My, how things have changed.
In 1787, after much debate, the founders of America drafted a Constitution which not only makes no reference to God, Jesus or the Bible, but also specifically prohibits religious testing for public office under Article VI.
In 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli, which declared categorically that “the government of the United States of America is in no way founded on the Christian religion”.
And in his 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson explained why a “wall of separation” was erected between church and state.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy is unlikely to have become America’s first Catholic president had he not promised, in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, that his religious beliefs would not dictate his public policy positions. .
But today, the separation of Church and State is under attack; ironically, most often by Republicans who rarely miss an opportunity to trumpet their loyalty to the Constitution.
How is the wall between church and state attacked?
In 2015, for example, then-presidential candidate Ben Carson appeared on the NBC show “Meet the Press” and and said Muslims are not fit to be president.
Last month, the first question Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was, “What faith are you of? On a scale of 1 to 10, how faithful would you say you are in terms of religion? »
And we now know that shortly after the 2020 election, Mark Meadows, President Trump’s chief of staff, texted Virginia Thomasa conservative activist married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, saying that “the King of kings” (Jesus Christ) would help reverse the results.
To say that our founding fathers would be appalled is an understatement.
It’s one thing to ask candidates about their value systems and moral compasses.
It is quite another to violate the spirit of the Constitution by imposing de facto religious tests for public office – or to assume that God is a political partisan.
What can we do?
So how should we approach religion and politics?
First, we must recognize that because politics is often about values – and many people derive their values from their religious beliefs – it is virtually impossible to completely separate the two.
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But who among us can claim infallibility or have a monopoly on truth?
Living in a pluralistic society requires that all religions be respected, but that none be enshrined – officially or otherwise – in our laws or our government.
In practice, this means that on inherently personal issues where Americans are sharply divided (like Abortion Where Prohibitionfor example), the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not to the coercive power of the state.
Other questions with a moral dimension (such as civil rights or war and peace) are inherently public in nature, cannot be resolved by individuals and must be dealt with collectively.
But in any case, it is important for religious believers to preserve the distinction between testify and offer advice — and to affirm that such and such a position is the “will of God”.
Compromise is at the heart of democracy, and because God’s will is not compromised, such statements are inherently destructive to the democratic process.
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Secondly, we must respect the spirit of the Constitution by insisting that no candidate is suitable for a position be judged by where and how often he or she worships – or even by whether they believe or disbelieve.
It’s just too slippery a slope.
What’s at stake?
In times past, the targets were Jews and Catholics — and in colonial Virginia, even Baptists. Today’s targets could be Muslims or atheists. Tomorrow’s goals could be — who knows?
Strictly separating church and state does not mean separating moral principles from the exercise of political power.
It simply demands that Americans understand that it is only through civility, toleranceand a willingness to respect each other on matters of conscience can we keep our country safe for democracy and diversity.
Dale Butland lives in Columbus and served as Ohio press secretary and chief of staff for the late U.S. Senator John Glenn.