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.
What the founding fathers did not reckon with was the power of the Christian interpretation of the settling of this country to morph into a sacred narrative, a holy story line. It began with the early Jamestown settlement and its entrepreneurial adventurers, and continued with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose zealous Puritans held an almost fanatic belief that they were God’s chosen people to found a New Israel, a “shining city on a hill,” as John Winthrop predicted in his sermon to the passengers aboard the Arabella.
This sacred narrative indicated that this new nation had a calling as dramatic and soul-shaking as the one Saul of Tarsus received on the road to Damascus. That calling was a mission to bring light to the darkened masses of the world. It began as we moved across the vast expanse of this continent, destroying, dehumanizing and incarcerating the Native American population of the land–all in the name of Christianity (Protestant). It was similar to what Spain did all across Latin America to indigenous people in the name of Christianity (Catholic). This mission was so powerful and so explicitly believed by American leaders as a role for this nation that it resulted in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It was this belief that in the nineteenth century led to our invasion of the Philippines in order to Christianize them, and to the invasion of Cuba in the Spanish-American War (where the mythic battle of San Juan Hill helped elect Theodore Roosevelt president).
The danger of this sacred narrative is that has always been connected implicitly to our violence and wars against our enemies, who were anyone who challenged our imperial, predestined leadership in the world. Of course, one could argue that this holy story line ended with the twentieth century–except that the majority Christian church has supported every war we have ever fought, right up to the present war in Iraq. Why do you think it was so easy for George W. Bush to sell his phony war to religious people? It is because deep down some of us really believe that this nation has a calling to save the world wherever or whenever it is threatened by evildoers. It is the old “chosen people” doctrine transposed into American exceptionalism. It is our destiny still, as the “greatest and most superior nation,” not to “save the heathen” but to spread “democracy and freedom,” to determine who is morally fit to possess nuclear material, to decide which countries are good or evil–in other words, to be the world’s leader, militarily and politically, so that all the world’s people look to America for their emancipation.
The danger to our fragile democratic experiment can be seen most clearly in the way in which both political parties have now bought into the sacred narrative, meaning that one’s theology is predeterminate of whether one is patriotic or 100 percent American. Is this the reason there was no public outcry when Pastor Rick Warren staged a national televised event in which the candidates were put on the spot to find out if they were truly Christian believers (he called it discovering their “worldview”)? Governor Sarah Palin was spared this interrogation, but we can be sure that her “inexperience” is not nearly so dangerous as her belief that God has been preparing her for the vice presidency and that Iraq was a “task that is from God.”
A New Awakening
We need a New Awakening because we’ve been asleep while religion surreptitiously seeped into every nook and cranny of our government. Even before the Air Force Academy scandal of proselytizing evangelicals, the Justice Department was full of Christian-trained lawyers running prayer and Bible study groups and an atheist soldier was being removed from the war zone because of threats from his fellow soldiers. If we do not believe that these are threats to our political way of life, then the danger is greater than we may realize.
No one on the present scene has been more prescient or spoken more eloquently on this subject than James Carroll, the Boston Globe columnist and author. In his book House of War and the movie Constantine’s Sword, he spells out in no uncertain terms the danger that the interjection of religion and American exceptionalism poses for our democracy in the vastness of Pentagon powers and military dominance over diplomacy in our foreign policy. The flaw in Carroll’s viewpoint is that he places the blame only on fundamentalist Christians, but it was liberal Democrats and moderate Christian churches that remained silent as religion was exploited for political gain.
Our American system of governing is designed for a people of incredible religious diversity. We have countless religious entities and each one has subsets. There will never be a religious consensus–and that is a good reason for the separation of church and state. Being American has nothing to do with whether we are male or female, rich or poor, the color of our skin, where we go to church or if we go to church. As Oliver Thomas, a constitutional lawyer and Baptist minister, puts it: “Being American is about the principles and ideals set forth in our framing documents…. In a word, the American consensus is civic, not religious.” That is why it is out of order, inappropriate, if not a grave mistake, to force our presidential aspirants to submit to a religious interrogation in order to judge their fitness for office.
We need a national dialogue to address the issue of the ways in which we have allowed Christian beliefs to be wrapped around political positions and parties. Politicians and those who vote for them ought to be able to defend their fitness for public office and the policies they stand for solely on the “civic consensus” and not on religious beliefs, on which as a people we have no consensus.