As I sat drinking my coffee one morning, I watched the early news broadcast on a cable news station where they were interviewing everyday folk in a local diner on the day of one of the recent presidential primaries. The interviewer was asking patrons of the restaurant about who they would choose as their candidate for President and why they were choosing that particular contender. Most were concerned about the economy, or about immigration, or about the war in Iraq. Yet the response of one woman caught my attention and almost caused me to spill my morning cup.
When asked for whom she would vote, this particular voter responded with the name of the candidate of her choice, and when asked why, she simply replied that he would be the right person to turn America back to religion. I thought I had actually misheard what she had said, but I was wrong. She had said what I thought she said and she was sincere. Yet, what concerned me most, and ought to concern all of us, is that this is a sentiment that seems to be growing among more conservative evangelical Christians.
I have been forthright in stating very clearly that religious people are free, and should remain free, to vote their religious consciences, as I assume this woman will do. And, there is certainly nothing wrong with voting for a person because that candidate is religious. The problem is when we confuse the personal faith of a public official, especially one who may hold the highest office in our democracy, with the idea that he or she should be the religious leader of our republic. In other words, while a President’s personal faith may be important to a block of voters, this does not mean that the President should be the one who leads America back to religion, as if religion has somehow vacated our country.
There are some very important reasons that such a distinction must be kept. First, America, as I have written in the past, was founded on the principle of the separation of Church and State. Learning from the long history of religious violence and oppression in Europe, the founders of this nation, while affirming the importance of religion, drew a clear line between the roles of the Church and the State. That line is always hard to keep clear, but it becomes very blurry when political candidates are valued foremost for their religious views.
Second, the Constitution gives many roles and authorities to the President of the United States, but nowhere in this founding document is the President given authority to serve as a religious leader of the nation. There are certainly times in the life and struggle of a nation where the President symbolically serves a quasi-pastoral function, giving comfort to those who have suffered. Moreover, the President, by virtue of the power of the office, must act justly and make just legislation, which can have religious correlations. But in no way does the President serve as the religious leader of America.
Third, and perhaps most important for the modern era of American life, the multicultural fabric of our society has also produced a multi-religious civilization in which all should have freedom of religion and equal rights under the law. While the personal religious choice of a President is his or hers to make, and he or she may find strength in that faith in carrying out the role of President, the President cannot become the promoter of religion, for inevitably this will lead to the endorsement of one religion over others. In a democracy of religious diversity, to promote one religious perspective over others would result in the suppression, and perhaps oppression, of other religious views.
The opinion this woman shared may be innocent and well-meaning. Yet her outlook has recently become a political reality when one presidential candidate made the bold statement that the Constitution should be amended to reflect the Bible. Such a statement presents real problems for a democratic nation where religious faith and government authority are to remain separate. This may be a statement that a pastor is free to make from a pulpit, but it is not a declaration a candidate for President should make.
In a democracy, where the power over government rests with the vote of each citizen, the fundamental belief is that people can make reasonable and moral choices. Thus, while history demonstrates that humans will always search for God through religion, moral choices are not solely dependent on religion or on a person who is a religious leader. The key to a just and moral society is finding the common moral ground on which just legislation is made to achieve the common good, religious or not.