Religion first intruded into presidential politics in a big way in 1960, when John Kennedy, a Catholic, became the Democratic candidate. He wasn’t the first Catholic to run for the office, but Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in 1928, never raised enough of a challenge to Herbert Hoover for his religion to become a major issue. In that year the US was at peace and the economy was booming. Smith lost, 444 electoral votes to 77. In 1960 JFK—young, popular, and rich—posed a greater threat to an uncharismatic Richard Nixon and faced far more media scrutiny than Smith had. My grandfather, a yellow-dog South Carolina Democrat and a Baptist deacon, told me he was going to “hold my nose and vote for Nixon.”
Today religion impinges on the presidential nomination process, especially among Republicans, in a way that causes me increasing concern because it shouldn’t be an issue at all. Religion and politics don’t mix, any more than oil and water, if you’ll pardon the cliche. Article VI, paragraph 3, of the Constitution says, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” And, of course, the first amendment prohibits the establishment of any official religion. That should be the end of the discussion.
But we have one candidate who says he couldn’t support a Muslim as president and we have others who seem to want us to vote for them because of their religious views. We are in danger, I fear, of losing sight of one of the fundamental principles upon which this nation was founded: freedom from any form of religion imposed or supported by the government.
That freedom can be seen as one side of a coin. The other side is the freedom of all religions to practice openly. Even before the Constitution was written, that principle was enunciated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 but not passed by the state legislature until 1786. Jefferson considered the statute one of his three accomplishments worth mentioning on his tombstone. (Being President of the United States didn’t make the cut.) The document contains some striking passages which ought to be required reading for all sides in the current debate.
Remember that Jefferson and many of his contemporaries were Deists, who had little use for Christianity or any other religion. That’s why they could say “. . . the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil and ecclesiastical . . . setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”
Or how about this zinger: “. . . to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty . . . .”
In the final clause the statute grants that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”
In sum, everyone should be free to believe what they want. But what if they believe in, and advocate, violence or aggression against others? The statute does provide that “it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” So, no one has the right to kill someone else in the name of their religion.
Jefferson was writing, of course, against the backdrop of state-supported religions in Europe. The founders of this country were determined to free themselves of that oppression. But, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion is a tricky proposition. To insure it for myself, I have to guarantee it for everybody, even if I don’t agree with them. That is what we’ve tried to do in this country for over two hundred years. In his autobiography Jefferson wrote that the statute was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
So why are we having some of the discussions we’re having today about political candidates’ religious views? Or about whether the US is “a Christian nation”? The founders intended for it to be a secular nation where all religions could be freely practiced. But they lived in an isolated world. There probably weren’t a hundred “Mohammedans” or “Hindoos” in the entire country at that time. They could not foresee a day when 30% of the population of a city like Dearborn, Michigan, would be Arab. In 1750 the Jewish population of New York City was 300; in 2012 it was over 1,500,000. In that same year the Jewish population of Jerusalem was 497,000.
I believe we’ve taken the right stance on this issue. Freedom for anyone requires freedom for everyone. Unfortunately, other countries and other religions don’t share that philosophy. Muslims can come to this country and build mosques and demand that their employers provide accommodations for their daily prayers. In most Muslim countries, however, the public expression of any religion other than Islam is strictly forbidden, under Sharia law. Muslims who convert to another religion, and the people who persuade them to convert, are guilty of apostasy and are subject to severe penalties, including death in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the Sudan. In Saudi Arabia you can’t even display a Valentine’s Day decoration because it’s considered a Christian holiday. Several international bodies acknowledge that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world today.
This is an insoluble problem, I’m afraid. We must remain who we are and guarantee freedom of religion to everyone, but we now live in closer and closer contact with people who look at the world quite differently. Europe is already seeing an influx of tens of thousands of non-Europeans from the war-torn Middle East. No one can accurately predict its long-term impact. I think much of our political discourse about religion is a reaction to a perceived threat that is only going to increase over the next couple of decades.
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