Former Vice President Walter Mondale died last night at age 93. Although many Americans undoubtedly remember Mondale as the Democratic candidate who lost to President Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1984, there was much more to the man. He was, for example, a strong defender of church-state separation.
The 1980s were a challenging time for advocates of that principle. Religious Right groups had an ally in the White House and were riding high. Reagan, who called for a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer during his 1980 campaign, had worked with Senate allies to engineer a vote on the proposal, which would have allowed coercive forms of state-sponsored prayer into public schools.
On March 20, 1984, the amendment failed, 55-43. While the measure secured a majority, it fell 11 votes short of the two-thirds needed to pass a constitutional amendment. Despite the defeat, bringing the amendment this far was a victory for the Religious Right. There hadn’t been a serious push for a school prayer amendment in the Senate since 1966.
Against this backdrop of a roiling, injudicious mixture of religion and politics, both Reagan and Mondale were asked to address the international convention of the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith in early September 1984.
Reagan’s speech dealt mainly with economic issues and foreign policy. Mondale’s speech was much more focused: It was a stirring defense of church-state separation.
In words that evoked a famous address by John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, Mondale remarked, “I believe in an America that honors what Thomas Jefferson first called the ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ That freedom has made our faith unadulterated and unintimidated. It has made Americans the most religious people on earth. Today, the religion clauses of the First Amendment do not need to be fixed; they need to be followed.”
Mondale criticized Reagan for egging on religious extremists in the GOP and for posing as a defender of the faith, a role he said was alien to our government.
“The Queen of England, where state religion is established, is called Defender of the Faith.” Mondale observed. “But the president of the United States is the defender of the Constitution, which defends all faiths. A president has no higher role. Whatever his private beliefs and religious practice, a president must be the guardian of the laws which insure America’s religious diversity.”
Mondale concluded his remarks with a forceful defense of pluralism, remarking, “So let me speak plainly: The United States of America is, and must remain, a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. Our very unity has been strengthened by this pluralism. That is how we began. This is how we must always be. The ideals of our country leave no room whatsoever for intolerance, anti-Semitism or bigotry of any kind, none. The unique thing about America is a wall in our Constitution separating church and state. It guarantees there will never be a state religion in this land but at the same time, it makes sure that every single American is free to choose and practice his or her religious beliefs or to choose no religion at all. Their rights shall not be questioned or violated by the state.”
Two months later, Mondale was soundly beaten by Reagan. But the vision of religious freedom he outlined to B’nai B’rith remains powerful and inspiring. Our nation would be a better place today if we were to fully embrace it.