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The Dalai Lama and the Separation of Church and State in America

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More than 50 years after fleeing the Chinese military and setting up the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama retired from his political responsibilities this year. It was a widely anticipated and somewhat anticlimactic move, given his age and stagnated Free Tibet efforts against a globally rising China. But during his July visit to Washington, DC, the 76-year-old monk -- who remains Tibetan Buddhism's supreme leader until his death (and possible reincarnation) -- framed the move in terms of support for the American principle of separation of church and state, a view he claims to have long held, despite simultaneously wielding political and spiritual authority most of his life.

"The religious institution, the leader of the religious, and the political leadership, should be separate," he told legislators at the Capitol.
Media outlets overlooked the irony of the Dalai Lama's well-received affirmation of church-state separation at a time when potential presidential candidates around the country are busily burnishing their Christian bonafides. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called on his fellow governors to meet for a day of prayer and fasting, which has rankled freethinkers; Rep. Michele Bachmann talks about Jesus every chance she gets; Newt Gingrich is courting evangelicals; meanwhile, Rick Santorum is shoring up support among Catholics. Even Latter-day Saints candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who tend to keep the minority aspects of their faith quiet, may be benefiting from the mainstreaming of Mormonism.

On a more basic level, coverage of the Dalai Lama's remarks during his recent meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi generally neglected the question of whether the spiritual leader has genuinely always admired church-state separation -- despite six decades of representing Tibet's centuries-old theocratic tradition -- or if this is a position he's reached due to his advancing age and inhospitable political circumstances. For such a public figure, it's not one of his well-documented philosophies, though he did say he would step down from politics when Tibet was free from Chinese control in his 1997 Mother Jones interview with Columbia University Prof. Robert Thurman, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk.

There's no question that the U.S. Constitution places a high priority on religious freedom, although separation of church and state doesn't technically appear in the document; it comes from a letter written by founding father Thomas Jefferson -- the president who created his own miracle-free, mortal-Jesus version of the Bible. Nevertheless, it's a major principle in American public life, one that the rest of the world acknowledges and -- as evinced by the Dalai Lama's recent remarks -- even admires. But the pressure for politicians to meet devout Christian standards is high; even President Obama's supporters, dismissing rumors that he's Muslim by publicizing his church attendance, find themselves awkwardly having to qualify their statements: "not that there's anything wrong with that."

Ultimately, while reporting politicians' religious affiliations and professions of belief, the news media should improve on the whatever-you-say-boss coverage of the Dalai Lama's visit and examine whether all the pieces of the puzzle really fit together to make a coherent picture.

This article first ran at USC's Trans/Missions Scoop blog.