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The separation of church and politics
By PHILIP GAILEY
Published October 7, 2007
It probably would be easier to take politics out of politics than to take religion out of politics. Presidential candidates in both parties are expected to speak from church pulpits, pander to religious activists on the left and the right, and talk about how their religious faith has shaped their personal and political lives. Although politicians tread carefully over this slippery terrain, it is easy to trip and ignite controversy, as John McCain did recently.
The Republican presidential hopeful said he would prefer a Christian in the Oval Office over someone of a different faith. In an interview with Beliefnet, a small Web site that covers religion, McCain was asked whether he could support a Muslim candidate for president.
"I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles ... personally, I would prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith."
McCain was quick to add, "But that doesn't mean I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president. I would vote for a Muslim if he or she was the candidate best able to lead the country and defend our political values."
The Arizona senator deserves credit for his candor. I'm not sure how many Americans would consider voting for a Muslim as president no matter how qualified he was. Fairly or not, Islam is linked to terrorism in many minds in the post-9/11 world. Muslims, however, are not the only victims of religious bias in American politics. How far do you think an avowed atheist would get on the road to the White House? Or what about someone who embraces Christian teachings but chooses to practice his faith outside organized religion? After all, not all Christians attend church.
It was not until 1960 that Americans elected a Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and almost a half-century later, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is encountering religious prejudice in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. A recent Newsweek poll found that 28 percent of voters said they would not vote for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for president. My guess is that many of these voters couldn't explain how the Mormon faith differs from their own.
I wonder whether McCain, a former Episcopalian who now calls himself a Baptist, believes a president's faith really matters that much, especially since the nation's founders were wise enough to erect a constitutional wall of separation between church and state. Did the Christian principles McCain said this nation was founded upon include human slavery? Or Jim Crow segregation in the South, where many Protestant churches provided aid and comfort to white racists?
History reminds us that religion can be a force for good or bad in the world. Over the centuries religion has been responsible for wars, oppression, poverty and other ills. But in my lifetime, I have seen what it can accomplish as a force for good. A black preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew moral strength from his Christian faith to lead the civil rights revolution in the South. More recently, we saw the late Pope John Paul II use his religious authority to support a democracy movement that brought down a communist dictatorship in Poland in the 1980s.
Christian principles of love, charity and compassion are not easy to live by, much less to govern by. Born-again George W. Bush consulted with "my higher father" before taking the nation into an unnecessary and calamitous war in Iraq. Religious conservatives are always asking, "What would Jesus do?" If Jesus were running things in Washington, I would bet that all Americans would have health insurance, and government would be spending more money on the needs of the poor and less on war and tax breaks for the well-off. And the debate over illegal immigration would be grounded in compassion instead of political calculation and resentment.
The late Clarence Jordan, a folksy Baptist theologian who, in the 1950s, started an inter-racial Christian farming commune near Americus, Ga., came as close as anyone I have ever known to basing his life on the teachings of Jesus - and for that he was despised and ostracized by local churchgoers. Among other things, he was the spiritual founder of a housing ministry that later became Habitat for Humanity.
Jordan used to tell the story about a Baptist minister in Georgia who tried in vain to get his deacons to raise the pitiful salary of the church's part-time janitor, a black man who struggled to feed his family. The minister asked Jordan whether he had any suggestions. Jordan didn't hesitate. He told the Baptist preacher that the solution was simple - he should do the Christian thing and swap salaries with the janitor. After all, the well-fed preacher lived in a house provided by the church and had no children at home. The poor janitor had five children and lived in a shack.
The minister, of course, rejected Jordan's solution.