Many Americans are given to quoting John F. Kennedy’s view that a president’s religious views ought to be “his own private affair”. That was a workable ideal when American laws and institutions – from churches to unions – were stable enough that the private convictions of politicians could not affect them. But it is a different country now ...
Thanks to constitutional limits on government’s right to meddle in religion, churches are the surest refuge from overweening government. Mr Smith’s church is safer from regulation than Mr Smith’s hardware store. Unsurprisingly, many new secular institutions are now organised religiously. “Church” is an inadequate description of some of the all-purpose alternative communities that have cropped up in the American Bible belt, with cinemas, libraries, gyms, coffee shops and so on. What we call “religion” in America can be as much a political secession as a spiritual revival.
It is always legitimate to want information about a candidate’s bedrock beliefs, whether they are religious or not. If Americans are pressing for such information more urgently in recent elections, the reason is not that they are turning into fanatics. It is that, when basic institutions and social rules are in flux, convictions about first principles matter more than they once appeared to.
(hat tip: Continetti)
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Ross Douthat is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.