Saturday, September 6, 2008

History of Religion and Politics in Presidential Elections

An Historian's Perspective
by Brad Hart


Dr. Paul Harvey of the Religion in American History blog -- and also one of my graduate professors -- has posted a brief overview of some comments he made to the Rotary Club of Colorado Springs on the topic of religion and politics. To be more specific, Dr. Harvey was invited to the Rotary Club to address the audience on the topic: "Religion and Politics in Presidential Elections: A Historical Perspective." Being that this has become a central topic on our blog as of late -- as well as a topic of contention -- I thought some of you might find Dr. Havey's comments of interest.

As part of his speech, Dr. Harvey illustrated how prevalent of a role religion plays in our voting practices today. He states:

Frequently in my classroom I'll start with this question: "would you vote for an atheist or a Unitarian or someone who denied the divinity of Jesus for President.” Most of the time, no one raises a hand, except perhaps for a long-haired young man in the back row. Then I’ll read out quotes about religion from the founding fathers, without telling my students where those quotes come from --some from Washington, some from Jefferson, some from James Madison, etc, and ask my students if they would vote for someone with those sentiments. Usually, no one, or only one or two students, will profess to do so. I then reveal that they’ve just voted against almost the entire generation of founding fathers, more or less. This leads to a discussion of why we seem to have a de facto religious test for candidates now despite the fact that such a test is expressly prohibited by the Constitution. Student replies suggest that they just wouldn't trust someone who fundamentally violated the common sense of the culture concerning religious matters. Thomas Jefferson famously said, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." These classes make me think that, perhaps, now we are all pietists.

The reason for this contradiction I started with above has to do with a lot of things, but I’ll point here to the coincidence of two of them: the ratification of the secular Constitution in 1789, followed closely by the socalled 2nd Great Awakening and the rapid rise of evangelicalism as a dominant form of American religious expression. The first foresaw a tight regulation of religion in politics, and a distinct separation; the second made such a separation impossible. Thus, we have a de jure separation of church and state, and a de jure notion of the separation of the religious from the political; but historically we’ve had a profound de facto intermingling of the two.
Dr. Harvey continues:

Recently American political historians have created an entire world of interpretation based on looking at the connection between religion and presidential politics in the years roughly 1800-1860. Here is what they have found. Voting patterns nationally fell along these lines: the pietists voted one way, the liturgicals another. The Pietists were largely Federalists and Whigs; the Liturgicals were largely Democrats. The Pietists, many of whom had a Calvinist sensibility, believed in the religious improvement of society, and using a sort of alliance of government and religious institutions to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth; the Liturgicals typically believed that the spheres of government and religion should be much more separate, and that attempts to bring about the millennium presupposed a religious activism that went outside the sphere of religion. (Click here to read Harvey's entire post)
It is this clash between the "de jure" separation of church and state by our founders, and the "de jure" historical intermingling of religion and politics over the course of our nation's history that has caused the fierce political and ideological clashes between Christian Nationalists and historians. When we come to the realization that America's founders did in fact expect religious prerequisites -- or as they put it, "tests" -- to play no role in determining our nation's leaders, we will also come to the realization that America's modern politics are light years from where they started. In a very real sense, America does have a “religious test” for its candidates, simply because of our historical evolution as a nation. As a result, it is likely that a candidate with the same moral or religious views as Jefferson, Washington, etc. will not take office any time soon.

In no way am I suggesting that a person's values should be ignored in the selection of a president, senator, etc. Of course people should vote for a candidate based on their values, hopes, etc. Even non-believing voters follow this template. Instead, I believe that religion has unfortunately become a "must-have" for our modern candidates. The simple fact that a candidate's Christian leanings often take precedent to his/her economic plans, foreign policy experience, etc. shows that we do indeed have a religious test in America today.

29 comments:

Brian Tubbs said...

Two quick points...

1. The national Constitution forbade religious tests. Most of the state constitutions still had such tests. This isn't to say that I approve of official religious tests, but I think it's important to remember the reality in that day insofar as the states were concerned.

2. The individual voter has every right to impose his or her own personal "test" (religious or otherwise) when it comes to how he or she votes. If I, for instance, as an individual, decide that I will not vote for an atheist, I have every right to do that. The US Constitution is not telling individual voters that THEY can't apply religious tests. It's saying that there will be no official test applied by the national government.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Frequently in my classroom I'll start with this question: "would you vote for an atheist or a Unitarian or someone who denied the divinity of Jesus for President.”

[Italics mine.]

Let's be clear here. Neither Washington nor Madison ever denied Jesus' divinity, and Jefferson (and John Adams) only did so privately. With a great deal of paranoia on Jefferson's part, even after he left the presidency, we might add!

Now I've already written disapprovingly of Rick Warren's dog-and-pony show at Saddleback Church, and I'd have to comb through their records as thoroughly as we do the Founders', but I don't recall Bill Clinton or Ronald Himself Reagan ever publicly espousing Jesus' divinity.

No, the American electorate would not be comfortable with someone who explicitly denied God or Jesus' divinity [Joe Lieberman gets a pass, natch], but I'm not sure things have changed all that much from the Founding era. I'm not sure Dr. Harvey is on to any Deep Thoughts here.

Pinky said...

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So, for a politician to become president of the United States, he or she must be a darn good liar.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Truth is not synonymous with wisdom, Pinky. See my post on reading Locke. There is no virtue in putting a "kick me" sign on your own back.

Brian Tubbs said...

Pinky is of course assuming that a politician would NEED to lie. Very, very few people in America are atheists. I think the number is somewhere between 5-15% depending on the poll you read.

Now, you have to ask yourself, would anybody get elected President if he or she only related with 5-15% of the electorate -- and disagreed with 85% or more of the electorate?

Here's the BOTTOM LINE...

The American voter can put whatever "religious test" he or she wants on a candidate, when it comes to the ballot. Not just "religious test," but "philosophical test" or "partisan test" or "personality test" or whatever test he or she deems appropriate.

Pinky said...

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When I read that Jefferson called Washington an "old fox" I have to question claims about Washington's religiosity.
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That's not to say that Washington was a liar--not by a long shot.
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But, I suspect we've been getting some pretty bald faced lying from our top politicians of late--present ones included. And, Brian is correct, that was my point.
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I even heard some commentator defending the act of lying to the electorate during presidential campaigns.
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Brian's point about persons having tests is more than correct. It is what we must do if we are to be an informed electorate. There's no question about that whatsoever.
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I have my own religious tests regarding those politicians that want my vote and that's why I could never vote for you know who. Because you know who fails my tests.

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bpabbott said...

Brian, regarding "religious tests" ... excellent point of clarification. Any individual should be permitted to apply their own test, religious or otherwise.

Tom, You bring up an excellent point which had escaped me. To be honest I don't recall any President making a specific claim regarding Jesus being divine ... I'm sure there are several examples, but none come to mind.

Pinky, Regarding politicians and lies ... I expect being a good liar is a prerequisite for the job in today's society. I'd be surprised if either party would embrace a candidate that who was entirely open and honest with regards to the party's positions. There are likely several positions a candidate might misrepresent to win the support of one of the two parties ... faith is certainly among them.

Phil Johnson said...

AKA Pinky.
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Abbott, are you the one they call, Ben?
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I think you're right on the talk about lies and politicians.
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So, who are we supposed to believe other than you know who?

bpabbott said...

Phi,

Yes I'm Ben.

Suffice it to say that the few readers my blog attracts are (apparently) among those here ... or vice-versa ;-)

Regarding who to believe, I'm a pratical sort (an Empirist). I try to question belief and focus on expectation.

In that light, if you'd like to know whether not to trust someone, I suggest you look to their history and extrapolate.

Brad Hart said...

Pinky:

Nice to actually get a picture of you!

TVD stated:

"I don't recall Bill Clinton or Ronald Himself Reagan ever publicly espousing Jesus' divinity.

No, the American electorate would not be comfortable with someone who explicitly denied God or Jesus' divinity [Joe Lieberman gets a pass, natch], but I'm not sure things have changed all that much from the Founding era. I'm not sure Dr. Harvey is on to any Deep Thoughts here."


Ronald Reagan one stated that, "Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face." and he stated, " If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under."

While these may not be quotes SPECIFICALLY on Jesus, I think they still serve

As for Clinton, here is a link to a speech he gave on his religious views at Riverside Church:

http://www.beliefnet.com/story/151/story_15194_1.html

I have to say that I completely disagree with TVD's statement when he states, "I'm not sure things have changed all that much from the Founding era." A TREMENDOUS amount has changed, and that is essentially what Dr. Harvey was arguing. As pointed out in the post, the founders set up a "de jure" separation of church and state, yet the immergence of Evangelical fervor of the 2nd Great Awakening created a "de jure" historical tradition of religion in politics.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, I see nothing in Reagan's words that would be out of place in the Founding milieu. In fact, I see the same Artful Dodging, and well done.

Now there may be a smoking gun here with Clinton:

Clinton: "He's a great pastor but he belongs to the `values voter' crowd. He looked at me and said, "I just want an answer, not a political answer. A straight yes and no answer. Do you believe the Bible is literally true or not." I said, "Pastor, I think it is completely true. But I don't think you or I or anyone else on earth is smart enough to understand it."

Lord, there's so much wiggle room here you could drive a Popemobile through it.

Note that the pastor asked directly and explicitly if Clinton believed the Bible was literally true.

Surely you don't believe Clinton's answer means he believes the world was created in six days!

But anyone who wanted to hear Clinton believes exactly that could walk away satisfied. You did see my posts on reading Locke, yes? You did see my comments disputing the late Mr. Atkinson's assertion that Locke embraced the Trinity, yes? Same deal.

Now, the Saddleback thing was damned funky, I admit...

Matt Huisman said...

The simple fact that a candidate's Christian leanings often take precedent to his/her economic plans, foreign policy experience, etc...

Policies and plans have always taken a back seat...why waste your time on smoke? But if you'll let me split hairs, I'd say they take a back seat to personal narratives (which certainly contains the meta-narrative). As Joe Biden would say, just make it clear that you have a healthy respect for faith (it never hurts to be passably Christian) and the American people will embrace you.

Huckabee loses to McCain every time.

Dave2 said...

Brad Hart, you have a small error in your post: It is this clash between the "de jure" separation of church and state by our founders, and the "de jure" historical intermingling of religion and politics over the course of our nation's history that has caused the fierce political and ideological clashes between Christian Nationalists and historians.

Dave2 said...

Brian Tubbs wrote: Now, you have to ask yourself, would anybody get elected President if he or she only related with 5-15% of the electorate -- and disagreed with 85% or more of the electorate?

What you say about holding an unpopular view applies not just to atheists. It also applies to Mormons and Jews.

Or, perhaps (if you're stressing the "related with" part), it doesn't apply to any of them.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mitt Romney and Joe Lieberman done OK, dave2. Their lack of final and ultimate electoral success need not be necessarily attributable to being Mormon and Jewish, respectively.

As to your first point, it's very well observed. However, the "fierce political and ideological clashes" are not necessarily between [bad] Christian Nationists and [presumably good] "historians." Most of us 'round here fall into neither category. We're just interested Americans.

In fact, your very good observation belies your own thesis if I understand it correctly. There certainly has been a "de jure" historical intermingling of religion and politics in American history, especially at the state level. This is fact, not opinion.

The judicial application of Amendment XIV [ratified 1868] in these matters has certainly complicated things---I'm sure you're aware of them---but 1868 is beyond the purview of this blog, at least at present.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Tom suggests that the Unitarian heterodoxy of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was a purely private matter, unknown to voters -- despite widespread speculations about Jefferson’s beliefs.

Yet Adams was a prominent member of a liberal congregation – in whose church his body rests to this day.

And if voters perhaps did not fully appreciate John Adams’s Unitarianism in the elections of 1796 and 1800, there’s no doubt that his son John Quincy Adams’s Unitarian affiliation was very well known when he won the presidential election of 1824. For the younger Adams had in 1821 stood prominently among the founding members of the First Unitarian Church of Washington, D.C., today known as All Souls Church, Unitarian.

There’s no question, then, that a known Unitarian could be elected in 1824. John Quincy Adams was.

Another Unitarian, Millard Fillmore, was elected Vice President in the election of 1848, and ascended to the Presidency on Zachary Taylor’s death in 1850, to fill out Taylor’s term.

A Unitarian was elected to the White House again in 1908, when the Republicans backed William Howard Taft, an outstanding religious liberal, while the Democrats backed William Jennings Bryan, a fervent fundamentalist evangelical.

William Howard Taft, the prominent Unitarian had easily won the and Republican nomination, and he won the general election too -- despite attacks of evangelicals that are documented in an excellent article by Edgar Albert Hornig published.

Could a man of Taft’s convictions could win the Republican Party’s nomination today?

Eric

Jonathan Rowe said...

To add to and clarify Eric's comments, Unitarianism became much more acceptable after 1800. It was sort of a slow coming out of the closet process and in the late 18th Century they were for the most part in the closet preparing the groundwork to "come out."

Even J. Adams' Church has an interesting history. It was a Congregational Church. And it preached unitarianism (or had unitarian preachers) since 1750. Yet, I don't think it officially became known as a "Unitarian" Church until the early 19th Century.

Brian Tubbs said...

John Quincy Adams seems to have kept a foot in each camp (Trinitarian and Unitarian). He was vice president of the American Bible Society and was known to get into rather heated debates with strong Unitarians. At the same time, he was suspicious of what he perceived as fundamentalist closed-mindedness on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Brian Tubbs said...

Another dynamic in all this is that neither John Adams, John Quincy Adams nor William Howard Taft had to contend with television, YouTube, Oprah, etc.

The national government was a step or two removed from the American public, and presidential candidates weren't held under the intense microscope that they are today.

Even as recent as JFK, there was a cushion extended to the President. A distance between him and the people.

In today's world, a presidential candidate is held up to a magnifying glass, and every aspect of his or her life is laid bare for hundreds of millions of people around the world to see. Not surprisingly, this includes his or her religious beliefs.

It's a different world today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Fascinating article, Eric. Note how, like George Washington before him, Taft deftly slips the noose of affirming or denying Jesus' divinity.

Also interesting are his explicit declaration that America is a "Christian country" and his peeling off of the normally Democratic Catholic vote. Religion everywhere!

As Jon and Brian note, respectively, Unitarianism then isn't the Unitarianism of today, and it seems that JQ Adams in particular was quite deft at avoiding nooses.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Comments on this article on JQ Adams are solicited. Don't know much about him meself, or if this all is even accurate.

"Near the end of his life he summed up his personal credo in these few words: "I reverence God as my creator. As creator of the world. I reverence him with holy fear. I venerate Jesus Christ as my redeemer; and, as far as I can understand, the redeemer of the world. But this belief is dark and dubious."

Sounds close enough for rock'n'roll.

Dave2 said...

Tom van Dyke,

I don't know how to break it to you, but, in my first post, I was correcting a typo (or something close to a typo). I wasn't advancing a thesis or making a point. So far as I can tell, most of what you say is therefore irrelevant.

You've misunderstood my second post as well (though not as flagrantly as in the case of the first post). I'll restate my point. Brian Tubbs was saying that it's unrealistic to think an atheist could get elected because atheists disagree with 85%-90% of the population and only relate with 10-15% of the population. But if Brian stresses the "disagree with" part, then his point applies to Mormons and Jews, which is absurd, given the success of Romney and Lieberman. And if Brian stresses his "relate with" part, then what he says is false, because atheists typically "relate with" far more than 10-15% of the population. Therefore what Brian Tubbs said is either absurd or false.

Of course, I agree with the conclusion he was trying to reach. I also think it is unrealistic to think an atheist could get elected (at least if the atheist were open about it). But the support he provides for that conclusion is seriously flawed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If the common ground is what I'll continue to call "Judeo-Christianity," Romney and Lieberman fit in just fine.

As we get into the finer points of doctrine, that Ted Kennedy might believe in the divinity of Jesus but Joe Lieberman doesn't would have zero effect on my vote.

Dave2 said...

Tom Van Dyke,

The line of support you're now offering is significantly different from the line of support offered by Brian Tubbs. Consequently, near as I can tell, you're simply not engaging with my criticism of Brian. That's fine, I suppose, but do note that you're changing the subject.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Apparently one of us is missing the other's point.

bpabbott said...

Tom,

Perhaps you can better explain your position/point?

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, Ben, that was about the best I can do.

Dave2 said...

Well, maybe Brian wants to defend his statement, since it was Brian's statement that I was questioning.

Our Founding Truth said...

And if voters perhaps did not fully appreciate John Adams’s Unitarianism in the elections of 1796 and 1800, there’s no doubt that his son John Quincy Adams’s Unitarian affiliation was very well known when he won the presidential election of 1824. For the younger Adams had in 1821 stood prominently among the founding members of the First Unitarian Church of Washington, D.C., today known as All Souls Church, Unitarian.

There’s no question, then, that a known Unitarian could be elected in 1824. John Quincy Adams was.>

These are bogus words. Adams said he attended the church not because of adherence to their beliefs but because it was his family church. Adams was an orthodox Christian:

My hopes of a future life are all founded upon the Gospel of Christ and I cannot cavil or quibble away [evade or object to]. . . . the whole tenor of His conduct by which He sometimes positively asserted and at others countenances [permits] His disciples in asserting that He was God.
John Adams and John Quincy Adams, The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, Adrienne Koch and William Peden, editors (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 292, John Quincy Adams to John Adams, January 3, 1817.

"In 1815, at the height of the (Unitarian) Controversy, Adams concluded that the Calvinist Samuel Adams had bested William Ellery Channing, the Unitarian's leader, in a debate on the doctrine of the Trinity. Then, a year later, when in an exchange of letters his father good-naturedly drew him into a theological debate, the junior Adams revealed that, while not approving their intolerance, he tended to follow the doctrines of the Trinitarians and Calvinists; moreover, that he wanted no part of Unitarianism."
http//www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/johnquincyadams.html