A poll reported by the Salt Lake Tribune at the end of December highlights a worrisome trend: two-thirds of Democrats and nearly 90 percent of Republicans want Presidential candidates to be Christians. Article VI of the Constitution declares: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Yet, according to the Tribune, "Voters have all but established a de facto litmus test for national office-seekers."
80 percent of Americans are Christians, but that doesn't mean that America is a Christian nation or that political leadership is only for Christians.
If one examines immigration trends over the past 40 years, it's clear that the U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse. In the 1970s, the majority of foreign-born Americans hailed from Christian Europe. Today, the majority of newcomers originate from Latin America, Asia and Africa, bringing with them less familiar belief systems. As a result, our country is host to a growing minority of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and a broad range of other religions.
The U.S. Constitution zealously guards the rights of minorities. The Founding Fathers were careful to eschew formalizing the notion that America is a Christian nation. According to a thoughtful article on religion and politics in the December 17, 2011 issue of The Economist: "Madison, Washington and Jefferson... worried... about political disputes which were 'religious' in their intensity. They wanted to create a state and political system to which people with utterly different ideas about metaphysics... could offer unconditional loyalty." Out of their vision sprang the most determinately pluralistic nation in the world.
But, during times of stress, America sometimes chokes on its pluralism. I believe such a time is upon us, evidenced by social tensions around the widening wealth gap, immigration, the economic downturn, and recent and ongoing wars. One could argue that these stressors are fueling a movement against pluralism that began in 1979 when the Reverend Jerry Falwell stood on the steps of the Capital flanked by seven Congressmen and declared: "The key to U.S. strength is Christianity."
Consistent with the Falwell model, many political candidates tout their Christian faith, implying that it is a qualification for public office. This is dangerous and leads to a political atmosphere of exclusion. How is a Hindu voter to take this? Or a Jew? And what about the growing number of individuals who claim to be unaffiliated or are non-believers? In a nationwide Gallup poll released just last month, 15 percent of respondents identified in the none/atheist/agnostic category. Our current politics are already destructively partisan without introducing religious divisions into the mix.
And, who can really claim to speak for Christianity? According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are more than 4,600 Christian denominations in the U.S., dramatically demonstrating the enormous diversity within Christianity.
When stressors such as the ones we are facing today have occurred throughout our history, we have often heard calls for a return to "the good old days" with their "old time religion" and morality. However, those good old days weren't really good for all. They were rife with exploitation, slavery, lynchings, crime, brutality and bigotry. Old-time moralism often intertwined with anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-urbanism and xenophobia.
Consider the Ku Klux Klan, which was established in 1866, by Confederate soldiers as a backlash against newly freed slaves. It surfaced again in 1915 with the lynching of an innocent Jew, Leo Frank, for the murder of a young gentile girl. In The Politics of Unreason, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab describe the KKK as having taken on the form of a fundamentalist crusade to "punish drunks, adulterers and other violators of the traditional moral code." As we all know, this turned into a campaign against blacks, Jews, immigrants and Catholics.
This is a time to be vigilant against reverting to those times in our history when we divided ourselves on the basis of religious belief.
Today's conditions have put us at a tipping point. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise. A 2007 Pew poll showed that three-quarters of U.S. citizens want to further restrict immigration. Conventional wisdom holds that American voters resist immigration because of fear of competition for scarce jobs. However, a study, reported in 2010, by political scientists Jens Hainmuller of MIT and Michael Hiscox of Harvard, shows that the overriding factor is culture. And, religion is one of the largest components of culture. We're a nation in the midst of profound conversations about traditional religio/social mores -- freedom of reproductive choice, gay rights, definition of marriage and individual responsibility. This is time for great caution about the mixing of politics with one religious tradition to the exclusion of others. It is a time to be alert, lest we tip into the intolerance.
Returning to the Tribune poll with which I began: Independents, "who by definition tend to be less dogmatic about their politics, apparently are less rigid on issues of faith as well." Less than half stated that they want their presidential candidates to be Christians, while 48 percent said "it wasn't important at all." According to the Washington-based think tank, Third Way, "The importance of Independents has grown over time ... [and it is likely]... that Independents will make up a bigger portion of the electorate...than in any election since 1976."
This would bode well for a nation in which believers and non-believers of all stripes should have a welcome place at the political table. And, in which, we can envision a person of character -- who falls on any place along the religious spectrum -- serving nobly and successfully as leader of this great and pluralistic nation.