The 2008 presidential race has been the strangest and most unusual campaign in modern times. It has also involved, to an unprecedented degree, the most troublesome and dangerous threat to our political way of life, the insertion of religion into electoral campaigns. This appeared initially in the form of “guilt by association” attacks on Barack Obama because of the church he belonged to and sermons his pastor preached. Later, the same criteria were applied to John McCain because of the beliefs and statements of ministers who had endorsed him. Both presidential nominees were forced to renounce their religious supporters–one for sermonic declarations that were critical of America, and the other for spreading religious intolerance.
Obviously, this is not the first time religion has been introduced in a presidential campaign. John Kennedy was challenged over whether he could be a practicing Catholic committed to the pope and a loyal American committed to the Constitution. In previous campaigns, the religion of a presidential candidate has been an implicit issue in “culture war” debates on abortion and gay rights. However, all past history is but a prelude to the role that religious beliefs and theology have played in the present campaign. What is important to realize is that when we use the word “religion” in our American political culture, it really is Christianity that we are talking about. It is widely accepted that an agnostic or atheist could not be elected president–even if he or she were a Nobel prize-winner and decorated veteran of Iraq. And it is still uncertain that a person of the Jewish tradition could be elected president. Nevertheless, we can be sure that this state of affairs is a direct violation of Article VI of our Constitution: “There shall be no religious test.”
A candidate’s religious faith may not influence his or her presidential policies; there is no such thing as a Christian tax reform policy, or a Jewish policy on immigration or a Muslim universal healthcare plan. Our founding fathers understood this distinction, and that is why they created a republic in which church and state are separate and no religious criteria determine a candidate’s fitness for public office.
It doesn’t matter whether this country was founded as a Christian nation. The fact is, today polls indicate that 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians–and 40 percent of them are “born-again Christians.” To understand why so many insist on the errant claim that we were Christian in our origins, there is some interesting evidence. At the beginning of the country, nearly every colony was settled with an established religion. When Connecticut was founded in 1639, its doctrine of origin explained that the whole purpose of government was to “maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Most of the colonies had their established church (for example, Virginia was Anglican and Massachusetts was Congregational).
However, in 1787, more than a hundred years after the early settlers arrived, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wrote a constitution that, in contrast to the colonies’, doesn’t even mention God. All but two states–Rhode Island and Vermont–had religious tests for public office, but the Constitution prohibited them. It established a nation that was neither Christian or secular. The convention founded a democratic republic where a lot of its people went to church.