Beyond Belief

When will secularism be allowed in the public square?


When John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960, his Roman Catholic faith was widely viewed as a stumbling block to his campaign. Many voters feared that Catholic politicians would look to the Vatican for guidance, putting their loyalty to the Church above their obligations to the American people.

Kennedy responded by reiterating his absolute commitment to the separation of church and state. In a September 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, he declared his belief in "an America where…no Catholic prelate would tell the president [should he be Catholic] how to act."

Fast-forward 44 years to the presidential campaign of another Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts, Sen. John Kerry. This time around, the charge is that he is insufficiently loyal to the Catholic Church.

In June 2004, the Los Angeles?based Catholic lawyer Mark Balestrieri filed heresy charges against Kerry with the Boston Archdiocese, asking that he be excommunicated because of his support for legal abortion. Around the same time, Pope John Paul II's doctrinal adviser, Cardinal Ratzinger, sent a memo to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stating that politicians who support abortion rights should be denied communion. Four American bishops already had said they would deny Kerry communion.

Some commentators — including several conservatives, such as The Weekly Standard's Terry Eastland — noted that such tactics could backfire. But the controversy was generally seen as a liability and an embarrassment for Kerry. In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination at his party's convention in July, Kerry asserted that he did not wear his faith on his sleeve, yet much of his speech was crafted in religious terms.

Religion in politics has come a long way since 1960.

Kerry is not the first Democratic candidate to have a religion problem this campaign. The former front-runner, Howard Dean, was labeled too secular to be electable. A January 2004 cover story by Franklin Foer in The New Republic declared that Dean would have trouble shedding the "liberal" image — less because of his politics than because he was "one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history." (Dean, an Episcopalian turned Congregationalist, had openly said that he didn't go to church often and that religion didn't inform his public policy views.)

Other publications picked up on this theme. In a particularly bizarre moment, an interview with Dean by Newsweek's Howard Fineman abruptly turned from various policy issues to the question, "Do you see Jesus Christ as the son of God and believe in him as the route to salvation and eternal life?"

It's hard to tell whether the meteoric fall of Dean's candidacy had anything to do with his perceived secularism — or, for that matter, with his clumsy attempt to reinvent himself as a man of faith. Nonetheless, few would disagree with Foer's statement, "One day, a truly secular candidate might be able to run for president without suffering at the polls. But that day won't be soon."

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution explicitly states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust." But formal tests are one thing, voter preferences another; no one can keep the people from imposing a religious litmus test on candidates. Today that litmus test is not membership in a particular religion but religiosity in general — though it's hard to tell how the public would react to a Muslim or a Hindu candidate. In a 2000 Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of Americans said that they wanted a presidential candidate to be religious.

The prominence of religion in the Bush White House makes secularist liberals profoundly nervous. Four of the six blurbs on the back of Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, published in May 2004, refer directly or indirectly to the Bush presidency — what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called, in his blurb, "the tide of religiosity engulfing a once secular republic."

The real picture, as usual, is more complex. Indeed, Jacoby's fascinating if flawed history demonstrates that religiosity and secularism have always been competing strains in American public life. In a cyclical pattern, relatively secular periods have been followed by religious upsurges.

There is no question that religion and politics are entangled today in ways that would have been unthinkable in 1960. But blaming this solely on the right is disingenuous. Jimmy Carter was the first modern president to wear his faith on his sleeve. In 2000 Al Gore claimed that "What would Jesus do?" was his guide to making policy, while his running mate, Joe Lieberman, talked of renewing "the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

Critics of Christian conservatives are often blind to it, but religion and politics mix freely on the left as well as the right, from Quaker peace activism to the role black churches play in mobilizing the African-American vote. Last April, in a review of The Jesus Factor, a PBS program about the role of Bush's evangelical faith in his presidency, Salon critic Charles Taylor stated with startlingly unselfconscious candor that the scary thing about Bush was not that he injected his faith into politics, but that he was using it to promote a right-wing rather than left-wing agenda — in Taylor's words, to serve narrow constituencies rather than a "legitimate civil interest" such as raising taxes on the rich.

Given the liberal intelligentsia's high tolerance for the use of traditional religion in progressive causes, it's not surprising that hardly anyone questions the political influence of Earth-worshipping environmentalism, which novelist Michael Crichton has called "the religion of choice for urban atheists." This environmentalist "spirituality" pervades Gore's 1992 book Earth in the Balance.

There is some truth to the conservative claim that liberal hand wringing about the intrusion of faith into politics often smacks of politically correct bigotry. The war in Iraq and the War on Terror were widely portrayed as a part of Bush's religiously inspired crusade against "evildoers." Many Bush critics, from British political commentator Rupert Cornwell in The Independent to Jim Wallis of the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, have even decried his use of the word evil, in reference to people who crash airplanes into buildings, as evidence of religious fanaticism.

Yet the faith-based presidency is genuinely troubling. This is not only because of the public policies justified by invoking God's name. No less important is the symbolic message that one must be religious in order to be a part of the body politic — in order, perhaps, to be a "real" American. It's a message that goes hand in hand with a good deal of secularist bashing and particularly atheist bashing: In some of the Republican attacks on Democratic financier George Soros, atheist was used as a term of opprobrium.

The public's views on this subject are more complex than the champions of religion in the public square often make them out to be. For instance, a recent Time poll found likely voters evenly divided on the question of whether the president should allow his personal faith to be his guide in making political decisions. The vast majority of Americans consider themselves religious, but about a third do not consider religion very important in their lives and attend religious services once a month or less. That's a pretty large segment of the population to reduce to the status of political pariahs.

The idea that politicians should keep their religious faith private may seem outrageously intolerant. But is it not equally outrageous that, on today's political scene, a secularist figure cannot express his views honestly without committing career suicide? Unlikely though it is to happen, a moratorium on God talk might level the playing field.