Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) has proven to be one of the most effective and incorruptible legislators that the Bayou State has had. Unlike a long line of pols from Louisiana, he is neither a demagogue, a racist, nor simply a criminal willing to take bribes and cut shady deals for his pals. A few years back, he pissed off Republicans by rightly insisting that the GOP stop being "the stupid party" when it came to policy debates.
He's worked hard to help reform school finance in a way that accelerates not just choice for students and parents but better results too; he's privatized and contracted-out many states services at great savings; and he's pushed for common-sense policies such as making birth control available without a prescription.
But as his presidential aspirations grow, so is his desire to mix religion and politics. Speaking to a group of Christian and Jewish leaders in Iowa, Jindal averred:
"The reality is I'm here today because I genuinely, sincerely, passionately believe that America's in desperate need of a spiritual revival," Jindal, who is weighing a presidential bid, said during a 37-minute-long speech followed by a 20-minute question-and-answer session.
"I love to quote Winston Churchill. … 'You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they've exhausted every alternative,' " Jindal said.
"That's where we are as a country," he continued. "We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God."
No, it's not time to "turn back to God," especially when it comes to politics and public policy. What ails the government is not a deficit of religiosity but a nearly complete failure to deal with practical issues of spending versus revenue, creating a simple and fair tax system, reforming entitlements, and getting real about the limits of America's ability to control every corner of the globe. God has nothing to do with any of that. The fault lies not in our stars but in policies.
Jindal's parents are Hindu, but he converted to Catholicism and once wrote about participating in an exorcism while an undergraduate. I don't question his faith, only its relevance to coming up with smart and effective policies, especially ones that will limit the size, scope, and spending of government. You don't need to be a believer to realize government at all levels is trying to do too many things for which it has no competency nor warrant.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Jindal brushed aside the idea that god talk would alienate business-minded independents, conservatives, and libertarians who like to keep religion and politics separate:
"The GOP is not only the party that fights for smaller government, lower taxes, school choice and energy independence, it's the party that fights to protect "innocent human life and traditional marriage," he said.
"We should be a party that's proud of our conservative principles. Our country doesn't need two liberal parties," he said. "Not everybody's going to agree with us 100 percent of the time, and that's OK. What the country doesn't want, I think, is a party that's pretending to be something it's not. If all we do is pretend to be cheaper Democrats, we'll never earn the right to be in the majority. Let's stand up for what we believe. Let's be authentic. Let's be sincere. Let's not discriminate. Let's respect people who disagree with us. Let's be bold and specific."
For some in the audience of his Iowa speech, such sentiments were sweet, sweet music. One Pentecostal minister told the Register:
"That's the message the country needs to hear: If the people start to humble themselves and look to God and pray, then God is going to start healing the land."
Other were less impressed. One woman identified as an "evangelical leader" said:
She's seen some Republicans establish themselves as budget-minded conservatives before pursuing social issues. It allows them to gain credibility, she said, without being pigeon-holed as a religious conservative.
As the Republican field begins to come into clearer focus regarding 2016, I hope that it will recognize that the United States is an increasingly secular country. That doesn't mean religion isn't important in people's lives, or that it may have an effect on how they live their lives (for better and for worse). But it does mean that mixing religion and politics will alienate many voters (even religious ones) who realize these are two separate spheres.
Two things are worth noting when it comes millennarian talk of contemporary America as somehow a bastion of sinners in the hands of an angry god. First, over the same time that Christians of all denominations and other religiously minded folks have complained about increases in coarsening materialism, virtually all signs of social pathology have declined. There's less crime, including less violent crime and sexual assault. Drug abuse is not spiking, divorce rates have declined, abortions and teen sex rates are down, and nobody is starving in America. That's not to mistake the current world for a shining city on a hill, but we're certainly not a 21st-century Sodom. Unless you simply cannot countenance the political equality of gays and lesbians.
Where there are problems, they stem directly from awful government policies pursued by the two most-recent presidents, both of whom are god-fearing Christians. They spent too much money and regulated the hell out of all aspects of the country's business. They have a willingness to torture people and surveil regular American citizens while flouting constitutional protections on civil liberties. Police militarization, like bank bailouts and stimulus spending, will not be reformed by appeals to god. Conservatives of all people should recognize that the state should treat citizens as individauls who are equal before the law, which is a prima facie case for accepting gay marriage.
All over the world, we can find endless of examples of how mixing religion and politics leads not simply to economic ruination but awful, awful outcomes for civil society. We find exceptionally few where infusing politics with religion and appeals to "turn back to God" does anything other than create endless turmoil.
Long before the United States was a country, the great proto-libertarian and religious dissenter Roger Williams wrote the first extended English-language tract calling for fully secular government. Forced worship "stinks in God's nostrils," he said, and even his own heartfelt religion—he co-founded the first Baptist congregation in the American colonies—had no place in public life. Williams founded Providence as a haven where people of all faiths, including Catholics (arguably the most-despised sect in the colonies), Jews, and even "Mohammedans," could live in peace among each other and hold office and property. Williams worried that mixing religion and politics would poison religion and corrupt it.
You can argue about that, but this much seems clear to me: The political problems facing us don't need a supernatural answer. They need politicians and voters who are willing to take responsibility for how much money they spend and how much they're willing to raise through taxes; whether they believe young people should be forced to pay for relatively lavish old-age benefits to relatively wealthy retirees; whether America should shell out half the world's military spending and be in every damn country on the globe; and much more. These are problems for the here and now and on most if not all of these, the Lord is silent.