“Unconstitutional Aspects of Religiosity in the American Presidency”
by Alex Miller
Hints of religiosity have been embedded in the entirety of United States history. From George Washington taking the oath of office with his right hand on the Bible in 1789 to Barack Obama ending his 2009 oath with “So help me god,” religious influence in the American presidency has continuously been pervasive. The prevalence of religion in American government, specifically Christianity, has caused a number of efforts to change the Preamble of the United States Constitution to reflect a more Christian society. While the nation’s current Preamble mentions promising ideas of justice, tranquility, and general welfare, Stephan Newman in his article, “From John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Campaign Speech to Christian Supremacy: Religion in Modern Presidential Politics,” discusses a nineteenth century proposal to radically change the opening to the Constitution:
We the people of the United States, humble acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the Nations, and His revealed will as of supreme authority, in order to constitute a Christian government … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America (692).
Abraham Lincoln, whose religious identity remains indistinct among political and religious scholars, shot down the 1863 Preamble change. In the grand scheme of American politics, Gastón Espinosa, editor of Religion and the American Presidency: George Washington to George W. Bush with Commentary and Primary Sources” provides an overarching view, stating, “Given the critical role that religion plays in difficult conflicts around the world and in the United States, it is presumable that religion will continue to play a critical role in presidential campaigns and domestic- and foreign-policy decisions for many years to come” (40).
The foremost issue with the conceivability that religion will play a part in American politics in the future is the warped view of prosperity and righteousness that religion brings to the table. Because forty-three different men have served as president of the United States and each of them have, to say the least, been speculated to have had some run-in with religious philosophies, it becomes problematic to fathom a president of non-religious status, either as an agnostic or atheist. As Michelle A. Gonzalez notes in “Religion and the US Presidency: Politics, The Media, and Religious Identity,” “The relationship between religion and the presidency impacts both the viability of candidates and the manner in which decisions are made in the voting booth” (568). The combination of “American presidents have always self-identified with a Christian denomination” (Espinosa 19) and “lack of religious faith or self-proclaimed atheism is political suicide, where a little over half of voters claim that they would not vote for an atheist president” (Gonzalez 569), results in a required religious belief if one wants to become the elected head of the United States. A non-religious presidential candidate is immediately challenged with the alienation of over half the voting population, which virtually guarantees defeat. Throughout the course of history, there have been a scarce amount of non-Protestant candidates that have either won or gotten extremely close to winning. Presidential elections garner more media coverage nowadays than ever before, which causes additional light to be shed on important facets of candidate’s lives, such as religion. It is no shock that there has never been a non-religious president, which can be viewed as something of a sham, when bearing in mind the corruption and dangers that come with religion and politics, as well as the little impact religion truly has on a president’s moral character.
John F. Kennedy was and continues to be the only non-Protestant president ever elected. For months leading up to the November elections of 1960, Kennedy faced severe opposition to the fact that he was a Roman Catholic nominee. Stephen Newman, in his article, states, “In September 1960 the Southern Baptist Convention unanimously passed a resolution expressing its grave doubts that any Catholic should be president” (709). The single most pressing issue was the thought that Kennedy would decide on U.S. policies should it comply with the Vatican views. Predominately occurring in the Southern states, Kennedy fielded religious-based questions left and right, leading to a religious concentration for the campaigning for his party’s nomination. All of the hullaballoo led to John F. Kennedy’s significant September 1960 speech in Houston, Texas. Two of his more memorable quotes from this campaign are “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair” and “I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me” (Newman 711). The entire speech pushed forward his endorsement on the idea of separating church and state, though his ultimate goal was to persuade individuals to vote not because of religious differences, but for the candidate that was best suited to head the country. Forty-eight years later, Barack Obama would face religion head-on, even though he faced far less hostilities than Kennedy did.
Echoing the vast support George W. Bush had with Christians, Obama partook in religiously focused events in hopes of structuring an evangelical backing as well as quieting down his supposed Muslim faith. In the face of creating an advisory council specifically to reach Catholic voters and citing the Bible at different events, Patricia Smith in “Religion & the White House” quotes the 2010 Pew Research Center Poll that “18 percent of Americans still believe he’s a Muslim.” An individual can only go so far to convince an assemblage of people of a particular lifestyle before it simply becomes ignorance. In the 2012 presidential race, it was Barack Obama’s competition that was at the forefront of the religious contention.
While Obama’s problem was the incorrect assumption of his faith, Mitt Romney had to overcome the fact that only a small percentage of Americans know about Mormonism, Romney’s claimed religion. Mormons make up less than two percent of the United States population, which does not bode well for someone coveting a higher rank in an otherwise religiously political world. Although polygamy, a 19th century idea, is scarcely practiced today, Patricia Smith states “many Americans still seem to associate Mormons with polygamy.” A less-than-favorable way of life in the eyes of today’s society equated to more fragile odds of winning the election. “One in four voters claim they will not vote for a Mormon president” (Gonzalez 569). In 1960 and 2008, both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were able to beat the odds, but 2012’s Mitt Romney was not as fortunate. Some reasons for this may stem from the fact that Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism is, nevertheless, a branch of Christianity, which may have put some voters at ease, even at a subconscious level and that Obama spent a respectable amount of time acknowledging his Christian views. Even if Romney would have followed in the footsteps of Kennedy, stating that religion would have no bearing on presidential performance, Romney would have had a difficult time painting a picture of Mormonism to the American people, given the vast incorrect perception of it. The state of religious wonderment in the American presidency is at an all-time high, regardless of a lower total percentage of Americans that claim to be religious today than when compared to fifty years ago.
Back in 1992, J. David Fairbanks and John Francis Burke did an extensive study on how various religious periodicals covered the presidential elections from the Kennedy/Nixon 1960 election to the H.W. Bush/Dukakis 1988 election. In 2012, the two revisited the journal to include the five further presidential elections from 1992-2012. In the original 1992 study, there were two key findings of note: (1) “The Catholic journals devoted more editorials and articles to campaign coverage than did the Protestant journals;” (2) “The Catholic journals devoted the most editorials and articles in the year of the Kennedy candidacy” (Fairbanks and Burke 157). With Kennedy’s religious-centered movement, the Catholic journal support comes as no surprise. His speeches coupled with the written pieces proved worthwhile, as Kennedy would go on to win “roughly eighty percent of the Catholic vote in 1960, much more than the Catholic vote four years earlier for Democrat Adlai Stevenson (Newman 712). In the Fairbanks and Burke study, four religious journals, Christianity Today, Christian Century, America, and Commonweal, were the constants in both the 1960-1988 and 1992-2008 statistics. In the case for each journal, the percentage of editorials and articles written on religious political participation was higher in the years from 1992 to 2008 than over the period between 1960 and 1988. “The quantity of editorial coverage given to religious political participation among the four periodicals reviewed in both studies has increased, again suggesting that the issues of the culture wars have become much more predominant in presidential elections” (Fairbanks and Burke 173). The upsurge of religious frequency in society leaves causes for concern for some.
Shortly before his death at the end of 2011, biologist Richard Dawkins interviewed British-American author Christopher Hitchens to discuss God and US politics, as well as the road America is taking towards becoming a theocracy. When asked if he thinks America is in danger of becoming a theocracy, Hitchens answers, “No, I don’t. Maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles” (Dawkins 31). Later on, Hitchens would discuss Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and his fluctuating views on religion. “He [Jefferson] says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That is in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus” (Dawkins 32). One of the key founding fathers had questionable religious views, indicating that the perception of the United States being founded on essential Protestant principles is, to a degree, incorrect. Additionally, if one or more of the individuals responsible for building the foundation to this country was not completely religious, then the significance of a creed for presidential candidates becomes unsubstantial. In order to understand why a religious background for a president is important to the average American, one must first understand any underlying factors that contribute to a belief. For Richard Dawkins, “Religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation” (Dawkins 32). In times of adversity, the relationship between poverty-stricken folk and religion is a two-way street. People enduring hardship look to religion for answers while religious institutions actively seek out and feed on the weak, easily transformational kind. While poverty-ladened areas, in the eyes of Dawkins, have a large religious mindset, at some point, the affiliation between corruption and poverty comes into play.
Patrick Flavin and Richard Ledet in “Religion and Government Corruption in the American States” discuss whether or not states “with a larger proportion of religious citizens will have lower levels of government corruption” (329). It is widely held that a belief in religion will influence aspects of behaviors in an individual. For example, what is deemed to be correct behavior, along with the atrocities that come with objectionable behavior, is chiefly shaped by religious beliefs. When it came to a presidential candidate’s position on “corruption in government,” “80 percent of respondents who reported being a member of a religious denomination answered ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’” in terms of the importance of issues that will influence votes. In comparison, only two-thirds of reported “non-religious” respondents fell into the two selections. In the minds of religious citizens, government corruption is quite noteworthy (Flavin and Ledet 331). Another study, “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” by Cheol Liu and John L. Mikesell, ranks each state “based on the number of public officials who were convicted for violations of federal corruption laws” (346). The 2014 study found, when dealing with public officials’ corruption from 1976-2008, Mississippi ranked worst. To make matters worse, per the article “Essential Facts About the Victims of Hurricane Katrina,” Mississippi, at twenty-one percent of households, is the most poverty-struck state in the nation, providing evidence that corruption and poverty go hand-in-hand (Sherman & Shapiro 1). As for Flavin and Ledet’s conclusions on corruption and religion, “the relationship appears to be zero or even tends toward positive, possibly indicating that more religious states have higher levels of government corruption” (335). In Mississippi’s case, it is not only the most corrupt and most impoverished, but, moreover, it is the single most religious state in the country. In February of 2014, Gallup released its poll ranking all fifty states, containing the District of Columbia as well. At sixty-one percent, Mississippi boasted the largest percentage of “very religious Americans.” Unsurprisingly, the state had the fewest “non-religious Americans” at just ten percent. As it turns out, the idea that “religiosity tends to correlate with poverty” was not simply a passing remark by atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins, but rather, a well-thought out statement that invokes considerations of what place religion should have in government.
Of course, it is important to note that this is one case, one state, out of fifty. On the opposite end of the spectrum, according to Liu and Mikesell, the least corrupt state from 1976-2008 was Oregon. Per Gallup’s poll, Oregon is the fifth least religious state in the nation. Figures like these are not coincidences. Louisiana (49th in corruption, 4th in religion), Tennessee (48th, 6th), and Alabama (45th, 3rd) are all prime illustrations of the problem that religion plays such an important role in government and the American presidency. Gallup’s statistics indicate one predominant detail: the most religious states reside in the South, providing a reasonable explanation towards the commotion John F. Kennedy faced in Texas in 1960.
Kennedy consistently reminded voters that his moral character would not be tested by his Roman Catholic background. In-between the lines, theological democracy is at play. Michelle Gonzalez argues that “Politicians have become increasingly aware of the manner in which religion can be manipulated in order to attract voters” (571-72). Although the idea that theological democracy acts on beliefs held by the greatest number of people, Kennedy was acting on the majority merely to defend his otherwise minority stance. He was in a prime position during his 1960 speech, even facing opposition, since voters are comfortable with candidates speaking about religion because it impacts their political mindset. “This is most likely not going to change in the near future, despite the fact that the religious faith of recent presidents had little impact on their moral character or policy” (Gonzalez 535). One major reason behind this is government restrictions on religious initiatives.
Lee Marsden in “Bush, Obama, and a Faith-based US Foreign Policy” has a particular focus on controversies with faith-based initiatives set forth by the two most recent presidents. “The interpretation of the establishment clause is generally understood to mean that government should not pay for the delivery of religious services or show discrimination involving public money in favour of any religion” (Marsden 961). When bearing in mind the freedom of religion present in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the government abiding by the separation of church and state is the right way. However, as Marsden continues to write, “Religious organizations could receive government money for service delivery but not for religious activities” (961). The gray area when it comes to the difference between “service delivery” and “religious activities” equates to complications from every perspective. As Jay Wexler notes in “Government Disapproval of Religion,” The Establishment Clause, in that there can be no law that respects the establishment of a religion, keeps the government’s ability to “criticize religious belief, a phenomenon that seems likely to become more prevalent as religious diversity in the United States continues to increase” (124). Wexler uses court cases to supplement his ideas, including C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School District. C.F., a student at Capistrano Valley High School, sues the school district and his teacher, claiming a breach in the Establishment Clause. The most notable statement in question spoken by the teacher, “abstinence-only policies do not work,” led to the court system saying that “teachers would have to ‘tailor [their] comments so as not to offend or disagree with any religious group’” (Wexler 119). As noted, the United States is home to a vast amount of religious beliefs, which would make modifying comments to satisfy every faith virtually impossible. Individual cases like these, however, may not be enough to stop the Christian supremacy that occurs in the United States, as Stephen Newman would argue.
“In recent years, we have had ample evidence of Pro-Christian favoritism from elected or appointed leaders at all levels of the government” (Newman 696). Drawing from the three branches of government, officeholders, and the United States military, Newman provides twelve examples of favoritism at work. The one presidential instance states, “A president [George W. Bush] of the United States, after promising at his inauguration that “church…synagogue and mosque… will have an honored place in our plans and laws,” funneled taxpayer funds to “faith-based” organizations.” Ultimately known as Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., the Supreme Court denied standing to taxpayers who felt the expenses were unconstitutional (Newman 697). Further critics have stated that most of the funding has gone towards supporters of the Bush Administration, effectively nourishing their own agenda. Linked with the eleven other occurrences, “They demonstrate the interlacing of Christianity and governance that effectively endorses particular religious beliefs, confers special privileges on religious grounds, and consigns non-Christians to second class status” (Newman 696). A great amount of court cases (Lee v. Weisman (1992), Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick (2008), Gillman v. Holmes County School District (2008) Doe v. Wilson County School System (2008)) all showcase the unconstitutional intermingling between religion and education. The governmental examples that Newman provides and the religiously educational court cases show that there is great disparity as to when religion is and is not acceptable in various aspects of life. To an extent, the confusion that occurs with religion and government in America stems from the misperception that the United States is a “Christian nation.”
In the book Democracy: Opposing Viewpoints, chapter two focuses on the relationship between religion and democracy. Clark Moeller, from his view, says that democracy is based on secular principles. Moeller argues that America cannot be “Christian nation” with a number of points. Being a Christianized country must mean that there are a set of beliefs that are common to all Christians. “Today, some self-identified Christians dismiss the validity or relevance of central Christian doctrines, such as being born in sin, the importance of forgiveness, or even the essential role of Christ” (Moeller 80). That, along with the differing views Christians have on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, means no set-in-stone list of beliefs that all Christians adhere to. A second perception is the idea that at the time the United States was founded, colonial Americans were religious. “However, in 1776, only 17% of Americans were members of any church as compared to about 60% today” (Moeller 81). While Moeller successfully debunks the myth that America is a “Christian nation,” it is not out of the realm of possibility to say that America is a “non-religious nation,” at least in the sense of endorsement. Moeller quotes Derek H. Davis from the Journal of Church and State, saying, “By keeping the government out of every aspect of religion’s business, Americans have ensured the sanctity of their religious practices” (Moeller 79). Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would concur, stating, “Government cannot endorse the religious practices and beliefs of some citizens without sending a clear message to non-adherents that they are outsiders or less than full members of the political community” (Moeller 79). From a constitutional sense, government cannot favor any one particular religion, paving the way for a non-religiously functioning country. Cathy Young in another viewpoint in Democracy: Opposing Viewpoints takes O’ Connor’s idea a step further.
“Yet, the faith-based presidency is genuinely troubling. 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” (Young 99). Young provides the example of Howard Dean as being a “secular” candidate. Dean, one of the Democratic nominees in the 2004 election, labeled as “one of the most secular candidates to run for president in modern history,” has openly stated that he does not go to church often (Young 97). Although a claimed Episcopalian, Dean was not religious enough, if something of that nature is even possible, in the eyes of the American people. “In some of the Republican attacks on Democratic financier George Soros, atheist was used as a term of opprobrium” (Young 99). Young also makes note of the fact that half of voters believed that a president should use his faith as a guided tool in making political decisions. Society today has engrained the idea that political officials should not hide their religious views, “but is it not equally outrageous that, on today’s political scene, a secularist figure cannot express his views honestly without committing career suicide?” (Young 99). Expressing beliefs, whether a theist or not, creates a one-way street in American politics; it is deemed beneficial for a religious presidential candidate to voice their faith, to the point where it is required if one wants to win, but frowned upon by someone that is secular, to the point where doing so will cause one to lose. This is undeniably unfair to the six percent of Americans that claim to be unaffiliated with a religious denomination. As the United States moves into the future, radical transformation needs to occur to eliminate the estrangement toward non-religious figures that dream of running the country as president.
Those that do not know history are doomed to repeat it. There are reasons why John F. Kennedy had to insist that his Roman Catholic background would have no bearing on his capability of running the country. There are reasons why the courts have had to hear a myriad of cases regarding religion and government. There are also explanations as to why Mississippi is the most corruptly, religious state, to why the idea of separation of church and state is entrenched in everyday life, and to why faith-based initiatives have been surrounded by controversy: religion and American politics, specifically from a presidential standpoint, do not work together. The evidence provided suggests not a complete overhaul of how religion plays a part in the U.S. presidency, but rather, a serious look into the idea of letting a non-religious individual run the country for four years. The only thing that stands in the way of this event from happening is the American people’s willingness to try something new. Going as far as preaching the Omnipotence Paradox to disprove God, which Douglas Lackey provides as an argument against God’s existence in his book, God, Immortality, Ethics, might be pushing it to the extreme. We have already seen the American population stick with their incorrect assumptions about a president, despite being told otherwise, so does it honestly matter what a president says about their religious views? Richard Dawkins stated, “There’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam” (Dawkins 30). Meanwhile, religious folk have been a centralized focus for some of the world’s worst atrocities, such as the Schutzstaffel during World War II and their connection to the Catholic Church. Even Mother Teresa spoke that poverty was a present from God. Extreme examples, to be sure, but the non-religious side to the American presidential history is unwritten. It would be difficult to predict the future of a country like the United States with a president of no religious belief, though, could it be any worse than what we have already seen?
Alex Miller holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sports and Recreation Management and is in his fourth year at Ashford pursuing a second Bachelor’s degree in English. He hopes that this degree and the time spent in English courses will allow him to continue honing his skills as a writer. With his first child due in October, he hopes to pass on what he’s learned in the wonderful world of reading and writing to the next generation.