One of the more confusing aspects of government and politics in the United States is our approach to the role of religion. The First Amendment of the Constitution reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."
When the language of what is more commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause was written, the idea behind it was to prevent only the federal government from endorsing or establishing any one religion.
Several state constitutions were written with explicit religious language, and in a few cases, held religious requirements for various offices. Also, the practice of using state tax dollars to aid churches was not uncommon.
Eventually, the First Amendment was interpreted to mean that neither the federal government nor the states could become entangled with religion. At some point, most Americans have heard Thomas Jefferson's famous line, "... a wall of separation between Church & State."
In legal terms, federal and state governments have largely been kept at bay by the Supreme Court from becoming involved in the matters of religion. And this is undoubtedly the correct application of the Constitution and the best protection of religious freedom. When government and religion mix, religion always loses. Any aid to the church would mean some form of government control -- and no one wants to be told how to conduct religious worship services.
In a recent poll, 67% of American citizens agreed the First Amendment required a separation of church and state.1 We want that 'wall of separation,' don't we? Maybe as a principle, but not when it truly counts.
Can anyone ascend to the office of president by professing to be anything other than a Christian? For a nation who values separation of church and state, they are quick to almost insist upon a man who believes in God. Any it must be Christianity. No Jew, Muslim, or Hindu has been able to come close to the presidency. In fact, people of other faiths have great difficulty in securing office in Congress.
Even being a Christian isn't good enough. One must be Protestant as well. Don't believe it? Former President John Kennedy's Catholic faith was a key issue during his run for the Oval Office. Current Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have been subject to scrutiny for their Mormon faith.
Though most Americans feel comfortable with a person of faith in office, it only tends to be okay so long as that politician doesn't openly discuss their faith. Former president George W. Bush was heavily criticized for seeking guidance about decision making through prayer. Yet, if Bush had ended any of his major addresses to the nation without adding, "May God bless the United States of America," the public would be outraged.
Governor Rick Perry raised eyebrows this summer by asking Americans to pray for rain in drought stricken Texas.
Beyond our motivation to find a man or woman of faith to take office, how often have we truly elected someone who is striving to live out that faith? I won't even broach the subject of who I believe hasn't lived out their faith, but I can offer an example of who has.
President Jimmy Carter is considered by many historians to be near the bottom in terms of American leadership, but any careful examination of his life reveals a man who is devoted to Christianity.
The national perspective on religion boggles the mind in other aspects, including the words printed on our currency. The phrase "In God We Trust" appears on paper money and all coinage, and isn't considered a violation of the First Amendment, yet how many people follow that maxim? Are Americans placing their trust in God? I can't pretend to know the mind of God, but I'm not convinced He approves of some this nation's actions and policies.
And Americans definitely care about that motto. When a series of new presidential dollar coins was minted with the phrase around the edge of the coin instead of on the front, people were outraged, prompting rumors the motto had been purposefully omitted as part of a grand scheme.2
Americans have fought in court to secure that phrase, the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and protecting monuments displaying the Ten Commandments.
We want a leader to respect separation of church and state -- but still be a religious man. And we want that man of faith in office, but as long as he isn't actively praying or telling us about it. America needs our religious sayings and monuments -- because they will keep us safe. Yet, we don't believe in carrying out the actions that come with the faith.
I'm convinced our waffling back and forth on religion means one of two things. Either our nation isn't really copacetic with separating church and state or it doesn't understand what faith is. Both are pretty terrifying.
1Haynes, Charles. "Surprising support for separating church and state," First Amendment Center, July 14, 2011.
2"E-mail claims 'In God We Trust' removed from dollar coins," Politifact.com.
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