Freedom of Religion or a Religionless Campaign?

Each year just before or about the time of American Independence Day I try to read a book on American history.   This year I have been reading Steven Waldman’s FOUNDING FAITH: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America which is a good read and offers insight into the debates surrounding freedom of religion in early America.   Waldman offers a thesis that the modern American debates about freedom of and freedom from religion can find plenty of fodder among our founding fathers but often the modern debates do not quote the framers of the constitution within the context of THEIR debates and concerns.  Consequently people find quotes to support all kinds of positions which the founding fathers would have found baffling.   He says the real issue of religion in the colonies was trying to weld together a coalition of 13 independent states each of which had a strong sectarian bent.   What the American founders worked out was the union could be formed as long as this national body politic had no power to interfere with the religious practices of each state.   What they realized was needed for the states to unite was a statement that granted religious tolerance to whatever each state did so that no one state and no one religion could take advantage of the union to force their religious views on the rest of the states.  It was the basis for the American idea of religious toleration, though individually all of the founding fathers had strong religious preferences and prejudices.  They were actually protecting each state from interference from the national government and later in history the religious freedom would be interpreted more in terms of rights granted to individuals. 

The modern American take on politics and religion has taken its own turn and some long for a mythical age in which politicians debated policies and not religion.   Take for example the 11 June 2008 New York Times Opinion piece by Timothy Egan, “Godless.”       Mr. Egan thinks religious themes have become way too predominate in American political campaigns and he hopes the candidates will “go Godless for the rest of the campaign.”   It is an opinion piece and so he is entitled to his opinion:  “Over the last 30 years, church and state have become far more entangled than any of our fair-minded founders and their better successors – including some chiseled on Mount Rushmore – envisioned.”

The trouble is his opinion doesn’t match well with history, or at least not the history offered by Mr. Waldman.  The founding fathers openly debated and discussed issues of religion, and beginning with the election of 1800 between President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, there was a tremendous amount of religious bantering, slandering and mudslinging between these two founding fathers.  The Federalist backing Christian Unitarian Adams portrayed Jefferson as a godless man, who didn’t attend church, and whose election would lead to rampant immorality.   The Republicans backing the Philosopher Christian Jefferson (as a man of the Enlightenment he did not believe in any of the New Testament miracles but saw Jesus as an Enlightened teacher) warned that re-electing Adams would bring an end to religious liberty and the rights of conscience. 

Historians claim that although the leading families in 1800 America did see church attendance as part of their civic duty (and vice versa – their civic duty included church attendance), only about 20% of all the peoples in the nascent United States were actually regular church attendees.  But in that year Jefferson won the election to some degree because independent minded evangelicals feared Adams might work to establish a state church and so they joined together with the irreligious to elect the free thinking philosopher.

Americans as the 18th Century came to a close really did vote for the candidate who most pushed the theme of the separation of church and state.   But that wasn’t achieved by the candidates avoiding the issue of religion, but rather by the candidates making known their own visions as to what role religion played in their personal lives and what role they thought religion should play in the life of the nation.   Both presidential candidates in 1800 were men of faith, but the faith of each was different, and the voters had to decide between how these men’s faith would play out in history were they to be elected president.  

What was needed then and now is not religionless campaigning, but a deeper understanding of how each candidate’s faith has impacted their approach to issues and crises, their decision making, and their perspective on the world.   Unfortunately what we will be given is sound bytes and polarized analyzes of the candidate all filtered through the mass media’s take on religion.

See Also my  The First Amendment:  Everything is Prohibited

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