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Why Is There So Much God in America's Politics?

Presidential candidates have used religion to attack each other for centuries. An expert explains why.
 
 
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His silence about his faith notwithstanding, Mitt Romney will become the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination. That could put more attention on his religion than any candidate has faced since John Kennedy in 1960, especially as Romney tries to attract skeptical evangelical voters. Meanwhile, President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage and the ongoing social issues surrounding the war on women are bound to intensify criticism from the religious right and the crucial faction of conservative Latino voters.

But religion has profoundly influenced presidential politics since the days of George Washington. As Michael I. Meyerson argues in his new book,  “Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America,” a scholarly account of how the framers of the Constitution viewed the role of religion in government, the current campaign has a lot in common with some of the country’s first electoral bouts. Then as now, Meyerson says, the debates were portrayed as a clash between a godless candidate who wanted a secular country and a true defender who was willing to restore the morals of a Christian nation. He says that the study of the formation of the American government can help us understand the reasons behind the growing partisan divide and help bridge the conflicting religious opinions of both political parties.

Salon spoke to Meyerson — a professor of law and a Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore. — about the framers of the Constitution, the upcoming elections, and religious discrimination.

Throughout your book, you highlight how some of the writings and actions of the framers of the Constitution have been taken out of their historical context to support the political agendas of both liberals and conservatives. How does the historical record compare to the way both parties portray the framers today?

The framers were generally far more nuanced, complicated and willing to be complicated than the modern political dialogue. They didn’t have to be purely on the left or on the right. Most of them were trying to make a compromise between multiple concerns and constituencies.

Compared to the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, how would you describe the current discussion of religion in politics?

In terms of the role of religion in government, what I’ve found is that much of the modern dialogue is trying to make the framers entirely one thing or another. You have those who want to argue for a strict separation of church and state, and those who believe that America is a Christian nation. The former go through history assuming a lot and use writings by Madison and Jefferson with a very narrow desire to say that government should not have anything to do with religion. The latter look at the large amount of religious reference and activity in the colonies and say that there is a long history of government being entwined with religion. What neither side does is take into account the validity of the history of the other side. What you end up reading are two half-histories, and generally neither political side has been willing to put the two different components together, which is what I tried to do in my book.

You write that it is essential to create an “accurate picture of what freedom of religion meant at the time of the framing” of the Constitution. Why does that matter?

Even though we are a more pluralistic society, it is important to remember that the framers of the Constitution were dealing with a diversity of their own — and with very violent conflicts between the different denominations, some of which were caused and abetted by government. So what we can learn, first of all, is how to balance competing concerns. The debates that we are having about the role of religion in government are not new; we are dealing with a centuries-old debate. The framers, and especially the vastly underrated George Washington, were very aware of the fact that religion could be a force for good and a force for evil. That was what they were trying to balance.

 
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