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.Dr. Harvey continues:
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.
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.