It's 2011 -- Why Is God Still Involved In American Politics?
As an atheist and a liberal, it’s been tempting for me to simply laugh at Republicans fighting each other over the issue of whether or not Mitt Romney, a Mormon, gets to consider himself a Christian. From the non-believer point of view, it’s like watching a bunch of grown adults work themselves into a frenzy over the differences between leprechauns and fairies. But watching the debate unfold, I’ve become concerned about what it means to make someone’s religious beliefs such a big campaign issue, because it’s indicative of a larger eroding of the separation of church and state, which concerns not just atheists but all people who understand the importance of maintaining a secular government.
Robert Jeffress, an influential pastor who is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, went on "Focal Point" with Bryan Fischer and declared that one shouldn’t support Mitt Romney for president because Romney, a Mormon, isn’t a real Christian. This created a media dustup that was silly even by the usual standards of ever-sillier mainstream media campaign coverage. John King of CNN interviewed Jeffress, focusing strictly on the question of who Jeffress believes deserves to be called a Christian, and how firmly he believes that only people he calls Christians should hold public office. Candy Crowley of CNN dogged both Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann on the question of whether or not they believe Romney is a Christian, and then she got irate with the candidates when they refused to answer the question, claiming that it’s irrelevant.
These interviews are remarkable for what the CNN anchors didn’t discuss, which was the most important question of all: the separation of church and state. Even though our nation has a tradition of pastors staying out of partisan politics -- in fact, it is illegal for ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit -- it seemingly never occurred to King to challenge Jeffress for overstepping his bounds by telling people that God wants an evangelical Christian who is a Republican for president. By making the story about whether or not Mormons are Christians, CNN left the viewer with the impression that only Christians deserve to hold public office, and that the only thing left to debate is whether or not someone “counts” as a Christian, making him or her eligible for office.
We’re a long way from the days when John Kennedy assured the public that he respected the separation of church and state and would keep his faith separate from his policy-making decisions. Now, even mainstream reporters take it as a given that politicians will let religion govern their actions, and the only thing left to debate on theology is how many angels any single politician believes dance on the head of a pin. Things that used to be considered beyond the pale in politics, such as religious intolerance or ministers blatantly claiming they know who God supports in an election, have become normalized to the point where someone like Mitt Romney, who is odious in most respects but has never really made much of a fuss over his faith, is seeing religious tests becoming a major issue in his campaign.
The ramifications for this shift affect more than conservative Mormons trying to win as Republicans. By not challenging the assertion that only Christians should hold office, mainstream journalists encourage bigotry against all religious minorities, including atheists. Atheists already face discrimination when it comes to running for public office. A number of states ban atheists from holding public office, even though the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests for office. Of course, it’s difficult for an atheist to win enough votes to get office, so this conflict hasn’t been tested much, although one atheist city council member found himself under fire by religious bigots who wanted to use North Carolina’s ban on atheists holding office to push him out for not swearing his oath of office on the Bible.