“He won my vote when he talked about religion.”In an October 4 New York Times article, Marc Santora wrote:
“The intensified assault by religious leaders poses a central question about Mr. Giuliani’s viability as a Republican presidential candidate and presents him with one of his first big tests on the stump.”The same day, the New York Times published an editorial by James Dobson of Focus on the Family entitled, “The Values Test,” in which Dobson put both the Republican and Democratic parties on notice that their test—written and proctored by religious conservatives—is fast approaching:
“...If neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate.”Earlier this year at an “Ask Mitt Anything” forum in Pella, Iowa, Mrs. Van Stennis, a teacher at a local Christian school, asked Mitt Romney where the Bible would be in his decision making as president:
“Would it be above the Book of Mormon, or would it be beneath it?” Mr. Romney, affecting his best Jack Kennedy religious tolerance stance, answered, “This is a nation where people come from different faiths, different doctrines, different churches.”Then tactically, if not disingenuously, he added:
“But, unlike the people we’re fighting over in the Middle East, we don’t have a religious test to say who should be able to run our country. It’s over there where people say, ‘You don’t go to my church, you can’t run our country.’ ”Had he been less concerned with passing Mrs. Van Stennis’ religion test, he might have added more honestly, “But as you know, it’s over here where people say, ‘You don’t go to church, you can’t run our country.’”
Contrary to Article VI of the Constitution, which states in part that “... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” the realpolitik of American political campaigning is that all candidates for public office must pass a religious test. This is not a “de facto” religious test. It is the real McCoy.
But it has become the de facto law of our “Christian nation.”
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In a 1981 speech to the U.S. Senate, Barry Goldwater, the archconservative, five-term Republican Senator from Arizona and author of “The Conscience of a Conservative,” alarmed by the encroaching influence of the Christian Right on the Republican Party platform specifically, and on American politics in general, warned his fellow Senators, “The religious factions... are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent... Just who do they think they are? I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.”
Over a quarter of a century later, John McCain, four-term Republican senator from Arizona—Goldwater’s immediate successor—and author of “Faith of My Fathers,” confirmed Goldwater’s prescience and fears in an interview with Dan Gilgoff of BeliefNet. When asked if a presidential candidate’s personal faith has become too big an issue, McCain replied, “I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition... ’”
Considering McCain was being “quizzed” by a religious web site, one would expect him to mince words to his faith-based, political advantage. But for a U.S. Senator, whose secular “bible” is the Constitution, to then tell Gilgoff and the country, that “... the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation,” is either inexcusable ignorance or plain pandering. Regardless, he just led the Republican Party and the Republic down to the banks of the river Jordan.
But as Republican candidates squeeze into the revival tent this campaign cycle, they find themselves sitting next to a newly-converted Democratic candidate whose hands are raised in exaltation, albeit, a bit self-consciously.
On a June 4 special religion edition of CNN’s “The Situation Room” featuring Democratic candidates John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, moderator
Soledad O'Brien asked Edwards if he thinks the United States is a Christian nation.
Edwards’ stumbling attempt to pass his religion test was a veritable glossolalia of fundamentalist God-speak and political correctness, “No, I think this is a nation — I mean I'm a Christian; there are lots of Christians in United States of America. I mean, I have a deep and abiding love for my Lord, Jesus Christ... ”
Unlike John McCain who unabashedly rewrote the Constitution for the Christian Right, Edwards’ seemed uncomfortable in his role of Christian apologist, though his hedging answer did contain the virus currently debilitating American politics—the mistaken notion that since there is a preponderance of Christians living in the United States, we are a Christian nation.
To appreciate how wrong-headed this notion is, imagine a white politician seriously claiming that since a preponderance of their state’s population is Caucasian, it is a white state. Of course, they will quickly add that people of all colors are welcome... sort of. Albinos, on the other hand... ?
In a follow up question on the same broadcast, the Reverend Sharon Watkins of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ asked Edwards the evangelical equivalent of “Did you beat your wife again last night?” “When you pray, how do you know if the voice that you are hearing is the voice of God or your own voice in disguise?”
What was Edwards suppose to say? “Yes, I hear voices that tell me what to do” or “No, I don’t take the advice of the creator of the entire universe.” What he did say was worthy of a politician, and a telling example of the “point of singularity” to which the Christian Right has shrunk political discourse in America, “... some would argue we sometimes have trouble telling the difference... ”
John F. Kennedy—the first Catholic to be elected president— didn’t have any trouble telling the difference between what “God” wants and what his conscience dictates. In fact, Kennedy passed his one and only religious examination in his 1960 presidential campaign in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance in a manner that would “excommunicate” his Democratic torchbearers in today’s Christianized political climate.
He told the assembled ministers that religion would have no place in his administration. He assured them that he “believed in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” He further pledged that "whatever issue may come before me as President... 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.”
Kennedy understood the realpolitik of Article VI as it applied to his presidential campaign, “I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the first amendment's guarantees of religious liberty... neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection... ” At the time it was Kennedy’s religion, not his lack of one, that was his first big test on the stump.
Hillary Clinton, like John Edwards, is not exactly sure which way to step as she nudges her way into the evangelical tent. Responding to Soledad O’Brien’s observation that she doesn’t talk a lot about her faith, Clinton said, “... a lot of the talk about and advertising about faith doesn't come naturally to me... I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves... ”
What Senator Clinton failed to mention to O’Brien and millions of viewers is that she doesn’t need to wear her faith on her sleeve since it is written down in the 352 pages of Paul Kengor’s recent book, “God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life.” She also neglected to mention that Paul Kengor has written two other books with similar titles: “God and Ronald Reagan” and “God and George W. Bush.” Could it be she doesn’t want to bask in the reflected light of these two ultra right-wing conservative luminaries? More likely, she doesn’t want to be tarred by the same brush?
Another aspect of Hillary’s faith that is not worn on her stylish sleeve—or even admitted to in public—but which may be of interest to potential left-of-center supporters, is her ongoing active participation in a secretive Capital Hill group known as the Fellowship. According to a September 2007 Mother Jones article, the Fellowship is a conservative Bible study and prayer circle that includes such committed right-wingers as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Hillary Clinton, like all Americans, has the constitutional right to pursue religion as her heart dictates. However, if she plays the religion card for political gain, she had better be willing to show her entire hand.
To illustrate the deleterious effect religious tests have on the secular democracy envisioned and codified by the Founding Fathers, consider that three of the first four presidents of the United States, all of whom where instrumental in drafting either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, would be unelectable today if certain of their thoughts on religion were worn on their sleeves.
Imagine the scurrilous hay right-wing pundits would make of the following “blasphemous” snippets:
“This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”Thomas Jefferson:
“Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.”James Madison:
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."Now imagine denying men of Adams, Jefferson and Madison’s intelligence and political acumen a leadership role in the government.
Currently, Representative Pete Stark (D-Fremont) is the only member of Congress who wears his atheism on his sleeve. Since the best estimate is that one in ten Americans is an atheist, statistically there should be at least 53 atheists in Congress. Someone is not being honest with the American electorate... little wonder?
But there are small, encouraging, signs that the electorate is growing tired of the Sunday school miasma pervading our “Christian nation’s” political process. A recent poll conducted by the University of Connecticut’s, Center for Survey Research and Analysis, found that 68 percent of those who responded “don’t like it when politicians rely on their religion in forming their policy,” while 44 percent said religion plays too large a role in American politics.
On October 6 Barack Obama asked the 12,000 congregants of the Redemption World Outreach Center to “pray that I can be an instrument of God” as he campaigns for the presidency.
Until candidates begin asking the faithful among the electorate to pray that they be an instrument of the Constitution first and foremost, religious tests for public office will continue, religious platitudes will continue to pass for serious political discourse and to influence both domestic and foreign policy, we will continue to render unelectable eminently qualified women and men who choose to keep their faith a private matter or to wear their “faithlessness” on their sleeves, and the public square of our nation will continue to be the exclusive meeting place of the faithful.
Robert Weitzel is a freelance writer whose essays appear in The Capital Times in Madison, WI. He has been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Skeptic Magazine, Freethought Today and on popular liberal websites. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
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