Of Church and State

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On our first night in the United States, nine blurry-eyed news hounds went out for pizza. The restaurant was just a block or two from the private Catholic university we’d be calling home for the next three weeks, in the perfectly manicured city of St Paul, Minnesota.

Jetlag claimed a few of World Press Institute 2014 Fellows early on, and by 10pm, the remaining four of us decided to venture back to campus.

Walking back, we saw a group of students gathered in the quad near our rooms. Curiosity, a shared trait that typifies people who choose to make their livelihoods from news reporting, saw us approach. No doubt, some (ok, maybe just me) had hoped for a genuine college party, complete with plastic cups containing beer that had recently come out of a keg.

But there was no keg to be seen. In fact, there was no alcohol whatsoever. We had, somewhat unwittingly, found ourselves at the centre of a Young Missionaries national convention. These young people whose party we’d crashed had decided to dedicate their college experience to spreading the Christian gospel.

As journalists do, we stopped to have a chat and to find out about this unusual collection of young adults. After a while, we bid them farewell, and they promised to pray for us while we traveled their country.

As an Australian, I found this whole exchange fascinating and yet odd. Australians rate themselves as a religious people. The last census showed that 78 per cent of Australians have some kind of religious affiliation. But we’re fiercely proud of our secularism, and prefer to practice our religious unashamedly, behind closed doors.

Whereas, in the United States, there seems to be a religious undercurrent everywhere – in the campaign ads of would-be politicians, in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, and scrunched up dollar bills exchanging hands at the grocery store.

A far-reaching survey into religion in the United States, undertaken by Pew Research in 2007, shows that 84% of Americans identify themselves as having a religious affiliation. The vast majority of respondents, nearly 78.5%, are Christian.

American politicians promote their Christianity as a sign of trustworthiness and a bond with everyday voters.  Some ecclesiastical sects tell adherents that prosperity comes to those who demonstrate their faithfulness the most.

Despite that, increasingly in the US, there’s concern that the tenants of Christianity are incompatible with American capitalism.

While the concept of the Protestant Work Ethic and wealth go hand in hand, there are many aspects of American capitalism that church leaders say are at odds with Christian teachings.

Recently, Pope Francis labeled unfettered capitalism “tyranny” and urged the wealthy to spread their fortunes.

The concept of wealth-sharing is not openly welcomed in many parts of conservative America. A mistrust of socialism, and a strong belief in free-markets mean politicians are reluctant to promote higher tax for the wealthy, and greater welfare for the poor.

 The deep links between churches and the Republican Party muddy the waters a bit. While many Christians feel uncomfortable with the growing gap between rich and poor, they still overwhelmingly vote Republican due to social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

This continues to ensure capitalism is king in the United States.