Religious Issues Nothing New In Presidential Politics

October 8, 2012

So who are you voting for next month, the Mormon or the radical right's favorite alleged Muslim? The average American may not have heard the candidates' positions on all of the issues, but they surely have been bombarded with their religious persuasions - accurate or not.

Gary Gutting, a Ph.D. who holds the University of Notre Dame's Endowed Chair of Philosophy, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times opinion page, and offered this insight:

"What is striking on the current American scene, however, is the extent to which people see certain political and economic positions as required by their religious commitment. We may understand - even if we do not accept - the thinking of those who condemn abortion on religious grounds. But many conservative religious groups endorse a wide range of political and economic positions that have no religious basis.

For example, The Family Leader (the group that has called for presidential candidates sign a pledge supporting 'family values') has a Voter's Guide that specifies the 'attributes of a strong Christian leader.' According to the guide, a strong Christian leader 'understands key elements of God's law,' which means that, for example, the leader 'upholds the Biblical principles of responsibility and accountability in civil life, thereby limiting the size and cost of civil government'; 'encourages an ethical and free enterprise system, and understands it is the only economic model in accord with Biblical principles'; and 'understands the right to bear and keep arm' for defensive purposes.

The guide also specifies that strong Christian leaders must subscribe to various views about how to interpret the United States Constitution. There is no honest line of argument from what the Bible says to substantive conclusions about the size of the United States government, the need for a free enterprise system, the right to bear arms or the proper interpretation of the Constitution.

Family Leader (and many other religious groups with a conservative political agenda) are disguising partisan political positions as religious convictions... Opponents are understandably irritated by the irrationality of claims that distinctively modern questions about capitalist economics and democratic government were answered in the Bible 2000 years ahead of time. Eschewing this sort of appeal to religious considerations would be a good start toward reducing the acrimony and frustration of our political debates."

Actually, religion has been intertwined with our presidential politics dating back to the founding fathers. PBS's informative look at "God in the White House" revealed that Thomas Jefferson's campaign to end state support of religion emerged as a critical issue in the bitter presidential campaign of 1800, in which he defeated John Adams, his friend and rival, a self-professed "church-going animal".

Jefferson's Federalist opponents vilified him as an atheist and libertine. Jefferson fumed at the harassment coming from what he referred to as an "irritable tribe of priests" and even compared his persecution at the hands of the New England clergy to the crucifixion of Christ.

James Madison opposed including the guarantee of religious freedom in the Constitution until Jefferson convinced him that it was vital to the nation. During his inauguration oath of office, John Quincy Adams chose to place his hand on the United States Constitution rather than a Bible, though he later become the president of the American Bible Society. Lincoln never formally joined a church, but endowed the Civil War with sacred meaning, creating an American Scripture, and articulating an American civil religion that still suffuses the idea of the nation with religious significance.

James Garfield was known as the "Preacher President" after converting to Christianity at a camp meeting in 1850. He was a dedicated preacher until elected to Congress in 1863, and when elected President in 1880 he left his position as an elder in the church saying, "I resign the highest office in the land to become President of the United States." Yet as President, he was a fierce advocate of the principle of separation of church and state.

Benjamin Harrison believed his victory in the 1888 presidential election was the result of divine Providence, and in his inaugural address he called upon God to bestow on him "wisdom, strength, and fidelity." Harrison continued his tradition of daily prayer while serving in the White House; a firsthand account of his presidency recorded that "No morning is passed in the White House and no day's duties or pleasures are begun without the brief family prayer."

Despite regular attendance at All Souls Church, William Howard Taft was accused of being an infidel or atheist during his presidential bid in the 1908 campaign. Taft responded: "To go into a dogmatic discussion of creed I will not do whether I am defeated or not. If the American electorate is so narrow as not to elect a Unitarian, well and good. I can stand it."

Religion was a primary issue in the 1928 presidential election, which saw Herbert Hoover easily triumph over Democratic candidate Al Smith, a Roman Catholic. Hoover, a devout Quaker, never attempted to exploit many Americans' unease over Smith's faith. He didn't need to. Hoover received 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87, and carried all but eight states.

The 1960 presidential campaign was so full of lurid anti-Catholic literature, and warnings of the Pope controlling the USA if John Kennedy were to be elected, that a group of national religious and civic leaders (including George Romney) formed the Fair Campaign Practices Committee, and issued a "Special Statement on Religion in the 1960 Campaign." Chief among its recommendations was that "no candidate for public office should be opposed or supported because of his particular religious affiliation."

The rise of evangelical Christians on the national political scene began with Jimmy Carter, who proclaimed himself a "born-again" Christian in the 1976 presidential primaries in North Carolina. A combination of disillusionment with public morality during the Nixon and Ford years, and a kinship they felt with a candidate who spoke their language, led millions of evangelicals to vote for Carter that year.

But Ronald Reagan, not his born-again opponent Carter, received the support of the newly mobilized religious right in the 1980 presidential campaign. Christian conservatives responded enthusiastically to Reagan's belief, expressed in a 1979 rally, that "the First Amendment was written not to protect the people and their laws from religious values, but to protect those values from government tyranny." Reagan disappointed some leaders of the religious right by putting domestic social issues on the back burner to economic initiatives and foreign affairs. Nor did Reagan deliver on his promises to reinstitute school prayer and outlaw abortion. Nonetheless, he left office in 1989 with overwhelming approval from his evangelical supporters.

George H. W. Bush's reluctance to speak openly about what he considered private personal beliefs led some leaders of the religious right and conservative Christians to question his sincerity and depth of heartfelt Christianity. This mistrust increased when Bush did an about-face and adopted Reagan's pro-life platform when he became Reagan's running mate in 1980. The right saw Bush as an opportunist who allowed his religious convictions to be swayed by political expediency, and he was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1988.

But Clinton's liberal leanings, and the Monica Lewinsky affair, allowed George W. Bush to position himself as a candidate who promised to restore honor and Christian morality to the White House. He won back the support by evangelical and conservative Christians which his father had lost by being open and willing to discuss his faith.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric this year shows that we haven't progressed much from 1800, 1928, or 1960.