Ireland’s Lesson for America

For the last 40 years, political and theological conservatives (whom Andrew Sullivan calls “Christianists”) have been fighting for influence in the United States. From local school boards to the U.S. Supreme Court, they have tried to keep the country focused on “traditional family values,” the Ten Commandments, and slow the encroachment of secular ideologies. 

It hasn’t worked very well.

But imagine if it had. What might the United States look like if traditional Christianity had more political and institutional power?  It might looks something like Ireland.

The Emerald Isle was once the most Catholic country on earth, and despite the rising number of religiously unaffiliated adults—commonly called the “nones”—85 percent of Ireland’s population still identifies as Catholic. Unlike the secular constitution of the U.S. that never refers to God, Ireland’s constitution begins, “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority…” and it goes on to speak of “obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ.”

The U.S. public school system does not allow religious education, teacher led-prayer, or the inclusion of Scripture in science education—all issues cultural crusaders are fighting to see reversed. In Ireland, however, the church runs nearly the entire education system. Over 90 percent of public schools in Ireland are church-led. Even the state radio and television stations defer to the church by broadcasting bells twice every day to call the country to prayer.

Ireland appears to have everything politically conservative Christians want in America.  The church is conjoined to Ireland’s government, schools, identity and culture. Ireland must be the Christianist version of Disneyland—the happiest place on earth.

Until last week.

On Friday, the Irish overwhelmingly voted to legalize same sex marriage despite the strong objections of the Roman Catholic Church. Eighteen other countries have legalized gay marriage through court rulings or legislation, but Ireland is the first to do so by popular vote. In other words, the landslide decision last week represents more than a legal victory for gay and lesbian couples, it shows the influence of the church in Ireland has plummeted despite it’s political and cultural enmeshment.

Dublin’s archbishop called the vote a “reality check” for the church in Ireland. It may be a reality check for Christianists on this side of the pond as well.

It certainly isn’t wrong for Christians to want to influence their communities and seek the common good. Loving our neighbors requires that we do nothing less. However, many Christians in the U.S. have come to believe this influence is done best through political or public activism and by ensuring Christians values are grafted into our cultural institutions. The media loves to report, and inflate, stories of Christianists fighting for nativity displays in town squares, prayer in schools, the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the science curriculum, and boycotts of all sorts. The early reporting of the 2016 presidential election has already identified “evangelical” voters as the key for any Republican candidate.

The outcome of the Irish referendum should make us pause and ask—Would closer links between Christianity and public institutions produce the shifts in popular opinion we desire? Does an official preference for Christianity by the state, schools, or press indicate a preference for orthodox Christian values in the culture? Based on what we’ve just seen in Ireland the answer is clearly, no. Then why are Christianists expending so much funding and energy fighting a battle they cannot win? Maybe because they derive more of their identity from fighting Christ’s (perceived) battled, than from Christ himself.  Like Rocky Balboa said, “Fighters fight.”

Years ago John Ortberg posed this hypothetical:

Imagine that we elected all the right people to all the right offices. President, Congress, governors, right down to the school board, city council members, and dog catcher. Let’s imagine that all of these ideal office holders instituted all the right policies. Every piece of legislation—from zoning laws, to tax codes, to immigration policy, to crime bills—is just exactly the way you know it ought to be. Would that usher in perfection? Would the hearts of the parents be turned toward their children? Would all marriages be models of faithful love? Would greed and pride be legislated out of existence?

Ortberg’s point was not to discourage Christians from engaging in politics or public policy, but to remind us of it’s limitations. These limitations were vividly displayed in Ireland last week, but I doubt the Christianists noticed.

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  • May 27, 2015


    Religious conservatives have done a very poor job in making a cogent argument against gay marriage in the public square. Even in Ireland, appeals to divine authority could not preempt thoughtful reasoning. The recent statement by Evangelicals and Catholics together is perhaps the best attempt to make such an argument. But you’re right to caution against the use of political power–it doesn’t change hearts and minds. In fact, the changing of hearts and minds has been accomplished effectively by LGTBQ people, mostly by living their lives with quiet dignity. Perhaps we could learn something from them.

  • […] Skye Jethani […]

  • May 27, 2015

    Jon Stallings

    Important topic Skye. I think it is important to be political involved but it is not realistic to believe that someone that does not have a relationship with Christ to live like they do.

    The bigger concern is that there is a big difference in identifying as a Christian and truly living your life sold out for Christ. Sadly we have weekend faith to one of self-help and convenience. We have forgotten that to live a life for Christ requires us to die to self. It seems the phrase, “If it feels good, do it.” has become Biblical.

  • […] Skye Jethani who is the writer of the “with” book I’ve been writing s hort series on here and here, had an excellent piece on what the recent vote on gay marriage in Ireland could teach America, and more broadly those who wish for more christian influence in the public spheres. […]

  • June 5, 2015

    Steven L. Joos

    would greed and pride be legislated out of existence?
    For one thing, that would be impossible. For another, as long as the Christianists in this county do the bidding of the greedy when it comes to economic and tax policy, they wouldn’t even try to legislate it out of existence.

  • June 6, 2015


    Which begs the question, why are we as evangelicals, so opposed to legalizing gay marriage? Even if most of us agree homosexual acts are sins, what correlation does that have with what’s legal and illegal? Let’s focus our energy on showing people Christ, not trying to redeem laws.