It is no accident that the first words of our Bill of Rights states the following: ” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
For many of our settlers they well understood the interfering hand of the state regarding the problems inherent in establishing a state religion. Henry VIII established the Church of England to the detriment of the free exercise of religion. My relatives from Lancashire, were denied the ability to hold meetings because they were Quakers.
Europe has been beset with religious wars for centuries. For what seemed like forever men fought the Crusades which saw countless people die in the name of religion.
Serbians sought the ethnic cleansing of their neighbors because they were Muslim. Today is no different than the days of the past for we see that in the name of God, thousands are dying in the name of religion. ISIS uses religion to tyrannize those who differ from their strict interpretation of what they claim is the word of God. Iran has had a theocracy for the past 34 years. So to say the least it is disturbing to hear some Americans bemoan the fact that we are not officially a Christian Nation.
One of the great myths is that America’s founding leaders were supportive of our being a Christian nation. If one takes the time to read what our founders wrote it is breathtaking how they agreed on the necessity of having a wall exist between politics and religion.
Some advocates claim that states are sovereign and therefore the claim is that a state may thereby name a state religion. Let us consider how feeble that reasoning is! If the founders did not see the importance of separating religion from politics why would they have as the very first words of our Bill of Rights the words that Congress shall make No laws establishing a religion.
Under the Articles of Confederation it might very well have been true that the former states would have able to establish a religion. Once they ratified the Constitution and agreed and swore to abide by that document as the law of the land they were duty bound and legally bound to accept that first clause of the Bill of Rights as law.
The next phrase in the first of the Bill of Rights speaks to the founders insistence that Congress not prohibit the free exercise of religion. The Constitution did not even mention, except for the date, the word God during the entire document. The only other reference is in Article VI when it states that ” No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.”
If anything one can argue that until President George W. Bush all of our previous presidents were secularists. Our first President George Washington included in the language of the Treaty of Tripoli, the following: “As the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty passed unanimously.
Jefferson and Madison are well-known for their belief that there must be a wall separating church and state. James Madison, who has been called the father of the Constitution is known for his belief that a wall of separation is needed between politics and religion. Madison spoke wisely about the danger of mixing politics and religion when he stated that if a state religion were named it would not be long before a sect of that religion would claim that on they were the only ones with the right answers. Madison was quoted as saying on another occasion that “religion flourishes in greater purity without than the aid of government.”
The founders were impacted by the Age of Enlightenment. The Constitution was influenced by the political philosophers of that age and by the painful examples of religious intolerance that many of the colonists had experienced.
An early confrontation between followers of the Second Great Awakening occurred after the Jefferson administration had passed a law for Sunday postal service. In response Ezra Styles called for ” a Christian party in politics.” Eventually the evangelical movement to end Sunday mail service was defeated but it did not end the belief of some that the Republic needed to be rescued from secularists by having people of faith enter politics. It is curious that the Second Enlightenment sought to convert those who were not church goers. Education increased for those who were slaves so they could read the Bible while at the same time on Sundays preachers spent time giving a Biblical justification for slavery.
Throughout the 19th Century we saw Presidents resist the efforts of those who wanted to mix religion and politics. President Lincoln faced such a battle over the effort to have ” a Christian Amendment to the Constitution.” Those who advocated for such an amendment would have added the words “Almighty God” and “Lord Jesus Christ,” to the text of the Constitution.” It took around a decade for that idea to fail. The failure of the movement to have a Christian Amendment finally occurred when the House Judiciary Committee of that time concluded that it would be wrong, ” to put anything into the Constitution which might be construed to be a reference to any religious creed.”
You can trace the great divide that America has today to the days of the Moral Majority and the influence of Ralph Reed, when fundamentalists decided that it was necessary for true believers to take their beliefs and their feet to the voting booth. They found a friend in President Reagan. Their power reached its zenith during the George W. Bush presidency. President Bush started faith based initiatives and prayer became a guiding force in his decision making. He became the first President of the United States to completely obliterate the divide between religion and politics.
There is a great danger in trying to legislate morality. Prohibition was a great example of when the religious belief that we should make drinking alcohol illegal. We saw how that did not work.
We see how evolution and the teaching of creationism has raised the specter of mixing religion with education. And here many of us thought that, that issue had been settled with the Scopes trial. William Jennings Bryan appears to be getting the last laugh on this issue. Mandated religious training in schools has no place in education. The biblical flood of Noah did not create the Grand Canyon.
Today religious fundamentalism has a stranglehold on the Republican Party particularly in the Southern states. One of the key leaders of the far right wing of the Republicans is Ted Cruz who does not hide his religion. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor is an ordained Baptist minister. It is fine to be religious but it is not fine if you take religion into your elected office where your decisions will be decided by your religious beliefs and not the Constitution.
In our divided America we have people who believe in science and reason while others insist that their religious beliefs should govern our behavior. We also have many Americans who share both a belief in God but who realize that in a society which encompasses people of all persuasions, if we are to be remain a nation, we must remain tolerant of all beliefs. We must be aware of the general welfare of all without tyrannizing those who might believe differently.
If you were to break down what constitutes the hard core members of the Republican Party today, one would conclude the following: According to a Pew survey 26.3% of the adult population now claim to be evangelical. If you add conservative Catholics and Jews to the equation they make up about 40% of the electorate.
Let us ask the question can a faith based President be good for democracy? With a certain level of religiosity a degree of absolutism enters the political arena. Instead of following the oath of office to swear to uphold the Constitution a genuine moral conflict might occur between what a true believer might construe as being God’s laws and what the Constitution says. We are a nation of laws. We are a pluralistic society. We are a nation that has welcomed all faiths and all who choose not to have a religion.
We as Americans have the Constitution as our Bible. When a President swears on a Bible when he takes the oath of office he does not swear to uphold God’s laws whatever they might be, but instead he or she swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Each faith has tenets that the follower of that particular faith believes in. But those tenets might be different as one goes from one religious sect to another religious sect. We are a land of many religions. An elected officer has a duty to govern with the idea in mind that his constituents can run the gamut of all faiths including people who have no formal religious inclination. He or she has a duty to try to do the very he best he can for all of his fellow citizens who reside in his community, state or nation. It is not good for democracy to have an overtly religious President. His or her decisions might offend and tyrannize those who have different beliefs. No religious sect can or should claim to have all the answers. We have seen the results, worldwide of the pain and suffering of innocent people when a leader or a party seeks to have their religious belief system be ordained as the only one to be allowed. You Let us keep a wall of separation between church and state for religions and politics are a toxic mix destructive to religion and to the body politic.