It surely sounds quaint, but I've always taken to heart the old social dictum not to mix religion in conversations with people I don't know well.
As even my wise-guy atheist father recognized, few things could offend someone more deeply than a heedless remark, taken the wrong way, that calls into question the wisdom of the Lord God Almighty. Americans hold dear their articles of faith, and no one but the purest Enlightenment liberal truly welcomes having his belief system challenged, even when the skeptic is easily dismissed as a card-carrying infidel.
So it's with growing alarm over the course of this dreadful presidential campaign that I've found my own faith -- in the Constitution and its prohibition against the establishment of a state religion -- belittled again and again by two strangers with no sense of social restraint. With an enthusiasm bordering on the grotesque, George W. Bush and John Kerry have leapfrogged one another to advertise their subservience to Jesus Christ and the Christian god, without the least concern about whether it might offend me or anyone else who doesn't share their bedrock belief in a higher power.
Of course, playing the God card is an old campaign tactic. But I hadn't been taking it seriously as a political issue until I came across two books -- Cruel and Unusual, by Mark Crispin Miller, and Freethinkers, by Susan Jacoby -- that recalled the age-old conflict in America between Christian orthodoxy and Enlightenment reason.
We liberals sometimes forget that the United States has two sets of Founding Fathers: the Puritans of Massachusetts (inspired largely by the 16th Century French refugee to Switzerland John Calvin) and those remarkable avatars of the American Enlightenment: Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Paine (inspired by, among others, the 18th Century French refugee to Switzerland Voltaire).
From their "City upon a Hill," the ferocious ministers of Boston and Salem, liberated from religious intolerance in England, sought to impose their own version of Protestant intolerance on everyone living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- to such a degree that one of our greatest religious dissidents, Roger Williams, fled south, to found the colony of Rhode Island.
Faced with the radical proposition put forward after the Revolution by Jefferson and Madison -- that of a prohibition against any religious "test" for public officials and trustees -- the mullahs of Massachusett let loose a fusillade of rage. Susan Jacoby, in her book, cites one especially rabid fulmination against the Constitution's Article VI during the ratification debate at the Massachusetts convention: If the chief executive was to be free to take office without swearing allegiance to God, said the orator, "a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and, what is worse than all, a Universalist may be president of the United States."
In New York, the Rev. John M. Mason declared that another radical innovation -- the explicit omission of God from the new Constitution -- would have dire consequences: "We will have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the Universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing, and crush us to atoms in the wreck."
Against this extreme Presbyterianism (in fact, an oversimplification of Calvin's thoughts about church and state) were ranged the humor and common sense of Jefferson: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
But behind the bon mot lay an intellect and determination made of steel. As Mark Crispin Miller, in his book, observes, "it was to keep the people's freedom thus preserved from the oppressive troops of any faith -- and thereby keep religious liberty itself alive -- that Jefferson and his associates deliberately conceived our godless Constitution."
Later, during his presidency, Jefferson found the words that still galvanize the freethinkers among us. Disturbed by Protestant ministers who sought to subvert the First Amendment and establish an official American religion, this "anti-Christ," "French infidel" and "howling atheist" wrote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
More pertinent still -- in light of Bush's crusade against fundamentalist Islam -- is the Treaty of Tripoli, of 1796. Signed by George Washington, this text, better than any other, delineates the secular principles cherished by the political elite of the time:
"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion -- as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims] -- and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
The treaty didn't immediately end the fighting with Islamic Libya, but the sentiments reverberate down to our day. Do you hear, Osama bin Laden?
Muted, but never silenced, the argument between the party of God and my party of secularism acquired new intensity with the legalization of abortion, in 1973. But now my side has no Jefferson to carry the standard of the Enlightenment.
In his role as "saved" Christian (from alcohol, drugs, and financial and political failure) President Bush has never missed a chance to profess his fealty, not to the manmade Constitution but to Jesus Christ, "king of kings." His attorney general, responsible for defending the separation of church and state, composes and performs gospel songs and invites his subordinates to morning prayers in the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, John Kerry, the quasi-secular Catholic, makes sure he's photographed with the proper forehead smudge on Ash Wednesday. Threatened by Catholic priests furious with his defense of abortion rights, he tries to outdo Bush in his declarations of religious faith.
No surprise that in the final presidential "debate," Bush again stated with jaw-dropping arrogance that "God wants everybody to be free" and "that's been part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty."
Kerry, instead of simply affirming Article VI and the First Amendment, upped the ante: "Everything is a gift from the Almighty"
More recently, in a speech in Florida, the Democratic candidate born into the citadel of Puritanism employed the word "faith" 11 times, while genuflecting to the enemies of liberty: those "great preachers and educators who taught the founders of our nation to believe that we could create a great and shining City on a Hill here in America."
This is a religious qualification for public servants desired by Puritans (ancient and modern) and banned by the Constitution -- yet now, in effect, established. The vote today may well turn on the perception of each candidate's religious faith.
Whoever wins, I fear that one of our principal constitutional jewels has been permanently defaced, at least in spirit. And my secular party believes fervently in a spirit -- the human kind.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2004 Providence Rhode Island Journal