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Politics and piety in a perpetual collision

While many Americans believe we live in a "secular society" or a "post-religion age," the reality is different. Politics and piety have been colliding with each other since the beginning of our nation.

Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, both strong supporters of American independence, sharply differed on whether the Anglican Church should be the established religion in their home state of Virginia. Henry wanted that church to receive preferential standing in the Old Dominion, while Jefferson opposed any form of "state religion." Jefferson won the battle, and he considered his authorship of the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom one of his greatest achievements.

Another Virginian, James Madison, was a champion of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion and prohibits the legal establishment of any religious group.

For the past 227 years, religion in the United States has been "deregulated," free of government control. Instead of 50 established religions _ one in every state _ Americans have been blessed with robust voluntary religious communities _ something Madison envisioned when he wrote of "sects in competition" similar to political parties.

Indeed, that freedom has encouraged religious leaders to participate fully in the major issues of American life, including slavery, civil and human rights, the Vietnam War, the environment, evolution vs. creationism and abortion.

Now that interplay between politics and piety promises to become even more heated as Americans face new and vexing issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court has entered the Pledge of Allegiance legal battle after a lower court ruled earlier this year that the words "under God" are unconstitutional and should be deleted from a text millions of public school children are compelled to recite each day in class. It is often forgotten that "under God" was added to the well-known pledge in 1954 and is not part of the original language.

Supporters of the court ruling assert that because the American population has many atheists, agnostics and other non-believers in a deity, the pledge should be free of any religious language.

Although the massive stone monument containing the Ten Commandments recently was removed from the Alabama Judiciary Building in Montgomery, the issue is far from settled. It is another example of politics and piety colliding.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore wants the Ten Commandments permanently displayed in a prominent public space. People who loudly declare the commandments are "universal" forget they are tenets of a unique religion: part of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.

While most Americans are Christians or Jews, an increasing number of citizens, perhaps 15 percent of the country's population, do not religiously identify with either tradition or the Ten Commandments.

Bioethical questions present us with life and death issues involving piety and politics. The latest is from Florida, where Terri Schiavo has been in a vegetative state since 1990. Because Schiavo left no proxy health care instructions or a living will, her husband and parents are in a bitter legal battle regarding her future.

To withdraw life support systems or not to withdraw? That is the question. Piety _ Schiavo is a Roman Catholic _ is a key factor in this 13-year ordeal. Politics _ the courts, the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush _ is also involved.

Unlike the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments and bioethics, Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin's mixture of piety and politics has negative international implications. Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has made speeches to fellow evangelical Christians inside churches.

Wearing his uniform at these events, Boykin derided Muslims' belief in Allah as God: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his (Boykin's Muslim foe in Somalia in 1993) was an idol."

Boykin also called America a "Christian nation. . . . We are in an army of God for such a time as this." The general's unfiltered anti-Islamic sentiments and his linking America's war on terrorism with Jesus and Christianity is a clear example of piety smashing into politics _ in this case President Bush's repeated proclamation that "Islam is a religion of peace" and our war against terrorism is not aimed against Muslims or Islam.

The Pledge of Allegiance, Terri Schiavo, the Ten Commandments and William Boykin are part of a much larger problem. How do we constitutionally balance piety and politics in an increasingly polarized, litigious nation of 280-million people representing every religious belief and nonbelief in the world? Even Jefferson and Madison would find this a difficult task.

_ Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.)