Saturday, September 17, 2011

For Constitution's Sake, Keep Religion Out Of Politics (Jan. 3, 2008)

Today's Iowa caucus and the traditional first primary next Tuesday in New Hampshire may - or may not - impact the 2008 presidential campaign, which, for the first time in 56 years, lacks, an incumbent president or vice president. After five more January primaries and Super (Duper) Tuesday on February 8, when voters in more than 20 states, including New York, cast ballots, the pack of presidential hopefuls could be pared to a handful of candidates in both parties.
However, Republican Mitt Romney, despite outspending all of his opponents, according to recent estimates, may have sealed his current White House bid a few weeks ago when he decided to address a major concern - his Mormon religion - that had dogged his campaign for months after being criticized by Evangelical church leaders.
He basically said that if he was elected president next November his devotion to the Mormon faith would have no influence on his decisions as Chief Executive. Many likened the concept to John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign speech when he assured voters his religion would not make him beholden to the Vatican if he won. As it turned out, Kennedy's faith had no bearing on his abbreviated presidency.
Regardless, Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, demonstrated he is no JFK. Actually, the only things the two have in common are a Harvard education and serving the people of Massachusetts. When Sen. Kennedy went public he gave a succinct background on Catholicism, to clarify his faith, which, at the time was being practiced by some 35 million Americans. Romney, on the other hand, generalized his faith and barely alluded to Mormonism, a religion practiced by less than six million Americans and likely misunderstood or unknown by twenty times that number. Therefore, his words were wasted on the uninformed seeking some clarification.
The fact that Romney was compelled to defend his faith demonstrates the adverse effect fundamentalist zealots have on politics and how they have corrupted a basic tenet of American democracy - freedom of religion. Though it's still early, religion seems to have suddenly emerged as a vital trend in the 2008 presidential race when it should be nothing more than a lesser concern.
In fact, it is evangelists and their favorite son, Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, who have fomented the movement by criticizing Romney's faith, resulting in an unexpected rise in some polls for the former Arkansas governor. Earlier this week, Romney had regained some ground in the Iowa polls.
Several decades ago fundamentalist Christian leaders judged the course of American society and culture was headed to heck (their prudish preference, not mine), so they figured the best method to pursue change was to use their influence in the political arena to repeatedly support a candidate they believe is Mr. Right - a term with multiple implications. With a substantial voting bloc, these holy rollers aggressively exerted pressure and only embraced candidates whose religion was suitable to their liking, which, every so often prevailed over domestic and foreign policy issues. That religious fervor seems to have peaked with the current presidential campaign.
Apparently, freedom of religion means little to Christian conservatives and evangelists - particularly if you don't practice their religion and their self-styled family values. Oh sure, they may respect religious liberty, but when a candidate wants to be president, he/she had better fall in line with their beliefs or be shunned.
A recent survey revealed that only 40 percent of Americans regularly attend religious services, yet 70 percent want a leader with strong religious faith. Therefore, candidates must now make a public confession of their faith, if not pander to religious groups for which they seek backing.
Christian fundamentalists may commit extended portions of the Bible to memory, but it's obvious they ignore segments of the Constitution regarding religious freedom. (Is that against their faith?)
The Founding Fathers established religious freedom knowing many colonists fled persecution of their beliefs when they came to America. Consequently, they established a government free of religious pressures and without putting any restraints on personal faith.
Let's not forget the opening words of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
For over 200 years this nation has progressed and survived under the principle of the separation of church and state, but evangelicals decided to deviate from that concept, hoping to transform the U.S. into a Christian nation to suit their specific taste. Regrettably, all they've really done is intensify the polarization of America.
I'm hardly a Romney fan - not because of his faith, but rather his stand on most issues - but some of what he said should, once and for all, close the issue on any political candidate's faith: "When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath (to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution) becomes my highest promise to God."
There's a reference to God, but not a specific religion. Hallelujah and Amen!
For all their preaching, fundamentalist hypocrisy was evident when evangelist Pat Robertson endorsed lapsed Catholic Rudolph Giuliani, an adherent of gay rights, gun control and abortion, not to mention the thrice-married man was a philandering husband. Aren't those philosophies - or sins - for which Robertson and his ilk have condemned the rest of us? Guess good ol' Rev. Pat didn't mind turning the other cheek a few times for America's mayor.
In our secular democracy, it should be essential for voters to have faith in the president rather than be concerned with the faith OF the president. After all, when the former is breached, even a devout Chief Executive's leadership comes into question.
Candidates - and anyone else for that matter - should practice their faith as they see fit, but for Constitution's sake, keep it out of politics.