08/26/2010 09:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Does a President Have to Have a Religion?

The recent controversy concerning President Obama's religious affiliation recalls a statement he'd made at the end of his Inaugural speech: he expressed toleration not only for those who follow a religion but "the non-Believers" as well. In a recent poll, a significant portion of the American public believes that the president is a secret Muslim, and in another, only one-third believe that he is a Christian. According to the official record on this matter, all but one American President has been a Protestant, the exception being John F, Kennedy, and his religious affiliation to the Catholic Church became a controversial issue during his candidacy. But dare I wonder: Why is it necessary for a president not only to have to "prove" his religious beliefs but have them at all? Does being a "believer" make a president that much more likely to be a good leader? An honest and humane person? Let's take a brief look at the early history of this question.

Some people assert that the United States is a "Christian nation." But what were the faiths of its founders? One of the most profound influences on turning a quarrel between Britain and the Colonies into a revolution was a book by an avowed atheist at a time when being one was almost unheard of. Tom Paine wrote Common Sense shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed and influenced many potential rebels into committing themselves to making this country independent. The man most instrumental in writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was not an atheist but he did not regard Christ as divine nor is there any mention in the Declaration of Independence of Jesus or Christianity. There is a reference in it to a "Creator" but for Jefferson this did not mean Jesus or a specific religious faith. Jefferson might have been a Unitarian, as some scholars assert, but when he refers to "Nature's Laws" in the Declaration, he is referring to a concept in which Christianity has no part.

The Constitution has no mention of any "Divinity" and certainly not a particular religion. And one of the most significant Founders of this country, Benjamin Franklin, was, by common acknowledgment, a "Deist," not taking any definite position on the issue of religion in his many writings. There is also considerable dispute whether George Washington, "the Father of His Country," was in any sense a conventional Christian and it was rare for him in speech or in his writing to refer specifically to Christianity. This was at a time in which most Americans were devout, Church-going Christians.

I wonder why, then, in a land that has prided itself on its toleration of "different" religions -- a sore point at the moment -- this nation wouldn't consider as an acceptable candidate for president someone who has no religious affiliation at all? ( I wouldn't presume to include atheists in this group because they do have strong feelings about religion.) I don't believe that this is an unstated requirement in other countries: in England, Clement Atlee, Labour Prime Minister after World War ll, was an agnostic as was, more recently, Bob Hawke, PM of Australia in the 1980's. But what kind of moral center does a leader of a country bring if not through religious belief?

As a member of Ethical Culture, I can assert that the center of my belief system is in acting ethically in a society in which ethical behavior is being constantly challenged by the actions of the corporate world and the government as well, particularly in how it's cutting needed social service in exchange for maintaining low taxes for the wealthy. As a secular Jew, I am an admirer of Jesus Christ, not as a divinity, but as a true revolutionary who tried to eliminate class distinctions, the emphasis on monetary transactions, the mistreatment of what was once referred to as "fallen women," and who questioned the exclusivity of a formal religious structure as a necessary intervention between the individual and spiritual enlightenment by declaring: "God is in you." But unlike in any formal Western religion, Ethical Culture believes that acting ethically does not need an "Eternal Reward"; that we must do good while we are on this earth since we have no way of knowing -- and most of us aren't that concerned -- what happens to us after death.

Having a president who was raised in the traditions of Ethical Culture -- or in any other of the many secular groups that are concerned with ethical behavior -- would eliminate any dispute about his or her religious origins or practices. After all, although only 15% of the American public do not regard themselves as affiliated with any religion -- a growing number -- that still constitutes a sizable constituency, more than enough to be among the largest denominations in the United States. With such a president, it would make it more likely that there would be no suspicion of their favoring one religion over another or having to "prove" a religious affiliation. Since "ethics" would be at the heart of such a President's belief system, that it is based on the same "Golden Rule" that is central to most world religions without any qualifications that one is "better" than the other, then it would be that much more likely that such a person would have a clear, unbiased view of the issues he or she faced since fairness, justice and equal treatment of all people would be considered exclusively of any sectarian perspective.

I need not probe too deeply into the past history of the United States to point out that if it were a "Christian Nation" it would, in my humble view, have a lot of explaining to do in terms of the teachings of its spiritual and ethical founder. The taking of the country from its first inhabitants, the persistence of slavery until well after it had been abolished in most other Western countries, lynching, intolerance and exploitation of "other people," a national mental illness which is raising its virulent head once more in the new wave of xenophobia we must fight against: none of these blots on our past would be judged acceptable to "The Prince of Peace." Of course, there is much to be proud of in our history as well, the most significant being the opening of doors to immigrants who were given an opportunity to thrive. But commercial success and virtue do not necessarily compliment one another.

I am hoping that one day religion will not be an issue in the candidacy or legitimacy of any elected official. Ethical behavior and religion do not always, unfortunately, go together, as recent scandals in various denominations have revealed. But in order to govern wisely, justly and effectively, wisdom from all sources should be welcomed. An Ethical or other Secular Culture President, I believe, would provide a leader with all those qualities without having to justify him or herself through the limitations of a specific religious affiliation.