lobbied to get under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. It wasn't there till I was 10 years old. Of course, the president who articulated the wall of separation between church and state was Jefferson. Most presidents after him talked about freedom of religion. Starting in the late 19th century, you started to hear more about freedom from religion.
MARTIN: Our next question comes from Mike Koeppen, and he asks this. I don't remember religion being this involved with politics in the '60s and '70s. When did this change, or why am I remembering wrong?
ROBERTS: Well, religious groups were actually very involved in the civil rights movement of the '60s and the anti-war movement of the '70s, and before that had been involved throughout our history. They were on both sides of the slavery debate, and many religions were ardent supporters of prohibition. What changed in the '70s was the willingness of evangelical Christians to get much more involved in politics, and they're still at it today, trying to remove an amendment to the law that says they can't be involved in politics, and President Trump is behind them on that.
MARTIN: All right. Our next question gets back specifically to what we're seeing happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. This comes from someone with the Twitter handle Qaos Qitty. Are all the recognized religious organizations going to be allowed to weigh in or just the Christian ones?
ROBERTS: Well, everybody actually has weighed in against the policy of separating children, including the president's ardent defender, Franklin Graham. But, you know, John Adams thought he had settled this question of whether this is a Christian nation when he signed the treaty of Tripoli and saying that the U.S. is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. Some people are obviously still debating that.
MARTIN: Right. Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can tweet us your question with the hashtag #AskCokie.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE HIT CREW'S "LOSING MY RELIGION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.