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Last week, the nation shifted its focus away from the floundering Congress and pre-2016 electoral buzz toward a more holy extravaganza.
For a few days, Americans were graced by the presence of Pope Francis. His visit more or less took over the nation’s Capitol, where he delivered a challenging address to Congress. The Pope’s speech, which addressed global issues such as the environment, poverty and immigration, even brought soon-to-be ex-Speaker of the House John Boehner to tears. And while Boehner was mocked for his strong reaction, he is not alone in his emotions; the U.S. as a whole is particularly captivated by the Pope, especially for a nation known to separate church and state.
America has a curious history with religion. It was first settled by Europeans seeking escape from religious persecution, and has since been viewed as a place people could go to practice their faith in peace. Freedom of religion is written into the Constitution, and while the people remained devout in different ways, politics retained its autonomy because of that. As America progressed toward the modern age, many predicted that this religious tolerance would evolve to a truly secular society. However, around the turn of the 20th century, these predictions proved inaccurate. Globally, religion resurfaced as a major source of political mobilization, and the U.S. has followed this trend.
A prime example of this pattern is the role that the religious affiliations of the last two presidents played in their election. In 2000, Bush named Jesus the most influential philosopher in his life and the Bible his favorite book. In 2008, religion once again became a highlight in the race for the presidency, as Obama was able to quiet the rumors that he was secretly a Muslim by professing his devotion to Christianity. The candidates for 2016, on their own part, recognize the power religion could play in bringing about their own victory or defeat, and are quick to proclaim not only their religious affiliation, but the strength of their devotion.
The role faith has come to play in politics is not isolated in the executive branch. The percentage of senators and representatives in the 114th Congress with religious affiliations is shocking in comparison to that of the country as a whole — 78 percent of the general public lay claim to a specific faith, compared to 98.1 percent of Congress. And when the nation’s legislatures were addressed by the Pope, he spoke to a cohort which is both more Catholic and more Christian than the people that they represent. Why, as the nation is becoming less religious, is our government moving in the opposite direction?
Considering the problems America currently faces, it is meaningful that Congress is listening to a man who aims to protect the environment and those in need worldwide. But, the fact that calls for change must come from the mouth of a Pope to carry much weight is troubling. While religion can offer a lot in the personal lives of the devotee, as a political force, it can become a dangerous source of ideological division.
At a young age, American children are taught through the pledge of allegiance that the U.S. is a nation under God. But why, in 2015, must our strength as a country continue to be rooted in religion?
Contact CU Independent Staff Opinion Columnist Emily McPeak at firstname.lastname@example.org.