BY: JONATHAN TURLEY
With the rhetoric and rancor rising in the campaign for the White House, the election has increasingly become a call to the faithful, with candidates attempting to outdo one another in appealing to religious voters. Indeed, listening to these candidates, one could easily think this is a campaign for ecclesiastical rather than presidential office. One leading candidate recently invoked “supernatural” events guiding him and suggested that God predestined him for this office. Another candidate trumped that implied divine selection with an express promise to discriminate against Muslims to guarantee a Judeo-Christian nation.
It is hard to believe that 210 years ago another presidential campaign was marked by the same religiosity and led to a demand for secular government—and politicking. On October 7, 1801, three men wrote to the new president of the United States on behalf of their Baptist congregation in Connecticut. The letter from the Danbury Baptist Association is most famous not for its content but for the response it generated from Thomas Jefferson, who described “a wall of separation between church and state.” The Baptists’ letter, however, deserves far greater consideration, particularly in our current political climate.
Some 210 years ago this deeply religious group stepped forward to denounce faith-based politics and “those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion.” As reflected in the letter, it is a struggle that has existed from the nation’s founding, with politicians periodically calling upon the faithful to testify through their votes.
Despite such warnings at the founding of our republic, both parties have unleashed an unprecedented level of religiosity in the presidential race. Both our politics and our laws are now moving away from separation of church and state—even as more Americans identify themselves as secular or nondenominational.
As indicated by the Danbury letter, faith-based politics is nothing new. Jefferson had been attacked for his alleged lack of faith, and religious minorities such as the Baptists were persecuted in such states as Connecticut and Massachusetts with state-supported churches.
Those calls to be faithful have generally triggered concern over the entanglement of government and religion. When Catholic John F. Kennedy was opposed as a “papist,” he defused the effort with a speech on separation. It was embraced by most Americans and created a lasting political respect for separation, not just in government but in politics in particular.
Much of that changed, however, with George W. Bush and his use of faith-based politics. Now, religious and even sectarian pitches have become commonplace and expected. The fears of the Danbury Baptists appear to have been realized, with politcal campaigns, federal programs, and judicial decisions moving away from a clear separation of church and state.
It is now expected that candidates will offer accounts of personal salvation and implied divine guidance. At a speech in mid-September at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, for instance, Texas governor Rick Perry spoke of his “faith journey” and told students to “trust that God wouldn’t have put you here unless He had a unique plan for your life.” Only days before I write this, Perry extended a call for people to pray for President Obama and ask God “to give him wisdom, to open his eyes” to save the country.
Candidate Newt Gingrich set out to claim his share of the faithful by attacking the faithless. In a speech in March he promised to protect America from atheists, secularists, and, incongruously, Muslims: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America . . . [my grandchildren] will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Meanwhile, former Senator Rick Santorum and Representative Michele Bachmann have spoken out against the very notion of separation of church and state. Bachmann told a large youth ministry group a few years ago that religion is supposed to be part of government: “[Public schools are] teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that it’s a myth. That’s not true.” Santorum has recounted how, as a Catholic, he was “appalled” by Kennedy’s “radical” statement that he believed in a wall of separation. … READ MORE