By Dale Butland
My, how things have changed.
In 1787, after much debate, America’s founders wrote a Constitution that not only makes no reference to God, Jesus of the Bible, but also specifically forbids religious tests for public office under Article VI.
In 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli, which emphatically declares that “the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
And in his 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson explained why a “wall of separation” was erected between church and state.
In 1960, it’s unlikely that John F. Kennedy would have become America’s first Catholic president had he not pledged, in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, that his religious beliefs would not dictate his public policy positions.
But today the separation of church and state is under assault; ironically, most often by Republicans who rarely miss a chance to trumpet their fidelity to the Constitution.
In 2015, for example, then-presidential candidate Ben Carson went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said Muslims were unfit to be president.
The first question U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked of Supreme Court nominee Katanji Brown Jackson was, “What faith are you? On a scale of 1-10, how faithful would you say you are in terms of religion?”
And we now know that soon after the 2020 election, Mark Meadows, President Trump’s chief of staff, sent a text to Virginia Thomas, a conservative activist married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, asserting that “the King of Kings” (Jesus Christ) would help to overturn the results.
To say our Founding Fathers would be aghast is an understatement.
It’s one thing to question candidates about their value systems and moral compasses.
It’s quite another to violate the spirit of the Constitution by imposing de facto religious tests for public office – or posit that God is a political partisan.
So how should we approach religion and politics?
First, we must recognize that because politics is often about values – and many people derive their values from their religious beliefs – it’s all but impossible to completely separate the two.
Yet who among us can claim infallibility or to have a monopoly on truth?
Getting along in a pluralistic society requires that while all faiths are respected, none is enshrined – officially or otherwise – in our laws or government.
In practice, this means that on inherently personal issues where Americans are sharply divided (like abortion or Prohibition, for example), the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not the coercive power of the State.
Other issues with a moral dimension (like civil rights or war and peace) are inherently public in nature, cannot be resolved by individuals, and must be addressed collectively.
But in all cases, it’s important for religious believers to preserve the distinction between providing witness and offering counsel – and asserting that this or that position is the “will of God.”
Compromise is the heart of democracy, and because one does not compromise God’s will, such declarations are inherently destructive to the democratic process.
Second, we must uphold the spirit of the Constitution by insisting that no candidate’s fitness for office be judged by where or how often he or she worships – or even by whether they believe or disbelieve.
It is simply too slippery a slope.
In past eras, the targets were Jews and Catholics – and in colonial Virginia, even Baptists. Today’s targets might be Muslims or atheists. Tomorrow’s targets could be – who knows?
Strictly separating church and state does not mean separating moral principles from the exercise of political power.
It merely requires Americans to understand that only through civility, tolerance and a willingness to respect one another on matters of conscience can we keep our country safe for both democracy and diversity.
Dale Butland served as press secretary and Ohio chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. John Glenn. © Dale Butland – USA TODAY NETWORK