There have now been billions of words (to which On Faith has made a considerable contribution) written about President Obama’s religious beliefs. Is he a Christian? Exactly what kind of Christian is he? Is his Christianity “tainted” by having a father who was born a Muslim? Although the last question is the most idiotic of all, almost everyone–liberal, conservative, and centrist–who has made any comment on Obama’s religion has failed to say that there is nothing ordinary, or traditional in American politics, about subjecting a president’s private faith to this kind of scrutiny.
I don’t think that Obama, even with a mixed racial and religious background that serves as an excuse for such speculation, is the real issue. What we are witnessing is, rather, the outcome of a 40-year process in which Americans have become increasingly ignorant about and contemptuous of the necessary division between religion and government established by the founders.
The headline above a long piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “God and Politics, Together Again,” embodies the mistake that nearly all of the pundits are making. It implies, somehow, that this pointed personal debate over Obama’s theology is really nothing unusual–that it somehow part of American culture and tradition, extending back to the origins of our nation. It is not.
In a long essay, Sam Tanenhaus suggests–and I think he is right about this–that Obama’s Christian beliefs incorporate both a modern version of the Social Gospel (that is what Glenn Beck hates so much) and a more cerebral and conservative religious philosophy that recognizes the limitations of human institutions (including religious ones) to change social conditions. He goes on to suggest that the “tension between these two religious ideas–one wedded to progress, the other mindful of the limits of worldly activism–reflects the broader tension in Mr. Obama’s liberalism.”
The same religious tension, he suggests, has been present in many other presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt on the left and Ronald Reagan on the right. Implicit in this statement is the idea that there has always been a close relationship between presidential politics and presidential religion, a balancing act in which a chief executive’s political fortunes are linked to public perceptions of his faith.
This is simply not true. The only time in this century in which perceptions of a potential president’s religion played a critical role was during the campaigns of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. Smith, in 1928, was defeated and his Catholicism was a major factor. Kennedy, of course, became the nation’s first and only Roman Catholic president. Once Kennedy was elected by the narrowest of margins, and the public saw that he wasn’t running to the Vatican for instructions, his religion became a non-issue.
Indeed, the president Obama most resembles in his privacy and reserve about religion is Kennedy. No one talked about whether Kennedy did or did not go to Sunday Mass–just as no one talked about how infrequently Reagan and Roosevelt went to church. But this was all before the full ascendancy of the religious right, which would love to undo the constitutional mandate that there be “no religious test” for public office. In a practical sense, the right-wingers have succeeded in undoing this portion of the Constitution and are subjecting Obama to a religious test.
Roosevelt almost never talked about religion, according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and although he was an Episcopalian (like so many born into the upper class in 19th-century America) he did not often attend church as president. The president’s religion, or lack thereof, almost never figured in political attacks on his policies (though the lunatic right did occasionally suggest that Roosevelt was really a Jew). Reagan was the darling of the religious right because of his policies, not because he wore his faith on his sleeve. Like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Obama, he was not a regular churchgoer. But in the 1980s, the erosion of separation and church and state had not yet progressed far enough for a president to be required to pass some kind of religious litmus test, whether administered by a loopy TV commentator who fancies himself an heir of Martin Luther King or by political analysts who seem to think it is perfectly proper for a president to be treated as theologian-in-chief rather than commander-in-chief.
Although orthodox Christians often had deep suspicions about the unorthodox religious views of presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, such suspicions were almost never used to attack presidential policies. Jefferson and Lincoln, among others, were not Christians at all–if by Christian one means believing that Jesus Christ is God and took human form to save mankind from its sins. When Protestant ministers came to Lincoln and asked him to support a constitutional amendment assigning not only God but Jesus Christ the supreme governmental power held by “we the people,” Lincoln quietly buried the amendment. No influential commentators were frothing at the mouth and accusing Lincoln of practicing a religion unacceptable to most Americans.
There is a tendency to assume that the unprecedented attention paid to Obama’s religion is almost entirely the result of his being biracial, having a foreign-sounding name, and having had a father who was born a Muslim (although both of his parents were apparently atheists). I think that this un-American attempt to peer into a president’s soul has been enabled by both religious liberals and religious conservatives in the media and politics.
When many religious liberals jumped onto the faith-based bandwagon that authorized public spending for social programs animated by private faith–when they spoke and acted as though the only thing undesirable about a cozy relationship between faith and government was that the wrong kind of faith might make its way into politics–they set the stage for what is happening now. On the day John McCain and Obama agreed to a debate moderated by Pastor Rick Warren, they also paved the way for the inquisition Obama is undergoing now. The president made the mistake of thinking he could bow down to this violation of the spirit of the Constitution during the campaign but would be let alone about matters of private faith after the election, as so many previous presidents have been. What he underestimated was the profound erosion of devotion to the separation of church and state that had already occured.
We are now reaping the whirlwind that our founding fathers tried so hard to avoid in the the creation of their new nation.