The Role of Religion in Presidential Politics
This year’s Presidential election presents a wide spectrum of religious faith amongst the candidates. This year more than ever, it begs the question: What role, if any, should religion play in the policies of the Federal government?
The American people seem to lean towards the side of preferring religious candidates. After all, there’s no point in trying to pretend that ours is a secular government; our pledge says “under God”, our money says “In God we trust”, and our Presidents frequently make references to prayer. While we seem to be nervous about sliding into a theocracy, and prefer our leaders not to have too strong an agenda towards a particular denomination, we still seem to want some general amount of religious belief in our Chief Commander.
By the numbers, Episcopalian Presidents have been the most popular. We’ve had eleven of them: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush. After this, in order of popularity, we’ve had ten Presbyterians, five Methodists, four Baptists, four Unitarians, and a dwindling minority of Disciples of Christ, Dutch Reformed, Quaker, and Congregationalist. Interestingly, we have only had one Catholic (John F. Kennedy) even though Catholics are 25% of the population, and one Jehovah’s Witnesses (Dwight D. Eisenhower).
Mitt Romney may not like the looks of this: we’ve never had a Mormon President. But we’ve never had an Atheist, either, nor a host of various other religions. What would a Buddhist or Muslim President do, for instance?
When the Associated Press polled the 2008 Presidential candidates for religious affiliation, the answers were more representative of U. S. society today: Seven Roman Catholics, three Methodists, three Baptists, one Episcopalian, one Presbyterian, one Mormon, and one – perhaps caught on the spot – describes himself simply as Christian. It is almost certain that, given the stigma against Atheism in our society, a Presidential candidate would rather falsely claim a religion than admit to not having one.
There is also the uncomfortable fact that there are de facto religions amongst our citizens which we do not publicly acknowledge. Your word for the day is “Statolatry”, a word literally meaning “to idolize the state and worship it”. Once you absorb this word’s meaning and spirit (coined by Giovanni Gentile in his “Doctrine of Fascism”), you’ll never look at a “Never forget 9/11” bumper sticker, a huge statue of a red-white-and-blue eagle, or a crowd signing our National anthem with tears in their eyes quite the same way again. Yes, we all love our country, but how many of us worship it? Polls conducted from time to time indicate that a scary number of Americans believe that Jesus was from here, and that the United States is the chosen land or Zion.
Paranormal beliefs also cross the brow of the Presidential mind from time to time. We have all heard about how Ronald Reagan consulted an astrologer on occasion, but so did Calvin Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. We have also all heard how Jimmy Carter said that he believed that he saw a UFO, but it’s also come out that Dennis Kucinich has seen one as well, while staying at friend Shirley McClaine’s house.
Religious views are inextricably tied to political hot buttons such as gay marriage and abortion. Without a holy book telling you that homosexuality is wrong, for instance, there is no practical reason for prohibiting gay marriage. And ask any party member why they believe in what they believe, and some reference to a deity will come up at least half the time.
The 2008 candidates have taken various stances in saying whether they will allow their religion to influence their politics. Romney has asserted that he will allow no shade of his religion to color his views on how to run the country, whereas Mike Huckabee has taken the opposite stance, declaring that it is impossible to tend to one without the other.
What can this tell us about the next selection? It looks like Americans prefer some religious frosting on their political cake, but not too much and not too strange a flavor, thank you.