Is God a Republican?: Why Politics Is Dangerous for Religion

Illustrations by Taylor Jones

The 1996 campaign has been sobering for Americans who believe that Jefferson's declaration of a "wall of separation" between church and state forms a fundamental point of national agreement. It is hard to recall a presidential contest when religious voices and a religious coalition have intruded in such partisan ways. A poll recently conducted by the Pew Research Center points to a striking change in the attitudes of Americans, especially evangelical Christians, toward mixing religion and politics. Evangelicals were once committed to the view that Christian churches exist primarily to carry out God's work of saving souls; now about 70 percent of evangelicals, both black and white, agree that "churches should express views on social and political matters." This does not necessarily imply an abandonment of belief in church-state separation, but it is a shift that commands our attention.

Consider how far we have come from the moment in Houston during the 1960 primary campaign when John F. Kennedy confronted a group of Protestant ministers, mainly Southern Baptists, who vented their ancient suspicion that Catholics could not as a matter of faith accept the American separation of church and state. One unappreciated irony in the exchange was that throughout American history Catholics and Baptists had been the strongest opponents of efforts by other Christians to mix religious and political agendas. Baptists and Catholics both regarded themselves as the victims of state-sponsored moral legislation. Although Kennedy's answer to the southern Protestant ministers on that occasion probably did not win him their votes, it reflected a position that they shared with him. As a religious person, Kennedy said, I am influenced in my moral attitudes by my religion, and this will affect my behavior as president. But I will in no way seek to use the powers of the state to force my religious and moral convictions upon people who do not share them.

Against that memory, we may set the more recent image of Pat Buchanan, another Catholic who wants to become president, courting support in Southern Baptist churches for a moral and cultural crusade to take back America for right-thinking Christians. Other candidates this year have also paraded their religious convictions like military medals—a strategy that may have reached rock bottom when Phil Gramm's flagging campaign implied that a sound view about Christ's Second Coming was relevant in judging aspirants to the presidency. So much for the spirit of Article 6 of the Constitution, the clause proclaiming that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

The idea that right-thinking Christians should take back America has been a rallying cry for Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition, now the strongest special-interest group in the Republican Party. Without doubt, the coalition has helped transform many Protestant evangelicals into GOP zealots. But the connection carries considerable risk. Reed has tied his religious troops to the fortunes of Republican candidates in November. If they win, the Christian Coalition will remain in the news—at least until the next election. If they lose, and especially if they lose because of perceived close links to what many voters view as strident moral crusading that quotes the Bible on behalf of slashing welfare and defeating bans on assault weapons, Reed will pass into history. In either case, religion is diminished because Reed's gamble makes the cultural force of religion depend upon the number of votes it can command. And that result is precisely what religious champions of separation of church and state have most feared.


Religion and politics have always mixed in this country's history. The line between legitimate and illegitimate mixture is not always easy to draw, but the Constitution provides some guidance. That document, we have argued in our recent book The Godless Constitution, is intentionally godless, as many of its opponents charged in the state ratifying conventions of 1787 and 1788. Not only did Article 6, in a revolutionary step, abolish any religious test for public office; the preamble to the Constitution also failed to mention God. The United States Constitution was a creation of "we the people." Unlike the earlier Articles of Confederation or the state constitutions, it did not suggest any divine ordinance or divine mission.

The new secular constitutional order alarmed many people, and they predicted the destruction of religion and the state. The ban on religious establishment in the First Amendment increased their gloom. Nonetheless, organized religion prospered in the American republic beyond anyone's wildest dreams. As a result, most Americans began to regard the constitutional placement of religion in the private sector, beyond the control of politicians, as a great blessing. During the nineteenth century, all of the states—which were free to deal with religion as they chose—fell in line with the basic principles of secularity in the federal Constitution. The states did so not because of the Supreme Court, but because Americans generally recognized the benefits to religion of a secular state.

That's the easy part. There remained much to quarrel about. The Constitution did not settle everything regarding law or common practice. There have been many efforts to write God or Christ into the Constitution, most dramatically during the Civil War when it was argued that the bloodshed was God's punishment for being left out of the founding document. While these efforts to add a Christian amendment have consistently failed, the full force of the Constitution's secular base has been modified in various and familiar ways.

Since George Washington, American presidents have sworn their oath of office upon a Bible and added to their oath of office the phrase "so help me God." In their inaugural addresses, they have made perfunctory or extended references to divine protection. Even Jefferson and Madison, the most hard-line watchdogs of church-state separation of all American presidents, did so. Jefferson even authorized the use of government money to fund the educational activities of missionaries among Native-American tribes. Prayer begins sessions of the American Congress and Supreme Court. The U.S. Treasury prints "In God We Trust" on coins and dollar bills. And Congress in 1954 placed the "nation under God" in an amended version of the Pledge of Allegiance, still recited daily by most American school children despite the injunction against state-sponsored school prayer.

Most Americans have learned to view these violations of secularity as consistent with the intentions of the founders, and they have at least this much reason on their side: All of the founders viewed a religious people as essential to the success of their democratic republic. Democracy depended upon a moral citizenry, and most people's morals, in the view of the founders, rested on a theistic religion. Although the drafters of the godless Constitution believed that religion would prosper only if government stayed out of religious matters and did nothing to confuse the work of politicians with the work of religious leaders, they also did not want government ever to seem antagonistic to religion or unsympathetic to the important work that religion accomplished in furthering the nation's success.

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Thus Jefferson as a politician and candidate for president in 1800 never talked about his religious views. In a private letter he answered his clerical enemies who falsely accused him of atheism with his famous phrase, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Newt Gingrich regularly cites this line to argue that Jefferson wanted more religious discussion in politics, but the great Virginian's intention was exactly the opposite. Even so, when Jefferson assumed the office of the presidency, he took comfort from his view—and he said so—that Americans were a religious people.


So the United States began somewhat paradoxically with a godless Constitution and routine references to religion in much national political oratory. "The religious habits of Americans form not only the basis of their private and public morals but have become so thoroughly interwoven with their whole course of legislation that it would be impossible to change them without affecting the very essence of their government," wrote Francis Grund, an Austrian immigrant who became an American citizen, in 1837. Throughout American history, religion and politics have intersected in diverse ways. Organized churches in the United States have acted in the past as political lobbies, taking stands on everything from the abolition of slavery to nuclear disarmament. In the nation's first half century, religion intruded into the controversy between Masons and Anti-Masons, between temperance advocates and drinkers, between slaveholders and their opponents, between immigrants and Know-Nothings.

Some religious groups in the early republic were not hesitant to demand explicit government respect for Christianity, as, for example, in the divisive debate over whether post offices should remain open on Sunday. So-called Sabbatarians led the charge against Sunday mail from 1810 until 1840 and were successfully beaten back by other religious leaders who insisted correctly that it was not the responsibility of churches to dictate how government ran its affairs. In this era Baptists led the anti-Sabbatarian cause and refined all the arguments they had long held about the necessity of keeping religion and politics distinct. Recalling Roger Williams, that devout Puritan who was kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for believing that governments could be as well managed by non-Christians as by Christians, Richard Johnson of Kentucky, the chair of the Senate committee on the Post Office and Post Roads and a strong Baptist, successfully argued that closing the post offices on Sunday was a measure "incompatible with a republican legislature, which is purely for political and not religious purposes. . . . Legislators have no power to define God or point out to the citizen one religious duty." Eventually, of course, post offices were closed, but not before the telegraph had made Sunday mail less necessary and not before secular arguments were added to the religious objection.

We do not cite the past connections between religion and politics, and the disagreements they have caused, to give comfort to Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition. Rather, we want to specify where they, like other groups in the past, have stepped over a line that should not be crossed. Reed, who holds a doctorate in American history, argues that the only thing new and different in this election season is that conservatives more than liberals are making use of religious politics. In his mind he is only following the example of William Lloyd Garrison, William Jennings Bryan, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who turned the "sins" of American society into deeply divisive political controversies. If Jesse Jackson can preach and campaign in churches, black and white, why can't Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bob Dole court the support of fundamentalists?

They can and they do. But it is important to distinguish between the moral witness of religious people who speak out strongly about an issue that offends their moral conscience, and the use of religion as a strategic means to advance the fortunes of a particular party or candidate. Political religion can sometimes be divisive, as it was in the civil rights struggle. What becomes worrisome is when that division follows party lines and no longer seems to have much to do with moral witness. Whatever the truth of the idea that God blesses Americans, God surely does not bless Americans as Republicans or Democrats.

Strictly speaking, there are very few unconstitutional uses of religion in politics (although there are violations of federal election laws). The disestablishment of religion gives ministers private professional status with as much right to run for office as doctors and lawyers, and the constitutional guarantee of free speech renders religious argument as legitimate as nonreligious argument in advancing a political goal. Some political uses of religion, however, plainly undermine the protection the founders sought to construct for both sound politics and religious authority.

Alexis de Tocqueville held as astute a view as anyone of what American religion can contribute to public life and what harm is done when it tries to do something else. There was "no country in the world," he famously maintained, "where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." That influence he saw as a virtue as long as it was indirect. In a critical passage in Democracy in America, he insisted that while religion must encourage virtue, it must never allow the claims of virtue to become infected with partisan politics. "If the Americans, who change the head of the government once in four years, who elect new legislators every two years, and renew the state officers every twelve months . . . had not placed religion beyond their reach, where could it take firm hold in the ebb and flow of human opinions?"

Tocqueville's warning echoed the precise reason that had motivated the founders to separate church and state in the first place. If religion were to become despised by one group of people because it let itself be closely allied to their entrenched political opponents, the moral capital that religion represented in American society would be squandered. Whenever politically ambitious men tried to transfer God's work from churches and church groups to their self-interested political conventions, they injured the reputation of religion.

Alot of religious Americans know this better than our politicians do. In June the American Catholic bishops, who represent what has been since the 1850s America's largest Christian denomination, issued a statement seeking to preserve for themselves a political voice on important moral issues, such as abortion, without involving themselves in moves "to advance or to undermine the electoral fortunes of any individual or party." The Catholic bishops have been in an especially fortunate position to stay above party politics since the economic positions they have taken generally give comfort to liberals, whereas their social positions appeal more readily to conservatives. Whatever their positions, however, the bishops have been content to state principles, and to advance moral and religious reasons for their political positions, but otherwise to avoid party endorsements or to issue statements suggesting that God has a stake in the outcome of American elections. Like Tocqueville, a Catholic himself, they stated that "when religious leaders enter into electoral politics, it is more likely that religion will be debased than that politics will be elevated."

The bishops' position does not seek to silence religion. It does not declare religion irrelevant to political debate. Far from it. Rather, it tries to mobilize moral conscience based on the importance and visibility of religion in American public life. It bears witness to moral positions in a way that does not compromise that witness to short-term political gains. Nor does it declare war on other people's moral positions. To be sure, on the abortion issue many Catholic leaders are prepared, if they can prevail in the legislatures, to coerce people who do not agree with their moral stance. That, however, is not per se illegitimate as long as civil rights are protected and their moral arguments carry no privileged political authority. What is always unacceptable is for religious certainty to trump politics and for government policy to privilege or codify religious belief in ways that preempt a pluralist democratic process. In politics, a religious lobbyist stands on the same footing as a lobbyist for General Motors. What they advocate may be good for the country, but that benefit has to be demonstrated.

The pragmatic issue, from the standpoint of the churches and religious leaders, is the cost of their political involvement to the prestige and moral authority of religion. When religious leaders act in ways that render them indistinguishable from the Doles and the Clintons, they jeopardize the respect that they otherwise enjoy. This is what the Christian Coalition and its leaders are risking.


Installed as head of the Christian Coalition by Pat Robertson, who created it from the ruins of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Ralph Reed found himself in charge of a well-financed organization that had a deserved reputation for extreme statements. People involved with the organization were continually saying that America was a Christian nation and the task of politics was to restore God to the center of American life. Pat Robertson was on record stating that separation of church and state was a lie of the left. Reed knew his American history well enough to recognize that such statements were not only wildly at odds with the Constitution but also an impediment to gaining national power. Stealth victories in local school board elections might be useful for organizing a grassroots movement. But a seat at the table in Washington, which conservatives covet as much as liberals, was a far better thing.

Reed's mission from the beginning was to clean up the coalition's act. And so he has, even if it has meant making some of the other leaders associated with conservative religious causes, especially Jerry Falwell, look inept. Reed has proclaimed his respect for separation of church and state. He has muted claims in the coalition's publications about Christian nationhood and has invited Jews and Catholics into an organization whose base was, and remains, overwhelmingly Protestant and white. He has pulled the coalition away from the language of cultural warfare that sank Pat Buchanan as a national leader and has shown a willingness to put off moral issues that threaten to draw away too many votes from conservative Republican candidates. He has denied that the faith claims of the Christian Coalition override the faith claims of other people.

In steering this corrective course, however, Reed has stuck by the man who butters his bread, Pat Robertson. Robertson's many blundering statements, according to Reed, never mean what they seem to mean. And in the end, Reed's efforts to arrange what he calls a "marriage of a sense of social justice with the practical world of modern politics" transform religious witness into a politics where nothing must get in the way of winning. Reed is not a spiritual leader, but, in his own phrase, a "political junkie." What he doesn't admit but makes abundantly evident in his prose is that, like Robertson, he loves the smell of power. He claims that the Christian Coalition is a nonpartisan organization, but that is patent nonsense. We can think of no religious organization in American history that has so manifestly tied itself to one political party, indeed, to a particular wing within it.

Reed's recent book, Active Faith, is only sporadically about religion. In fact, it is hard sometimes to figure out whether his faith has anything to do with his politics ("My religious beliefs never changed my views on the issues to any great degree") or whether it acts just as a sort of energizing bunny. In a disarmingly candid but unmistakably arrogant way, Active Faith is about one man's quest for influence, his thrill of traveling in police-escorted limousines that screech to stops and burn rubber on their way to rallies where audiences stomp their feet, wave banners, and blow horns when he appears. Reed has won that influence for the moment. The media assiduously court him, and candidates line up to seek his advice and intervention.

But there is a price. Reed's influence depends on the outcome of elections and whether his movement appears to offer candidates more support than it costs. Our own guess is that Reed's influence will wane sooner rather than later because for all his cautious bargaining among leaders of the Republican Party he has yet to get his troops under control. Reed may have tailored a moderate image for himself, but his followers too enthusiastically subscribe to Reed's view that people of faith have fled the Democratic Party; these followers often speak of their opponents as evil men and women whose moral positions reek of hellfire. Christian Coalition conventions have nothing in common with the Social Gospel crusades that Reed wants to emulate. The delegates are too angry. Their televised images and their frankly smutty literature suggest neither piety nor political tolerance. That is among the reasons why many conservative Christians who vote Republican want no part of them. Media attention notwithstanding, the Christian Coalition has not spoken in this year for all of evangelical America.

There is still reason to regret and to worry about the retreat of Southern Baptists from their long-held belief that making or keeping people Christian is not a business best entrusted to politicians. Historically among the strictest Protestants, Baptists ought to recognize that a group of Christians who begin meetings with a cult-like version of the Pledge of Allegiance—"I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe"—have not only tainted politics but have pushed religion over the line into idolatry.

Reed says that government cannot make people moral. Nonetheless, a pledge that it can seems to be on every candidate's lips. Under pressure from the Christian Coalition, Republicans have tried to make character the issue of presidential politics in 1996. The result has too often been the worst sort of religious politics, a politics of moral name-calling that implicates many religious people in scurrilous attacks upon Bill Clinton as a moral leper. The New England clergy who demonized Thomas Jefferson during the election campaign of 1800 followed a similar strategy. It proved to be a disastrous failure for the Federalist Party, and it all but destroyed the Congregational Church. History doesn't always repeat itself. But the thought that it might ought to give Reed some sleepless nights.

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