The conventional maxim “religion and politics do not and should not mix” is not only wrong but misleading and downright silly. Of course religion and politics mix. Our deepest values are often rooted in our religious beliefs and inform how we live, how we order our priorities, how we spend our time and money, and how we vote.

What this statement really means is that “your religion and my politics don’t mix.” The maxim is often confused with the separation of church and state. The founders of the nation decided that the new republic would not have a state religion and an established state church. Citizens would enjoy a completely new phenomenon: freedom of religion and freedom to believe or not believe, to belong to a church or not, according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. No one thought it would work. How can a state survive without religious support? How can a church survive without state sponsorship?

The wall separating church and state is mentioned not in the Constitution per se, but in a letter that Thomas Jefferson ad­dressed to some concerned Baptists in Connecticut. One effect of the letter was to encourage citizens to seek civic and political involvement as an expression of their religion and to assume responsibility for their churches. American churches have been doing this—expressing their convictions with political ramifications—all the way back to colonial days when American Presbyterians, at their first General Assembly, addressed themselves to President George Washington.