The Dangerous Mix of Religion and Politics

12/08/2011 12:51 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

Governor Rick Perry has taken us to a new low in campaign advertising with his "Strong" ad. Under the guise of spirituality, Perry has taken the manipulation of religion for partisan political advantage to an incredible, almost unbelievable extreme. With a smile on his face, he trades on personal attacks and provable untruths that reveal no understanding of the First Amendment to the Constitution and very little respect for the integrity of religion.

His ad suggests a war on religion that simply does not exist. His statement that he is "not ashamed to be a Christian" would seem to imply that too many of our public officials are. If anything, the opposite is true. Far too many candidates of both parties are trying to use their faith as a political weapon or qualification for office, rather than a source for inspiration. As I've had far too many occasions to say, this is a race for commander-in-chief, not pastor-in-chief.

These are difficult times and we are a country facing serious challenges requiring real solutions. Prioritizing one religious perspective in favor of another does nothing to move us forward. We have to have a president who believes in the constitutionally defined guarantee of religious freedom and who will appoint judges that will protect that precious right.

Ordinarily, I would not encourage voters to raise issues of religion in a campaign. However, when candidates use God-talk to make the most passionate appeal for their election, they invite religious questions. Some are appropriate. How will religion affect your ability to serve people who do not share your religion? How will religion influence your decisions on public policy? Will your religion prevent you from giving full respect to international leaders who hold a different religion? How will your religion affect your views of religious freedom issues? Should tax dollars support religion or employment discrimination be excused by religion?

Don't be fooled. In a presidential campaign, the primary goal is to win the election. No programs or speeches are accidental. Everything is orchestrated. And everything is meant to increase the possibility of a particular candidate winning the election. Candidates should be welcome in houses of worship to worship if they so choose. But pulpits, lecterns, bimas and other sacred forums should not be sites from which stump speeches are delivered and partisan politics preached.

And please keep in mind that not everyone who speaks frequently of religion is religious and not everyone who says little about religion is irreligious. What candidates have done and what candidates do speak much more loudly than what candidates say they believe. Of course, the same is true of voters.

Much of my work is focused at the intersection of religion, politics and government with a sharp eye on the religious liberty guarantee of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Never has that guarantee been more important in an election -- important both for religion and for politics and for the freedom that was the first and foundational freedom for our nation, which, were it to fail, will leave democracy itself seriously weakened.

This year's elections occur in the context of a sharply divided nation filled with hurting people who are angry. For the good of our nation, we need a competition for the presidency that models civility, mutual respect and a commitment to political party that is secondary to patriotism. A good campaign can benefit the nation almost as much as the candidate for the White House who is elected.

I have long worked to make civility and mutual respect foundational values in political debates. Every day I look at the role of religious freedom in the issues that dominate public conversations. It is my hope that on the day after the presidential election, our nation will be stronger, better informed and more willing to work together than we are today.