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.

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.

Unlike Madison or Jefferson, Washington was very explicit in saying that he considered divine intervention one of the main reasons we won the Revolutionary War. He saw the hand of Providence in the writing of the Constitution, but he also understood — and this was where his genius was — that if you are sectarian, if you favor any particular religion, you end up dividing, rather than uniting, the nation. So, again, what we can learn from the framers is that government is not barred from acknowledging religion, but that it must do so in an extraordinarily careful and respectful way, in which the goal is making sure that every American feels a part of the country regardless of their religious beliefs.

In your book, Washington emerges as a practical thinker who saw religious freedom as a way of avoiding conflict and promoting morality. While he was in office, he used inclusive religious language in his speeches and was careful not to support the idea that the country was founded as a Christian nation, a belief that many people from the right accept today as an unquestionable truth. Why was the first president so vehement in his refusal to say that Christianity was the nation’s religion?

Washington knew that people don’t go to war for God; they go to war for a particular God. George Washington was unique in American history because he was the first person to look after a united country. He was the head of the military during the Revolutionary War, so he was forced to work with soldiers from all the different states, including those that had different religious backgrounds than his own. He knew that if he wasn’t careful and, more importantly, if his soldiers weren’t careful, then religion was going to destroy his army. Washington had to learn as a military person and as a political person that if you discussed religion, you had to do so in a respectful way. At the same time, he was not going to ignore either his religious views or those of the population.

How have the framers’ views on religious freedom shaped America as a whole?

First of all, they made America, ironically, a more religious country. A lot of the religious movements from the 19th century have their roots in the framers’ actions, given that there was no favored governmental religion. Especially in the newer states, there existed a sentiment that people could find the religion that spoke to them most. Second, once immigrants arrived — and despite the strong anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic views of most people throughout the 19th century — there was always a strong sense that the true American understanding was that all religions were welcome. It became part of the definition of what America was. You had, then, both a space for religion to grow on its own and a welcoming of religion. Finally, the Constitution also allowed for a secular view of society and life to also flourish as government was forced to step away. In the end, there was an ironic combination of more religion and more freedom of religion at the same time.

In your book, you mention the 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It was framed in the Gazzette of the United States by the question: “Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; Or impiously declare for JEFFERSON — AND NO GOD!!!” There are some parallels with the current elections.

[Laughs] Yes, yes. The idea of a presidential battle being a proxy for a view of religion is very old. Indeed, there was the sense that the Adams side viewed their efforts as the only way to protect religion, and that Jefferson’s side viewed their efforts as the only way to stop an establishment of religion in a narrow sectarian government. One of my goals in the book is to show that the debates that we are having today are not a creation of our times. We can learn from the lessons of the election of 1800. One of the most radical parts of the Constitution said that no one had to take a religious oath to serve in government. It was a major step, a radical change, perhaps the most important moment in American religious history. However, that doesn’t mean that people can’t vote based on their religious beliefs. The vote of 1800 seems to suggest that the people then didn’t want to have a purely religious government. They were more comfortable with the Jefferson approach, which sought to limit the role of government, than with the Adams approach, which was far more sectarian than that of Washington and Jefferson.

Mitt Romney’s religion played a significant role in the Republican primary. Because of his faith, after winning the nomination, he’s been forced to reach out to some of the Christian groups that had previously shunned him. Do you think there’s an implicit faith test for candidates within the GOP and one for the president within the country?

First of all, I think that surely within the country there is. There are surveys that say people will vote for almost anyone over an atheist. There is a 30 or 40 percent part of the population that will not vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God, so there’s definitely a religious test for the highest office.

Within the Republican Party, I think there is also a small group that does have a sort of religious test. Sometimes the test, if you will, will be passed if the candidate abides by politics that mirror religious beliefs, and sometimes [it will be passed] by the adherence to a specific faith.

In the book I tried to avoid the ongoing debate surrounding what were Washington’s and Jefferson’s specific religious faiths. I think that most American voters get that people’s professed faith doesn’t matter, and that someone’s beliefs can be incredibly complicated. What matters is how they live their lives and their view of government. One of the points of the framing period is that there were people that were very conservative, devout and pious men, who believed in a very limited role of government — for example, my hero John Leland, the Baptist minister. On the other hand you had people that were largely irreligious, like Benjamin Franklin, who supported teaching religion because they thought it was good for the masses. In political thought, there’s a sense that people should not search for a candidate with their same religious beliefs, but rather for one whose politics support their religious beliefs and tenets.

Meanwhile, Obama’s spirituality has been questioned many times … 

Yes, he has been forced to declare his religion far more than most other presidents. While George Washington would never say in public that he was a Christian, President Obama has to do it all the time. Whether he is comfortable with it or not is irrelevant, but it’s a shame. It’s sad that we have to brand him with a religion. First of all, it implies something very hostile, given that he’s had to say that he is Christian because he’s been accused of being a Muslim, as if that were something really bad. On the other hand, the fact that he has to declare his religion implies that that is the right religion for a political leader. I don’t think he believes in doing that, but he knows that politically he has to sort of fit in with this mindset.

Taking Romney into account, what I think you end up with, ironically, are two candidates who consider themselves to be Christian, even though the Mormon faith is not considered to be Christian by some Christians, and Obama is not considered to be a Christian by some Christians. Both of them need to present their bona fide credentials in a way that I think works to divide, rather than to unite, religious faith.

And those credentials are the faith test you mentioned earlier.

Exactly. In fact, it was understood by de Tocqueville and others that the governmental oath test was removed, but the individual’s religious test could remain. It has fluctuated over time, and I think you saw it in the Republican primaries. It might be muted a little in this campaign because I think that many people are going to vote for the candidates’ politics and not for a candidate who represents their faith.

Republicans have constantly accused Obama of waging a so-called war on religion. Many Catholic groups have filed law suits against the government claiming that their religious freedom was violated by the inclusion of contraceptives in basic health care coverage for women. His recent statements regarding gay marriage have only exacerbated that view among his opponents. Do you think those complaints have any legal standing? 

Well, let’s break up the two issues. President Obama had to deal with the religious objections to gay marriage by giving his support in religious language, so that’s not a “war on religion.” Both sides can quote the Bible in support of their own beliefs. You can make a very strong religious argument, as he did, in favor of an inclusive view of society to combat those who use their faith to oppose that view.

In terms of the Catholic Church and other institutions being “forced” to provide contraception, the problem is more complicated. There are two different issues here. First, all institutions, religious or otherwise, must follow generally applicable laws. These are laws which require everyone to do something. For example, there’s a famous case in which the state of Oregon banned the use of peyote, the psychedelic drug. At the time, the drug was used recreationally and also for religious purposes by Native Americans. The Supreme Court said that the law didn’t target religion. It was universal: No one could use the law. Therefore, even though the law had the effect of crippling a religious practice, the law was considered to be constitutional because it was neutral.

However, there was a response to that case that [argued for making] exceptions so that religious groups can follow their faith. This was adopted in all sorts of cases, including conscious objectors to the draft. Since then, the government tries to accommodate minority religions, in part because majority religions are always accommodated. Only minority religions need special accommodations.

In the case of Obama and contraception, though, the administration learned from past mistakes and arranged for private insurance companies to be in charge of the distribution of contraception. Meanwhile, there are ongoing negotiations on how to be sensitive to religious needs.

The second issue has to do with those ongoing negotiations. While they are taking place, the Supreme Court is bound to rule on whether the health care act is unconstitutional. If the court rules against it, the whole issue will go away. Now, what’s incredibly sad is that a religious argument has been put in the midst of a political debate. I think that contraception is a very important and difficult issue because there are the rights of religious institutions and also the right of women to have health care. To drag this into court in the middle of the presidential campaign while the negotiations are under way smells more like politics than religion.

Their complaints aside, the Catholics don’t seem to be the religious group that the government has actually targeted. Since 9/11, Muslims have been singled out by, among others, the NYPD. Are there any similar historical precedents in America?

From what I know of the issue, what happened is similar to what was done with other minority religions in the past. Catholics were viewed as suspect because they were connected with foreign powers, be it the Pope or France. There was a suspicion of the whole group, an assumption that anyone who was Catholic couldn’t be loyal. John Kennedy had to deal with that in the 1960 presidential campaign — this presumption not of divided loyalty but of lack of loyalty to America because of your religion. I think you have the exact situation here. There’s an invidious presumption that if you believe in X religion, then you must be part of an alien culture that’s un-American. The widespread distrust of Muslims, whether in fighting where a mosque is built or regarding the monitoring of Muslim individuals, is part of this view that being a part of a minority religion make you un-American.