The Other Couric Question

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From TIME’s Amy Sullivan:

Sarah Palin’s handling of Roe v. Wade questions last night is getting all the attention. But Katie Couric asked another question of both running mates: Why do you think it’s important to have a wall separating church and state?

Each of them got half of the answer, but in doing so reflected the instincts of Republicans and Democrats to see only one side of the issue. Palin said Jefferson meant that the state could not deny religious freedom and expression, while Biden said the wall was intended “to keep government out of religion.” In fact, Jefferson’s writing on the matter–both in the letter to Danbury Baptists that first used the phrase “wall of separation” and elsewhere–made clear that he thought it was necessary to protect the state from the undue influence of the church and protect the church from the undue influence of the state.

But while Palin’s answer was only half-right and a bit meandering, Biden’s response was actually wrong. Here’s how he started off: “The best way to look at it is to look at every state where the wall’s not built. Look at every country in the world where religion is able to impact the governance. Almost every one of those countries are in real turmoil.”

Biden is obviously referring to countries where religious fundamentalists control part or all of the government. But those aren’t the only countries with established religions. Having a wall between church and state actually puts the United States in the minority of countries around the world. Look at Denmark, Greece, Costa Rica, Thailand, England. All have established religions and far fewer protections in place for religious freedom and expression.

And, interestingly, it’s led to the opposite of what Biden warns about–a hyper-religious society. In many countries with official religions, rates of religious attendance and belief are actually quite low, certainly lower than in the U.S. One popular theory about the flourishing of religious belief and diversity in the U.S. is that by not being able to rely on government support and funding, American churches and denominations have had to compete in a religious marketplace to gain followers and resources.