How the Divisive Nature of Religion Could Unify our Divided Politics


Mingyu Jun

In the 2016 presidential election, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for the GOP candidate Donald Trump, while only 16% gave their votes to Hilary Clinton.1Jana Riess, Biden Campaign Targets Morons, Evangelicals, Religion News Service (Sep. 10, 2020), https://religionnews.com/2020/09/10/biden-campaign-targets-mormons-evangelicals/.This significant margin has the potential to grow further in the 2020 election with the voting polls indicating that 82% of evangelicals would vote for Trump over Biden.2 Frank Newport, Religious Identity and the 2020 Presidential Election, Gallup (Aug. 14, 2020), https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/317381/religious-identity-2020-presidential-election.aspx. To close the gap, Biden’s presidential campaign is actively reaching out to white evangelical communities as well as Mormons and white Catholics, the other two pro-Trump religious segments, in advance of the November election.3Riess, supra note 1. Indeed, Biden’s Catholic faith and his campaign’s religious outreach programs, such as an interfaith “Believers for Biden” Zoom meeting hosted every Tuesday,4Id. may appeal to the minds of some voters from these groups. However, such efforts may not be enough to refute the too-often incontestable rhetoric that white evangelical Christians must vote for a Republican candidate.

The fact that the religious identity of voters is a crucial factor that can determine the head of government may be troubling to many citizens without formal ties to any religion. Questioning the relevance of religion in political arenas, these citizens may argue that religion should have no place at all in a secular society like the U.S. They may also try to demarcate the line between church and state, alleging that religion should be limited to the private sphere and not enter into politics. In other words, people of faith can hold their religious values or share such values within faith communities, but should not justify political statements to non-religious citizens on their own religious terms.

Such hardline views against the incorporation of religious reasoning in the public sphere are understandable, considering the divisive nature of religion. Religion makes such strong impacts on people of faith that they are often unable to remain neutral to competing worldviews; rather, they construct one single story for people outside of their own circles and banish the more balanced story that would embrace multiple perspectives out of the belief that their view is always right. For example, in the upcoming election, the majority of white Catholics are likely to vote for Trump on the grounds that Biden officially abandoned his longstanding support for the Hyde Amendment that bars Medicaid funding for abortion.5Mark Silk, How will Joe Biden deal with the abortion question?, Religion News Service (Sep.4, 2020), https://religionnews.com/2020/09/04/how-will-joe-biden-deal-with-the-abortion-question/. Although he has publicly justified his decision on other grounds, such as protecting women’s rights, his pro-choice agenda has already invited criticisms from several Catholic leaders, as did former presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 when he officially supported women’s abortion rights despite his Catholic faith.6Id. White Catholics’ fervent anti-abortion attitudes may not allow them to consider the wider spectrum of other moral and political issues, including racial justice, environmental protection, and public health, and may skew them toward voting for Trump.7Newport, supra note 2. This could widen further the current partisan polarization and aggravate the social tension between pro-choice and pro-life factions. 

The fact that the religious identity of voters is a crucial factor that can determine the head of government may be troubling to many citizens without formal ties to any religion.

In addition, other critics may argue that religion ought to be withdrawn from the public sphere because political discussion should be premised on reasonings that all citizens participating in the discourse can accept. This viewpoint aligns with that of renowned political philosopher John Rawls.8Jürgen Habermas, Religion in the Public Sphere, 14, European Journal of Philosophy, Mar. 4, 2006, at 1, 5. His theory of political liberalism proposes that citizens involved in political discourses have a duty of civility to justify their political statements to each other by reference only to public reason.9Id. Here, “public reason” signifies those premises that could be reasonably accessible to both religious and non-religious citizens.10Id. Within this perspective, arguments based on the authority of the teachings of Jesus or Allah would be inevitably absurd to citizens who do not embrace any religion and would therefore be discounted. 

However, this line of thought raises several objections. Some people would argue that political discourses do not necessarily aim to reach agreement about the reasons for supporting certain policies or laws.11 Judith Butler et al., Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism, in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere 35, 37 (Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen eds., Columbia University Press 2011). Political philosopher Charles Taylor proposes that a secular state should strive to achieve “fraternity.”12Id. at 35-36. For him, the pursuit of this goal does not require making a distinction between religious and non-religious arguments as collective political decisions cannot be legitimized by reference to either the Bible or Marxism.13Id. at 50. Instead, he suggests that a democratic state defend the shared principles among citizens, including human rights, equality, the rule of law, and democracy, whatever the reasons for supporting such principles.14Id. at 37. For example, both religious and non-religious citizens would commonly promote racial equality but based on different reasons. Some would make this argument because of the fundamental rights of every human being; others would support it based on the assumption that all human beings are created in God’s image. 

Moreover, including religious ideas in political discourses may increase the chance of finding commonalities between religious and non-religious citizens because both sides have the opportunity to reassess and reformulate their claims in the process of reaching collective decisions. Political philosopher Jürgen Habermas proposes that religious dialogues be incorporated into the public discourse so long as religious citizens dispense with the single lens of their own religion and develop epistemic attitudes toward the arguments of other, or even competing, religions and worldviews, as well as toward secular knowledge.15Habermas, supra note 8, at 13-14. Still, he cautions that such inclusion should be limited to the informal public sphere rather than the institutional bodies, including legislatures and courts, because secular reasons are prioritized over religious reasons in political arenas.16Id. at 14-15. He points out that religious citizens should translate their religious doctrines into generally accessible language to deliver their political statements.17Id.

Such a deliberative political culture that includes both religious and non-religious dialogues may serve a critical role in promoting a democratic will formation process that involves constructive debates and reflections.

Within Habermas’s perspective, an election can provide an important political forum where religious voters can not only address shared community concerns, but also practice their religion by associating with different groups of citizens through various platforms, including social media. The general public may be more open to their attempts to bring in theological conversations in the public space because every citizen has an equal voice in the election. Ideally, religious and non-religious voters have the potential to reshape their views in specific political contexts. For example, when Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry endorsed women’s right to abortion, several clergies declared that they would refuse to serve him the Eucharist.18Darren Walhof, Same-Sex Marriage and the Problem of Religion in Public Life, 39, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 225, 231 (2013). Their theological stance sparked discussions among both citizens and bishops, which led to public attempts to discuss what it means to live as good citizens and good Catholics.19Id. During the election process, several bishops had the opportunity to reassess their religious values and reflect on different perspectives on abortion issues.20Id.

Such a deliberative political culture that includes both religious and non-religious dialogues may serve a critical role in promoting a democratic will formation process that involves constructive debates and reflections. To this end, citizens should condition themselves to adopt the complementary learning processes suggested by Habermas.21Habermas, supra note 15, at 18. Religious voters have the responsibility to put aside their religious fervor and respect different perspectives based on empirical facts and principles shared by other citizens.22 Id. at 14-15. Extreme religious rhetoric, such as the claim that pro-choice abortion policy caused Hurricane Katrina or the support for conversion therapy for homosexual people,23Angela Denker, Voter guides show the power and duplicity of American evangelicalism, Religion News Service (Sep. 3, 2020), https://religionnews.com/2020/09/03/voter-guides-show-the-power-and-duplicity-of-american-evangelicalism/. may only aggravate the divide among citizens and thus cripple efforts to include religion in political discourses.

Non-religious citizens also have mutual responsibilities. Instead of dismissing religious arguments outright, they must tolerate their disagreements with religious citizens and acknowledge the positive political and social contributions that religious communities have made to American society.24Walhof, supra note 18, at 228. Without political movements spearheaded by religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., it would have taken a much longer time to spark the 1960s civil rights movement and attain equal rights for minorities. Moreover, in the context of a presidential election, religious communities can promote civic discourses on important moral issues by encouraging their members to actively participate in the election process. 

In the end, not all religious teachings like “Love thy neighbor as thyself”25Matthew 22:39 (King James). are equivalent to the irrational religious arguments made by indoctrinated pastors that often irritate the general public. Religious values and ideas can be accessible to the general public, and the 2020 election could be a good place to start.♦


Mingyu Jun is a second-year student at Emory University School of Law. He is a staff member of the Journal of Law and Religion.