The Presidential Debate: What I’d Ask The Candidates About Church-State Separation

Wouldn’t it be nice if at least one or two questions dealt with the candidates’ stands on church-state separation and other provisions of the Bill of Rights?

If you’re at all interested in politics, there’s one thing uppermost in your mind today: the presidential candidates’ debate tonight at the University of Denver in Colorado.

Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will field questions from PBS “NewsHour” host Jim Lehrer. The focus of the debate is domestic policy. 

I’m sure a lot of the questions will turn on the economy – the unemployment rate, the budget deficit, taxation, health-care reform, funding for Medicare and Social Security, etc.

But wouldn’t it be nice if at least one or two questions dealt with the candidates’ stands on church-state separation and other provisions of the Bill of Rights? Sure, jobs, economic development and spending priorities are important, but so is a presidential commitment to our constitutional freedoms.

Here are three questions I’d like Lehrer to ask.

  1. Thomas Jefferson said that the American people through the First Amendment have built a wall of separation between church and state. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, on the other hand, recently said that church-state separation is a trick of Satan to keep people of faith out of the public arena. Who’s right, Jefferson or Perry?
  2. In 1797, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a treaty with Tripoli that assured the Muslim rulers there that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” and, therefore, there’s no reason for us to quarrel over religious differences. President John Adams signed the treaty. Would you do so today? Is the United States a “Christian nation,” as some try to claim?
  3. In 1811, President James Madison – widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution – vetoed two congressional bills giving land in Mississippi to a Baptist church and legal authority to an Episcopal congregation in the District of Columbia. He said both bills transgressed the constitutional separation of church and state. Today, thanks to George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative, religious agencies are eligible for federal funding, even if they discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and share religious messages with those they help. Would you keep the Bush policy or follow Madison’s approach?

Frankly, I have a lot more questions, but the debate is only an hour and half. I don’t want to take up all the time.

What questions would you ask?