Historians Repeating Themselves
Sometimes historians skip a step or two by juxtaposing their own opinions on historical facts and then applying the “lesson” to the current day with little explanation. Such is the case with Champlain College Distinguished Scholar in History Willard Sterne Randal’s musing on the history of religion in campaigns:
No presidential election since 1800 has taken place without an attempt to damage at least one candidate’s reputation by innuendo, rumor or ridicule. Too often, the weapon of choice has been religion.
No campaign has more brutally combined these tactics than when President John Adams, a New England Puritan, faced off against his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, a Deist. Jefferson’s narrow victory left the country divided for decades. …
Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison all opposed tearing down the wall they painstakingly erected between church and state. Today, no American should have to worry about a candidate’s religion, or that, if elected, a president would transform his private religious views into a public agenda.
Maybe it would be better to keep religion off the campaign trail, too.
One could descend into the argument over the founders’ understanding of their supposed wall (citing, for starters, Ben Franklin’s call for prayer at the Constitutional Convention), but for my purposes with this post, it is sufficient merely to offer my own opinion that candidates’ religions should in all cases inform their public agendas whey they’re elected — else their religion must be insincere.
This isn’t to say that a president ought to impose theological principles on the country, but that religion encompasses a world view and a hierarchy of priorities. Indeed, promoting an absence of religion — particularly in the modern political context — is to promote just such a hierarchy.
Leveraging religion in campaigns can go too far, of course, as demagoguery or bigotry, but it is important to consider, for one immediate example, whether Barack Obama shares his pastor’s anti-Americanism. For a more general example, as a pro-lifer, it makes a difference to me whether a candidate’s stated positions in that area are founded in a long-term religious conviction or appear potentially to be political calculations.