Holier Than Thou: Tennessee Candidates Tout Their Religiosity

Does a Presbyterian make sure potholes are filled and balance the budget any differently than a Unitarian?

As I cruised some news headlines online this morning, I came across an interesting tidbit: Bronislaw Komorowski, the newly elected president of Poland, campaigned in part on a promise to increase the separation of church and state.

Poland can certainly use some separation. Back in the early 1990s, I remember Americans United hosting an activist from that county who explained the intolerably close relationship between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the government there. Komorowski, who has been serving as interim president, said he sees putting some distance between religion and government as one way to modernize Poland.

It would be nice if we had candidates in this country who openly campaigned on a vow to strengthen church-state separation. Instead, too often we get hopefuls eager to talk about how they plan to drag their personal religious views into every political decision they make.

Today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press, for example, contains a story about a race for a seat on the Hamilton County Commission. It’s a crowded field, and two of the candidates attend the same Baptist church – and have taken to accusing one another of being insufficiently religious.

One candidate, Tim Boyd, said he has never seen opponent Kenny Smith “darken the door” at East Ridge Baptist Church.

Smith responded with a pithy, “I’m a Christian and my decisions are based on that.”

Two other candidates, Jim Winters and Terry Turner, felt compelled to assure the newspaper that they both accept the divinity of Jesus.

“As far as my candidacy goes...religion – it’s an important part of my life,” Winters said. Turner pointed out that he is a “follower of the way of Christ.”

Meanwhile, Pastor Ronnie Mitchell of East Ridge Baptist decided to add a dollop of anti-historical bilge to the discussion, informing the newspaper that the United States was founded by “conservative, fundamentalist Christians and radical Bible believers.”

One of those founders was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, a Deist, rejected the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus and once edited the New Testament to remove all references to miracles.

In a remarkable letter to John Adams, dated April 11, 1823, Jefferson observed, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Some fundamentalist, radical Bible believer there!

Obviously, many Americans would disagree with Jefferson’s conclusion. That’s fine. Religious liberty, undergirded by the separation of church and state, gives us the freedom to hash out these views in private arenas.

They are less welcome in the government arena, and here is why: Private religious opinions are more or less irrelevant to getting the job done.

Consider Jefferson. Even though he held religious views that many would consider unorthodox, they in no way impaired his ability to serve his country. After all, Jefferson was governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, founder of the University of Virginia and president of the United States.

I really do believe a Deist like Jefferson, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim or an atheist could handle the tasks of the Hamilton County Commission – just as a Christian could. Think of it: Does a Presbyterian make sure potholes are filled and balance the budget any differently than a Unitarian?

Yet Jefferson, the man who helped birth our republic and whose genius is given plenty of lip service every 4th of July, probably couldn’t be elected to the Hamilton County Commission, in light of his religious opinions. It’s highly ironic.

I wonder if Bronislaw Komorowski has any interest in relocating to Tennessee?