This election cycle has brought its share of religion-based squabbling, charge, and counter-charge. Religious speech has always played a role in the public debates of American society. This includes the sometimes volatile political theater of election campaigns and presidential politics.
In the first twelve Presidential inaugural addresses, religious or biblical themes are mentioned over eighteen times. I got tired of counting after the first twelve but the practice continues throughout the subsequent inaugural speeches. Sometimes passages of scripture are cited, or there are lengthy pleas for God’s favor on the nation.
Lincoln’s second inaugural, one of the most significant in our history, contains an extended theological reflection on the causes and meaning of the civil war. It makes the bold – even startling — assertion that the practice of slavery brought the judgment of God upon the nation. “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondmen’s 250 years of unrequited toil be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”
That address is chiseled in stone on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Neither the speech, nor its inclusion in a national monument would have passed muster with the ACLU if they’d have had a say. I sometimes wonder when this watchdog of liberty is going to launch a court case to have the monument, or at least the wall containing the address, demolished.
When John Kennedy’s fitness for office was questioned because of his Roman Catholic faith during the 1960 presidential campaign, he gave a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He needed to make the case that his religious affiliation would not dictate his policy decisions. There was particular concern that his allegiance to the bishop of Rome and the Catholic hierarchy would trump his allegiance to the constitution. The speech advocated a strict separation of church and state. It came just short of requiring public servants to check their faith-convictions at the door in order to hold public office. I disagree with many of the assertions in Kennedy’s speech, but the fact is his willingness to address questions pertaining to his personal faith was a turning point in his campaign, and relieved the misgivings of many Protestants toward voting for him.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in the heat of the intense struggle for civil rights wrote a letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. Along with his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, it is one of the most significant documents of the movement. In the letter he states the moral basis for his refusal to obey Jim Crow laws. It’s addressed to a group of ministers in Birmingham who opposed his protests. The heart of his argument is taken from natural law theory, “I would agree with Saint Augustine that ’An unjust law is no law at all’ . . . An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”
In the most significant public policy struggle of the 20th century, King recognized and drew from a heritage rooted deeply in the theological traditions of the Christian Church.
Thomas Jefferson with support from James Madison crafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. It is the forerunner of the free exercise and non-establishment clauses of the First Amendment. In the Virginia statute, these eminent founders rejected the idea of a state-church supported by tax revenues, or state-mandated church attendance. The statute clearly rejects the idea of depriving persons of the right to hold public office because of their religious opinion as a matter of state policy. I find it difficult to believe their intent was to apply a gag order to public political discussion or to restrict the right of voters to support members of their own faith communities based on common values and worldview.
What they advocated in place of an established church was a veritable free-marketplace of spiritual discourse whereby “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” It appears, at least to this legal layman, that the intent of the statute is to promote religious discourse not restrict it, and by the means of free, open, and un-coerced religious discussion to maintain a vibrant faith life for the commonwealth, and later, the country.
Fast forward to today. We often find that the public discourse and campaign speeches of politicians are laced with biblical, faith-based, or spiritual references, and draw on various aspects of these traditions. Many times the debate is discordant and religious discourse is used unwisely or even destructively. But it is without question a part of our heritage, both noble and ignoble. A true understanding of the first amendment should have it no other way.
That is why I am very surprised to read a first amendment scholar such as Charles Haynes calling candidates to “dial back the God talk” in a recent column (“Using Religion to Win Votes Subverts Constitution” Sept. 29, 2008, firstamendmentcenter.org ). The premise seems to be that we should restrict free speech in order to protect the non-establishment clause. Surely the first amendment freedoms compete at times, but chiding candidates for reaching out to religiously motivated voters misses the mark. This assertion runs counter to our popular political traditions and seems to contradict first amendment principles.
No doubt, this freedom can be, and is, abused. There is no question we need to return a civil tone to public debate in our country. And no doubt, exposing falsehoods, and refuting slanderous and false accusations about one’s faith are critical to the proper use of this freedom. But enlarging, not restricting free speech, including religious speech in the public square, is in the true spirit of the constitution.