The most annoying feature of this seemingly interminable campaign process leading to the primaries is the obsession with the religious beliefs and philosophies of the candidates. Of relatively superficial relevance, this nonissue is continually advanced by editorial and syndicated columnists, media talking heads and religious and secular leaders alike — all content to serve pabulum in lieu of substance.
Religion as a divisive issue was raised in the 1928 election with the Catholic Al Smith, the Democratic governor of New York who lost to Herbert Hoover. The unfounded fear that electing a Catholic president would elevate the pope to power was put to rest in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy — positive evidence the majority of the voters are above such nonsense.
Fast forwarding to the 1980s, the advent of the “moral majority” and the “religious right” raised the irrational but highly publicized specter of a Republican Party hijacked by fundamentalists and being led down a biblical instead of a constitutional path. Predictably, this myth of conservative religiosity has been seized upon by the Democratic Party to depict Republicans as religious fanatics and, equally inevitably, has enabled the latter to portray Democrats as secular progressives — largely ignoring the importance of the economy, national defense, Social Security and immigration along the way.
The days leading up to the Christmas holidays could only be described as an abomination with many of the leading candidates assaying to outdo the others in their Christmas messages of faith, family values and piety, with the media gleefully dissecting and politicizing the product. In the final analysis, however, this exercise can be summed up in the vein of the critics’ review of the “Seinfeld” TV program, “a show about nothing.”
It is time to bury the silly stereotypical images that we have allowed to exist much too long. While it is no secret that the far left wing of the Democratic Party is one of secular progressivism, and, conversely, the GOP right falls at the other extreme, fully 95 percent of Americans believe in God, albeit with varying views. And, to my knowledge, we have yet to elect a nonbeliever.
The Republican candidate will be neither an Elmer Gantry nor one selected by the Gantrys. Nor will the Democratic Party select a Christopher Hitchens or a Michael Newdow as its standard bearer. The Catholic/Protestant issue is one of the distant past, and the Jew or Mormon question is equally irrelevant as neither race nor religion is a constitutional mandate.
The Constitution’s First Amendment could not be clearer — “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — and it clearly obviates any religious test. Additionally, Article II, Section I states only that the president be a native-born citizen at least 35 years of age and have been a resident of the United States for 14 years.
The very notion that the religious conviction or lack thereof by candidates in the primaries constitutes a danger to the nation is ludicrous, an absurdity promoted by extremists, fear mongers and media promotion of sensation as opposed to serious commentary. The primary process itself will winnow the field as the political parties and the voters will unite in rejecting those out of touch with the electorate at large.
Equally unsupported by fact is the fairy tale that the “religious right” has somehow mesmerized the Republicans of the so-called Bible Belt to favor the Ten Commandments over the Bill of Rights. Neither political party nor independents own a monopoly on religion, Christian or otherwise.
The people vote their beliefs, values and political preference in support of a particular candidate. If we are to believe that the Republican vote is somehow tainted by Christianity, does that not also apply to the “Yellow Dog Democrats” who will always vote that ticket and the African-American voter who in recent history has voted 90 percent Democratic in presidential elections?
Religious conviction is not a disqualification for public office; that decision is the sole responsibility of the electorate. And, that separation of powers provided by our Constitution is the safety net should the electorate err.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.