Thou Shalt Not Mix Religion And Politics

My Sunday Sermon At The ‘Church Of The Presidents’

By Barry W. Lynn

For just a brief moment, I felt like the president of the United States giving a press conference. After all, as I looked out at the crowd I was preparing to address, there in the first row sat Helen Thomas!

Helen is the pioneering woman journalist who worked for several decades for United Press International, including many as its chief White House correspondent. She was an institution at presidential press conferences, often being the first reporter to lob a question at chief executives ranging from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. 

But this was no White House event. In reality, I was taking part in a presentation at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a Washington, D.C., house of worship close to Lafayette Square that has been dubbed “the Church of the Presidents.” Thomas is an attendee and wanted to hear my talk about religion in the presidential campaign.

The current campaign is so religion-saturated it could be the basis for an entire lecture series. It knows no boundaries of party, gender or race. We have been treated this year to stories revealing that former senator Fred Thompson attends church a little more frequently when he is at his home in Tennessee than when he is living at his home in the Washington suburbs. (Washington-area preachers must not be up to snuff.)  Network correspondents have inquired into what candidates pray for and asked them to state their biggest sin and name a favorite Bible verse.

Thanks to the inventive CNN/You Tube debates, Re­pub­licans were treated to a videotaped question where a guy held up a Bible and asked if they believed every word in it. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani does not believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a big fish, and even Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee said people shouldn’t literally pluck an eye out when it offended them.

And then there’s the weekly ritual of candidates stomping into houses of worship. Some of them even speak from pulpits. It is not always a risk to the tax exemption of a religious institution to have a candidate there, but does anybody seriously believe these folks would just have dropped in for some sermonizing if they weren’t on the campaign trail? (Since Huckabee has no job, he might.)

Sometimes the candidates reel off a clever line. Sen. Barack Obama said a few months back that sometimes he goes to church just to sit in the pew and listen. Giuliani, while speaking at a Florida church, said he was there to ask for prayers, not votes, because a house of worship isn’t the place to seek the latter.

But usually the candidates can’t help but succumb to the temptation to remind congregants that they are speaking a common language. When Obama says he wants to work to bring in the “kingdom,” he sure isn’t talking about the kingdom of Freedonia from a Marx Brothers movie.

The tax-exemption issue arises if, following the candidate appearance, the pastor decides to advise people on whom they should vote for or against or issues some type of church-sponsored endorsement.

I understand that people are curious about candidates’ religion, their personal lives, their medical status and a lot of other things. But we must remember that our Constitution addresses the matter of religion in campaigns. Article VI proscribes a religious test for public office.

Yes, that has a pretty technical meaning: The government can’t require a person running for office or being considered for an appointment to a court seat or other post to affirm allegiance to a particular faith.

Voters, however, are free to apply their own religious tests. They can cast their vote exclusively on a candidate’s view of Hell or the Virgin Birth and they can form political parties based on Bible precepts.

I wish they wouldn’t. Such practices are not a good idea in a secular republic that embraces people of many faiths and none.

I would like to see the presidential candidates remind people of this: When quizzed about religion, it would be helpful if, at least occasionally, they would decline and remind everyone that theology should not matter in the voting booth.

Helen Thomas was kind enough to take my wife and me to lunch that Sunday after the event. She reminded me of her first press encounter with Bush the week before he was sworn in. At an informal gathering in the White House briefing room, reporters were asking him about his cabinet picks and other administrative matters.

But Helen asked a very different question: She wanted to know why the president-elect seemed to have little respect for the separation of church and state.

Helen recalled that Bush fumbled around with some vague response, and that his press officers later called to demand to know why she had “ambushed” Bush.

I have a feeling that she would not like to have a repeat with the next president, and I believe she shares my concern that candidates won’t be able to stop “theologizing” politics once they get into the habit of doing it during a campaign.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.