Faith and Presidential Politics
The separation of church and state has been a vital component of the fabric of American politics since our nation’s earliest years. America was founded as a haven of religious tolerance, and many religious traditions have flourished under the guarantees of religious freedom stipulated by the First Amendment of the Constitution. We owe our appreciation to Thomas Jefferson for coining the most frequently used phrase in the discussion of religious freedom, “a wall of separation between church and state.” This phrase has been used in Supreme Court cases over the years and has been the center of discussion as religion seems to find its way into politics more with each passing election cycle.
There has been an influx of religion into presidential politics in recent administrations as well as in the 2012 presidential campaigns. President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives by executive order in 2001, and President Obama renamed the office the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and expanded its reach. This office was created to “to enlist, equip, enable, empower, and expand the work of faith-based and other community organizations,” but it was criticized for allowing direct government funding of religious institutions without also enforcing civil rights protections that apply to any other organization receiving such funding. In setting up the office under his administration, President Obama vowed that its goal “will not be to favor one religious group over another,” but he has not formally rescinded the Bush-era rules that allowed religious groups to discriminate in hiring.
Meanwhile, on the 2012 presidential campaign trail: Although Michele Bachmann has since said she was joking when she stated that God sent this summer’s hurricane and earthquake, the fact that she initially made this comment is cause for concern. In 2006 she also stated that teaching students about the separation of church and state was wrong because it was a myth. Another presidential candidate, Rick Perry issued an official order as Governor of Texas for days of prayer to bring rain in the midst of the largest wildfires the state had ever seen.
The wall between church and state has seemingly become diluted since Thomas Jefferson wrote those immortal words. This weekend, conservative politicians and presidential candidates will gather in Washington, D.C., for the 2011 Values Voter Summit. This is an annual event co-sponsored by various conservative organizations, many of which blatantly seek to to incorporate Christian ideas into politics. Some of the confirmed speakers include Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as well as the candidates running for president who will participate in the Value Voters Summit straw poll. The website for the event proclaims: “Limit government. Reduce spending. Champion traditional values. Protect America.” The most problematic part of that banner is the third piece because those “traditional values” stem from the co-sponsors’ and attendees’ religious beliefs. When presidential candidates and Members of Congress accept invitations to attend and speak at this conference, they deliver a swift kick to the crumbling wall between church and state.
This mixing of religious attitudes with political views is happening in places other than Washington, D.C.; the state political arena has also experienced politicians inserting religion in the political conversation. FL Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll spoke at the Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition last month and called for “good, solid Christians [to] step up and lead this country on a proper moral path.” But Article VI of the Constitution states that there is no religious test for political office in the United States. Politicians are elected for a variety of reasons–the policy positions they hold, their leadership ability, their character–not their religious affiliation.
These statements made by candidates and elected officials alike are troubling when we look at American politics through the lens of Jefferson’s call for a wall of separation between church and state. We ask candidates running for office and those already elected to refrain from this kind of rhetoric and, in some cases, their advocacy for a blurring–if not complete elimination–of the lines between separation of church and state.