Religion And Presidential Politics

Approaching The Danger Zone?

Maybe that French proverb is wrong. Some things that change clearly don't stay the same. Take religion and presidential politics.

In 1960, many Protestant voters feared that John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would allow his religious beliefs to unduly influence his decisions as president. Addressing that concern head-on in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance, Kennedy proclaimed that he "believed in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute." Adding "I do not speak for my church....and my church does not speak for me," he pledged that "whatever issue may come before me as President on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject I will make my decision in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

Many historians say Kennedy would have lost had he not so unambiguously embraced the separation of church and state. So it is ironic that nearly 45 years later, voters are demanding almost the exact opposite from today's presidential hopefuls. Indeed, some now insist that religious dogma should inform policy decisions, and condition their vote upon public expressions of candidate faith and piety.

Consequently, one Democratic candidate was recently asked if he regarded "Jesus Christ as the son of God." Another sought a former President's political blessing as a "fellow Christian." Others feel obliged to claim they "pray daily and have read the Bible cover to cover," or to publicly "thank God for the Hebrew prophet Amos and Jesus of Nazareth."

Republicans have been equally heavy-handed. President Bush cites "Jesus Christ" as his "favorite philosopher." Pat Robertson claims God personally told him that "George Bush is going to win in a walk" this November.

We're approaching the danger zone. It's one thing to ask candidates about their value systems and to insist that they have a moral compass. It's quite another to impose de facto religious tests for public office, particularly when such tests are specifically forbidden by Article VI of the Constitution. As President Kennedy said, those who would undermine Article VI even indirectly should be honest enough to openly try to repeal it.

So how should we approach religion and politics?

First, since politics are often about values and since many people derive their values from their religious beliefs it is obviously impossible to completely separate the two. Yet who among us can claim infallibility or a monopoly on truth? Even more to the point, getting along in a pluralistic society requires that while all faiths are respected, none are enshrined officially or otherwise in our government or its policies.

Second, people of faith must not use government to (a) tell people how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives, or (b) impose values the majority cannot be persuaded to accept. As the youngest Kennedy brother pointed out in a 1983 speech at Liberty Baptist College, some issues with a moral dimension are inherently individual and private, or at least people are sharply divided about whether they are. In such cases (Prohibition comes immediately to mind), the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not the coercive power of the state.

Yet other issues with a moral dimension are inherently public in nature, cannot be resolved individually or privately, and must be addressed by citizens collectively through their government. War and peace and civil rights are good examples. Here, people of faith not only have a right, but perhaps even an obligation, to take a stand and offer counsel as Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin, Billy Graham, various popes and other religious figures have done to our society's benefit.

But even on issues which involve religious values (and not every political issue does), it is imperative to preserve the distinction between providing witness and offering counsel and trying to impose one's beliefs or asserting that this or that position is the "will of God." Compromise is the heart of democracy, and since one does not compromise "God's will," such declarations are inherently destructive to the democratic process.

Finally, we must stand with a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who said that ANY religious test for public office, even if imposed by voters rather than law, "directly contravenes the spirit of the Constitution." This means that no candidate's fitness for office should be judged by whether, where or how often he or she worships, or even whether he or she is a believer or a non-believer. It is simply too slippery a slope. In past eras, the targets were Jews and Catholics (and in colonial Virginia, even Baptists). Today's targets might be atheists or those who harbor religious doubts. Tomorrow it could be...who knows?

As a Christian, an elder in my church and a former Sunday school teacher, I do not urge the separation of church and state because I wish to separate moral principles from the exercise of political power. I do so because as an American, I know that only through civility, tolerance and a willingness to respect one another on matters of conscience can we keep our country safe for both democracy and diversity.

Dale Butland is a Columbus-based political consultant who was Ohio Chief of Staff to former U.S. Senator John Glenn.