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Lloyd Omdahl, Published May 06 2012

Religion is safe in ND

The high emphasis placed on religion during the Republican presidential debates prompted the Pew Research Center to poll the public reaction to this feature of the contest. Thirty-eight percent of the people thought there was too much religious talk by politicians, an all-time high since Pew started asking the question 10 years ago. Among Republicans and those leaning Republican, 33 percent of Romney supporters felt there was too much religious talk but only 16 percent of the Santorum supporters felt that way. Fifty-five percent of the Santorum supporters felt there was too little religious talk while only 24 percent of the Romney supporters felt that way.

Of course, Romney had more reason to downplay religion than did Santorum. After all, Romney is breaking new political ground as a Mormon, a faith not in high favor among some evangelical Christians.

But all of this religious talk is meaningless when it comes to governing in a secular society. If history is any indication of what to expect, the religious beliefs of Romney or Obama will have little impact on government policy. Romney will govern more by his Republican ideology than by his Mormon faith and Obama has governed more by his Democratic ideology.

The polls quantify what everyone already knows about the linkage between conservatism and religiosity. Conservatives tend to be more religious than moderates or liberals.

The depth of North Dakota’s conservatism was measured in the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses, where the most conservative candidates garnered the lion’s share of the vote. Santorum got 40 percent and Ron Paul captured 28 percent, while Romney won only 24 percent.

By correlating conservatism with religiosity, we can claim that North Dakota is a very religious state. Anyone who knows the state will concede that point without the benefit of an opinion poll.

This brings us to a measure on the November ballot designed to protect folks with a “sincerely held religious belief” from any government action that would burden the practice of their faith. The measure has been developed by national advocates because of a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a “reasonableness” standard in deciding the level of burden that is permissible. The measure’s proponents think that the standard does not provide enough protection for religious practices. The initiated measure would change the standard to “compelling governmental interest” and “least restrictive means.”

Because North Dakota is as religious as it is conservative, the measure will pass by a substantial margin. That in itself will raise a question about the need for protection of religion in North Dakota. In this highly religious environment, would the Legislature or local governing body impose burdens on the practice of religion? Not likely.

It has been more than 20 years since the Supreme Court decision, and North Dakota has yet to see a situation where the “reasonableness” standard has been inadequate. Out-of-state examples will have to be imported to make the case.

Suffering from paranoia, today’s Christians are more contentious than long-suffering. They have more to fear from their own secularization than government oppression.

In the final analysis, religion will be safe in North Dakota regardless of the outcome. So folks can vote for or against the measure because it is harmless.

The Bible does not address the issue, so nobody will go to hell.


Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com