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.
Mitt Romney, as a candidate on the national stage, has had to thread the needle of appealing to the religious right while avoiding a backlash over his Mormon faith. The result has been some awkward moments for the former Massachusetts governor, including a speech during his 2008 campaign in which he assured voters that “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind.”
In the 2008 race, Democrats moved to reclaim religious voters by adopting religious rhetoric and theopolitical policies. Churchgoers had represented 41 percent of the electorate in 2004, and 61 percent of them voted for Bush. Obama set out to change that percentage in favor of his own party and enthusiastically embraced faith-based politics. He proclaimed his intention to be “an instrument of God” and to create “a Kingdom right here on Earth.” Even the title of his book “The Audacity of Hope” was taken from sermons by his controversial spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
Like his Republican counterparts, Obama has denounced secularists — and, implicitly, their view of complete separation of church and state. He has chastised people who object to the religiosity that has become the norm in American politics. “Secularists,” he once insisted, “are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.”
After taking office, Obama expanded the scope of Bush’s controversial faith-based programs. At his inauguration, he attempted to appeal to conservative religious voters by asking minister Rick Warren to give the invocation. Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life” seemed perfect for Obama’s faith-infused, purpose-driven politics.
This is all a far cry from Jefferson, who refused to issue Thanksgiving Day proclamationsbecause he thought it would violate the establishment clause. Later, Andrew Jackson also declined to declare days of Thanksgiving or fasting out of the same concern. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams and approved by George Washington and the Senate, included a statement that “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
It is doubtful that Washington and Adams, let alone Jefferson, would fare well today espousing such sentiments. Indeed, tea party favorite Sarah Palin has said that “hearing any leader declare that America isn’t a Christian nation” is positively “mind-boggling.”
In today’s theopolitical world, it is hard to see where God ends and Mammon begins. For example, Perry was asked this summer not just whether he prayed but what he prayed for. Easy, he responded. He asks God to guide Obama to “turn back the health-care law . . . ask that his EPA back down these regulations that are causing businesses to hesitate to spend money.” While some may find it difficult to imagine praying for pollution, that misses the point. The key for Perry was to erase the distinction between prayer and politics.
Emphasizing religion in politics tends to deemphasize the responsibility of politicians for their decisions. Last spring, Perry was facing a devastating drought, state-wide wildfires and criticism that Texas had underfunded firefighting units. He issued an official order proclaiming three “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”
In this climate, it is remarkable to read the letter of the Danbury Baptists, warning that it “is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men — should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order.”
One problem with mixing religion and politics is that it quickly becomes a competition for demonstrating fealty to the faith, including promises of favoritism for mainstream religions or, conversely, discrimination against minorities. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has spoken of not wanting Americans “to lose our Judeo-Christian identity” and said earlier this year that he would not be comfortable appointing Muslims to his Cabinet — a position he later withdrew and apologized for after meeting with Muslim leaders.
Despite polls showing that 66percent of Americans support “a clear separation of church and state,” those Americans do not seem to be motivating politicians or shaping politics. Indeed, Democratic strategists believe that secularists have nowhere to turn — which means Obama can court religious voters without fear of losing others’ support. The result is that the 34 percent who do not support separation seem to drive the political agenda.
The danger of explicit appeals to faith in politics isn’t the establishment of an official religion; that remains highly unlikely. Rather, faith-based politics can become faith-based laws that enforce morality codes, expand public subsidies for religious institutions or sideline religious (or non-religious) minorities. Most important, our political-religious climate threatens to replace a campaign for the best policies with a contest of the most pious.
As our politicians move away from separation principles, the courts inevitably follow suit. We now appear to have (or be close to having) a majority of anti-separation Supreme Court justices who favor a type of state-supported monotheism. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2005 dissent that there is a clear majority on the court that opposes “the demonstrably false principle that the government cannot favor religion over irreligion.” He noted that “the three most popular religions in the United States, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — which combined account for 97.7% of all believers — are monotheistic.”
Even as the world recoils from the extremism of religious-based groups and political systems in places such as Iran and Pakistan, the United States is gradually erasing the bright line that has existed for decades between religion and government. While religious instability and strife in countries around the globe should reinforce the values of separation and the message of the Danbury Baptists, instead politicians are selling themselves as the Judeo-Christian answer to a troubled world; confident, as Perry put it recently, that “He has me here at a time such as this.”
Politicized piety is at the heart of the 2012 campaign. We need to rebuild the wall between church and state that has long protected us from ourselves. The question is: Do we have enough faith in secular government to get it done?
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University.