Like many of you, I’ve been watching in horrified fascination as the Republicans who want to lead our nation argue over who’s holier than thou. (Such theological politicking among the Democratic candidates so far has been mainly limited to the spurious question of whether Barack Obama is Muslim. I liked Doonesbury’s take on that better than The Washington Post’s.)
When it comes to religion, I’m as ignorant as the next backsliding Presbyterian; but I have noticed a couple of phrases in the United States Constitution that seem to have eluded the Republican frontrunners and at least the more fervently evangelical of their prospective constituents.
One of those is what constitutional lawyers call the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....” That amendment, along with the other nine in the Bill of Rights, was ratified 217 years ago today.
The other phrase, less famous but even more directly relevant, comes at the end of Article VI. It concludes that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.”
In this campaign, candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, the neck-and-neck leaders in Iowa, are acting as though the religious Test is the big one they have to pass. Rudy Giuliani, a nominal Catholic with multiple divorces and infidelities on his record, is understandably a little less vocal on the subject. Even the straight talker, John McCain, has said he’d be uneasy with a president who wasn’t a Christian.
Mr. Huckabee would certainly qualify. A “Christian leader,” he advertises himself. Mr. Romney isn’t the first Mormon to run for president (that was his father), but he is the first who felt compelled to devote a speech to demonstrating his Christian bona fides and his ecumenicalism. He verbally erected a tent big enough for believers of all varieties, but he didn’t offer much hope to unbelievers until an interviewer reminded him of what was no doubt an oversight.
That interviewer was Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek magazine and author of a book I’ve turned to in search of historical perspective. The book, published last year, is “American Gospel,” subtitled “God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.”
Meacham observes that “many conservative Christians defend their forays into the political arena by citing the Founders, as though Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were cheerful Christian soldiers.” Not so, he demonstrates. Jefferson and Franklin were Deists rather than Huckabee-style believers. Washington refused to kneel in prayer, never took Communion and sent a preacher away from his deathbed. Only Adams sometimes worried about the souls of his colleagues.
Meacham traces the twisted threads that run through these 200-plus years of American politics — the public piety nearly all our leaders have committed and the freedom from religious compulsion the Founders wrote into our governing documents.
His evidence supports half of Romney’s assertion. Religion does require freedom. The other half, that freedom requires religion, rests more on faith than on historical fact.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.