In their collective wisdom, the American Founding Fathers in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 wrote into our primary document that there would be no religious test for public office. Later, in the Bill of Rights, they banned any interference between church and state. They had learned the lessons of Western Europe all too well and sought to avoid that political climate where Catholic and Protestant did battle for centuries over religious preferences, ending up with the doctrine that the people took the faith of their rulers. This was a ridiculous and amoral position, but it was one that calmed sectarian differences for centuries.
In the early 19th century, they still hadestablished churches on a statewide level. But the Founders wanted to make it very clear that on the national level, which they were then creating, there would be no religious oath of office or religious test whatsoever. Their prudence has worked to the benefit of the church and the state over the centuries. When the Holy See wrote President Jefferson and asked how much input he expected in the naming of Catholic bishops, he simply said that the American government was not interested, for this was not Europe.
Now we are seeing the unfortunate return of religious tests and oaths in the silly presumptions of the “Compassion” forum on CNN-a network which obviously has nothing better to do with its time. They stuck Campbell Brown and John Meacham on a panel to interview the two Democrats left in the nomination slug fest and to ask them what they believed about God, death, the origins of life, Genesis, abortion, the family and other issues. Hillary got a chance to swing away at Barack (in a very uncompassionate beginning) by calling him an elitist since he argued that people were bitter and were seeking solace in family, religion, and guns-a rather poor sociological explanation of our discontents and our motivations on his part. She then went on to tell us that the potential of life begins at conception, but she still believes in abortion. For some reason, Hillary went on the talk in oblique ways about the Monica Lewinsky affair and how trying it was, publicly and privately. Somehow God, in all his Majesty and Splendor, figured in that mundane betrayal.
Obama came back, telling the audience how he found God while he was a community organizer. Since he was working for churches in Chicago, he had to join one of them. So he happened on the most powerful church in the city, surprise, surprise, the parish of Reverend Wright who was, apparently, in one of his less belligerent phases. Obama let us know that he believed somehow in the creation story, but not necessarily in six real 24 hour days. He also believes in evolution. Still, he insisted he was a Christian and had attended Roman Catholic school even in Moslem Indonesia -a twist we had not heard before. He went around and around on abortion and euthanasia, two terms which fundamentalists find difficult to disassociate from liberal. But he felt comfortable when the fundamentalists in the crowd told him that their faith was embracing more of the social gospel, more of a concern for the planet, green life, for AIDS prevention and peace in the world. There is common ground, Obama rejoiced.
All that’s nice, I guess. We really do need to understand these candidates’ moral views, even if those views don’t impact a whit on their bare-knuckled politics. There was something very wrong and very un-American about these two candidates pandering to the Christian right and allowing them to create a religious test. Let us stay with the Constitution as it is and remember that we should give unto Caesar whatever is Caesar’s. Please, Democrats, do not make God into a precinct captain in the party.
Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey.