On Oct. 7, 1801, three men wrote to the new president of the United States on behalf of their Baptist congregation in Connecticut. The letter from the Danbury Baptist Association is most famous not for its content but for the response it generated from Thomas Jefferson, who described“a wall of separation between Church & State.” The Baptists’ letter, however, deserves far greater consideration, particularly in our current political climate.
Some 210 years ago, this deeply religious group stepped forward to denounce faith-based politics and “those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion.” As reflected in the letter, it is a struggle that has existed from the nation’s founding, with politicians periodically calling upon the faithful to testify through their votes.
Those calls have generally triggered concern over the entanglement of government and religion. When the Catholic John F. Kennedy was opposed as a “papist,” for instance, he defused the criticism with a speech on the separation of church and state.
Much of that concern seemed to vanish, however, with George W. Bush and his faith-based politics. Now, religious and even sectarian pitches have become commonplace and expected on the campaign trail, even as more Americans identify themselves as secular or non-denominational. The fears of the Danbury Baptists appear to have been realized, with political campaigns, federal programs and judicial decisions moving away from a clear separation of church and state.
On any given night, listening to the presidential candidates could easily lead voters to believe that they are listening to a campaign for an ecclesiastical rather than presidential office. It is now expected that candidates will offer accounts of personal salvation and implied divine guidance. At a speech in mid-September at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, for instance, Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke of his “faith journey” and told students to “trust that God wouldn’t have put you here unless he had a unique plan for your life.” Two weeks ago, Perry extended a call for people to pray for President Obama and ask God “to give him wisdom, to open his eyes” to save the country.
Newt Gingrich has set out to claim his share of the faithful by attacking the faithless. In a speech in March, he promised to protect America from atheists, secularists and, incongruously, Muslims: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, [my grandchildren] will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Meanwhile, former senator Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann have spoken out against the very notion of separation of church and state. Bachmann told a large youth ministry group a few years ago that religion is supposed to be part of government: “[Public schools] are teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that is a myth. That’s not true.” Santorum has recounted how, as a Catholic, he was “appalled” by Kennedy’s “radical” statement that he believed in a wall of separation.