One early morning while heading out for ice I was scanning AM radio for a weather forecast. Ah, the "soothing" voice of Pat Robertson coming from the cheap speakers in my truck. My "favorite" minister was introducing a tape of a speaker addressing the intentions of the Founding Fathers in creating a Christian nation. The speaker's credentials were "well-established" as holding a bachelors degree from some Bible college and an honorary masters from some seminary. I'd never heard of either institution but if you weren't listening closely, I suppose it sounded great. I'd never heard of him either, which is why, I guess, that I can't remember his name right now.
He began railing against the "secular humanists" and the ACLU who are taking God out of the public square. Giving selected facts from a couple court cases, he clearly was having no trouble working up the friendly audience in whatever venue (it was supposed to be in our heathen capitol, Washington, D.C.) he was speaking. Establishment Clause, Free Exercise, nowhere is "separation of church and state" found in the Constitution . . . . On and on he went in a carefully moderated voice (don't want to sound unreasonable like some fire and brimstone revival preacher) designed to sooth and reassure the listener.
Blessedly, I rounded a mountain and the radio went to static. Punching seek, I quickly found a station with the sought after weather forecast.
I've been reading Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. It is a great refresher course in the role of religion in politics and government as it developed during the colonial period, the Revolutionary War and Declaration of Independence, the drafting of the Constitution and First Amendment, and how religion has been used and abused by presidents and other political and religious leaders. Meacham does a great job with the early history but seems to skim over more recent controversies and extremist uses of religion in the public square.
It is not my intent to rehash American Gospel, but rather to encourage you to give some thought to the proper role of religion in American government and politics as we get deeper in the presidential campaign. Religion will be a factor - both John McCain and Barack Obama spoke to evangelicals over the past weekend. Religious prejudice has entered some blogs commenting on the congressional race in Virginia's 6th District.
It is clear to me that "public religion" has a role in campaigns, political rhetoric, elections, and governing. By public religion I mean the notion of a "Creator" or "Nature's God" as expressed by the deist, Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence. Public religion speaks to our fundamental rights and liberties. The term as coined by Ben Franklin and supported by many presidents beginning with George Washington, that held that "religion and morality" were important aspects of society, but did not control it. Public religion is not the same thing as private belief. Public religion unites. Private belief divides.
The past two elections (actually, this has gone on since at least the election of 1800) have seen the corrosive effects of using religion, especially private belief, to divide us, to foster hate, to win elections at the cost of governing a more united American people. We will be far better off by following the excellent advice of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor:
Reasonable minds can disagree about how to apply the Religion Clauses in a given case, but the goal of the Clauses is clear - to carry out the Founder's plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the Clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate - our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish.
In spite of what Pat Robertson and others would have you believe, religion is indeed flourishing in our nation. Extreme voices like Robertson would have their private belief trump our public religion.
There will be other extreme voices screaming for attention on talk radio, in blogs, and in commercials between now and November. Some will be brazen, hateful, and easy to spot and debunk. Other messengers will be more subtle, more polished, and spread their disgusting message with a wink and a smile. Whenever and wherever you confront the politics of religious bigotry and extremism speak out to reject the message. This November we should elect candidates based on character, qualification, issues and their ability to bring us together as a people. The Rovian politics of divide and conquer have no place.