One of the pious maxims of American politics for the last 40 years has been that a candidate should never be attacked on religious grounds. This stricture is eminently fair insofar as private faith is concerned. But when personal faith begins to determine public policy, then the issue becomes fair game.
When John F. Kennedy was running in 1960, he was called on, as the second Roman Catholic to seek the nation's highest office, to affirm his support for the separation of church and state. In a speech regarded as a turning point of his campaign, Kennedy memorably declared, "I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me."
President Bush's candidacy deserves the same level of scrutiny — not because of what he might do in the future but because of what he has already done on behalf of an ultraconservative, mainly Christian constituency that has no qualms about trying to turn its faith into the law of the land.
There is no precedent in American history for the Bush administration's determination to infuse government with a highly specific set of religious values. Thomas Jefferson, a champion of strict separation of church and state even though his private religious beliefs remain a subject of debate, refused the request of evangelical religious supporters that he issue a presidential proclamation of thanksgiving to God for his blessings on America. James Madison vetoed a bill to grant public land in Mississippi to a Baptist church. And in the 1870s, Ulysses S. Grant made what would be an unthinkable suggestion for a president today — that all church property be subject to taxation.
For nearly all American presidents before the current era of political piety, it would have been truly unimaginable to endorse a constitutional amendment dealing with any divisive religious issue. If gay marriage was not a hot issue in the past, the Constitution's omission of God was.
When Abraham Lincoln was approached during the Civil War by Protestant ministers demanding that he support an amendment to declare Jesus Christ the supreme government authority, the president cagily promised to take such action as "my responsibility to my Maker and our country demands." His action was to take no action at all.
The Bush administration, by contrast, has consistently taken aggressive measures to favor the most conservative religious elements in American society.
It is well known that the administration's anti-abortion policies are responsible for restricting embryonic stem cell experiments in ways that leading scientists believe are already causing the U.S. to fall behind the rest of the world in potentially lifesaving biomedical research. But that is only one segment of a wide-ranging assault on secular policies at every level of government.
Last September, for example, Bush announced changes in federal rules — all accomplished by executive orders circumventing Congress — that allow "faith-based" groups to compete with secular organizations for federal funds subsidizing everything from the renovation of churches to drug rehabilitation. Religious organizations may now receive tax money even if they discriminate against job applicants of other faiths. They may also promote religious conversions with public dollars.
Liberals usually shy away from challenging such practices because polls show that 75% of the public supports faith-based funding.
But they — and John F. Kerry — should take a close look at a 2001 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found that 80% of Americans disapprove of any tax subsidies for groups refusing to hire workers of other faiths, which many of these evangelical organizations do. Taxpayers may like the idea of faith-based funding, but they have serious, practical reservations about what specific churches might do with the money.
Of even greater importance are the views of judicial appointees, who will shape policy long after Bush is gone. Alabama Atty. Gen. William Pryor, recently named by Bush to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a "recess appointment" bypassing Senate confirmation, has displayed unabashed contempt for the 1st Amendment's establishment-of-religion clause.
Pryor was an ardent defender of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who defied court orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse. At a pro-Moore rally, Pryor declared that "God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time, this place, for all Christians — Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox — to save our country and save our courts." That statement alone ought to disqualify anyone for a federal judgeship.
There is a religious issue facing the country today: whether, in the 21st century, political leaders will continue to devalue the separation of church and state that has been the glory of our nation since the founders wrote a constitution assigning governmental power not to any deity but to "We the People."
Susan Jacoby is the author of the recently published "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (Metropolitan Books) and director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times