Friday, February 29, 2008

Pious Politicians

Here's a civics question: What successful candidate for President of the United States, when news leaked that he had never been baptized, announced that he'd get to it when he could - probably after the election? Hint: This didn't happen yesterday.
No recent presidential contender could have gotten out of the starting gate with such a casual attitude to the most basic ritual of Christian faith. The correct answer is Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Baptized or not, Ike considered himself a Christian, and it was he who signed off on inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.) In the half-century since the Eisenhower years, voters have come increasingly to expect candidates to fervently profess a personal relationship to the Almighty, in the form of the Christian God.

How did it happen that such public religiosity became a prerequisite for high office? This question is tackled in a recent book called “God in the White House,” by Randall Ballmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College. A self-professed evangelical Christian, Ballmer is also a firm supporter of the separation of church and state, and no fan of what he calls the “religionization” of the Oval Office.

It has been argued that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind, that they believed their new nation would be Christian in spirit. Some did, some didn't. Some did one week and didn't the next. Their writings can be (and often are) selectively quoted to favor either side of this issue. But the law of the land which they wisely chose to put in place holds that the institutions of church and state are to remain separate.

I am very uncomfortable when candidates push the God button. Presidential contenders do this while at the same time claiming that they intend to govern in a way that is “inclusive.” But in courting the approval of one, group of citizens, Christians namely, they are excluding people of other faiths as well as people of no faith. (I also wonder why, if an individual's relationship with God is personal, it should be offered up for public vetting. )

In writing this, I have had to resist the inclination to convey my own feelings about religion. They are not relevant to the point I'm making, and neither are anyone else's.

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