First published Albany Times-Union : Friday, October 24, 2008
Keep religion away from the ballot.
The Constitution, Article VI, Section 3, states "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, said, "An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against."
Here's Theodore Roosevelt: "If there is one thing for which we stand in this country, it is for complete religious freedom, and it is an emphatic negation of this right to cross- examine a man on his religion before being willing to support him for office."
Yet we have now instituted such tests. We line up the presidential candidates and cross-examine them about their faith. They respond with Sunday school sagas about how they met God and pander to us with stories about how prayer will help them lead. How did this come about?
In 1979, four conservative activists, Paul Weyrich, Terry Dolan, Richard Viguerie (all Catholics) and Howard Phillips (a Jew who'd become an evangelical Christian) were looking for wedge issues to break up the Democratic Party. Right-wing economics and foreign policies had no popular appeal. So they came up with abortion, opposition to gay rights and (thinly disguised) racism, concerns that could be found clustered among religious conservatives. They recruited a minister, Jerry Falwell, funded him with corporate money and started the Moral Majority.
It succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Religious Right became the base of the Republican Party, and the GOP gained control of federal government for the first time since the Great Depression.
Democrats were slow to respond. But politics is a business of learning what voters want to hear and then finding sincere ways to say it. Now, they've joined the choir. Meanwhile, sincerely religious liberals who hate the way faith became identified with right-wing politics were politicized in response.
Is faith a good guide to how someone will perform in office? George W. Bush, a born again Christian, claimed that God contacted him and said, "George," (they're on a first-name basis) "invade Afghanistan." So he did.
Although George failed to apprehend Osama bin Laden, God was apparently delighted, called back and said, "George, liberate Iraq."
Bush had a lot of support in all of this. Many people felt that he had been chosen by God to lead America in this moment of crisis and told him so. Here we are, a trillion dollars later, missions not accomplished, our armed forces too used up to respond to a new threat and our nation on the verge of bankruptcy.
If we accept it as true that God chose George and gave him specific instructions, and then look at the results, we have to form a very poor judgment of God, indeed, both as a human resources administrator and as a military strategist. Or, we might say that faith is not a good guide to competence in office.
I liked Jimmy Carter. Many did not. They felt that he was too goody-goody and too slow to resort to force -- the very qualities that came out of his version of born again Christianity. American presidents of little or no faith include Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln (though he could use biblical language to great effect), John Adams and George Washington. Yes, George Washington.
Washington did go to church, five or 10 times a year. But when people tried to box him into making a religious stand, he deftly evaded them. He gave moral advice to his adopted children, but, so far as we know, never urged religion on them.
He wrote: "Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated.
So if you are judging candidates by their religious stands, perhaps we should look to the model of the old George, the one who kept whatever faith he had to himself, and be more than a little worried about the candidate who more closely resembles our George. The one who gets bad guidance from God.
Larry Beinhart's new novel, "Salvation Boulevard," is about the intersection of faith and politics.