At the Conventions last month, a lot of weird stuff happened.
Everyone else has written about that.
I want to write about something getting very little attention, but which I think is important.
The Conventions were a Smorgasbord of Religion
At the RNC, Charlie Kirk said, “The American way of life means you follow the law, you work hard, you honor God….”
Isn’t this just exactly wrong? If you do not believe in God, do you violate one of the underlying precepts of American citizenship, as if you committed murder?
OK, well, “Republicans,” you might think with a sigh.
But in the liberal mindset, there has been a long-term urge to reclaim religiosity as our own.
As the liberal journalist Wajahat Ali wrote in the New York Times, praising the Democratic convention: “Faith matters. Democrats have often ceded the religious ground to the Republican Party and the right wing. Not last night. Biden’s faith and values were center stage without apology, and it will move many Americans.”
Religion in Politics is Downright UnAmerican
People often note that this country, in its earliest inception, was envisioned as a land of Christian freedom: the Pilgrims, after all, arrived on these shores explicitly to establish and enforce their own brand of Christianity.
But the Pilgrims also fled England so they could stop celebrating Christmas, so, you know, a lot has changed, and we have since then developed laws that protect us all from discrimination on the basis of religion, and, theoretically, a fundamental separation between the government and any religion.
In fact, Charlie Kirk notwithstanding, the American way of life means you don’t have to “honor God” if you don’t believe in God. The Constitution bans religious tests for public office. And discrimination against atheists in the workplace is illegal.
As a believer, I would hardly discourage anyone from practicing her religion. But just as I would never discriminate against an atheist in my business hiring practices, I would also never decide how to vote based on the religiosity of the candidates.
So I would be perfectly happy to vote for an atheist for president, or for any office. I don’t even want to know any candidate’s religious belief. Furthermore, when we even ask the question, we create pressure on a candidate to profess a faith that the candidate may not believe, which is as unAmerican as I can imagine.
So I would be most happy if, across the political spectrum, we might agree that religion is a personal matter that candidates should not discuss, and about which the press should not even ask.
Case closed? Hardly.
Does religion make you a better president?
“Steve [sic], that’s nonsense,” responds a Brooklyn rabbi who describes himself as a radical. “[Y]our statement is ridiculous.… Faith can lead people to caring about people. Almost all the leaders of the civil rights movement were deeply religious.”
Is it imaginable that a great leader of the civil rights movement — Martin Luther King Jr., say — would have cared less about civil rights if he had been an atheist? The question answers itself.
Religion in a president is at best neutral, and at worst can be a crutch.
When asked if he had consulted with his dad before leading the nation to war in Iraq, President George W. Bush replied, “There is a higher father that I appeal to.” That bungled war led to years of bloodshed and American casualties and fatalities in Iraq, one of America’s worst foreign fiascos.
This is not to say that religious people necessarily will do a worse job than the non-religious, but it is instead to argue for faith’s irrelevancy. God didn’t help President Bush #2 win the war in Iraq. Just as I would not want an office clerk to consult with God to decide where to file a memo, I don’t want the president to work with God on his foreign policy. Perhaps President Bush should have consulted with humans instead.
I suspect our presidents have included plenty of secret atheists, and it’s about time someone admitted it.
But God wins Elections!
Another Brooklyn rabbi wrote to me, “You and I live in NY. Our vote in a presidential election has almost no direct, practical significance. If people in ‘the heartland’ are more likely to vote for Biden if he expresses his religious views than they are if he doesn’t, I’m all for it.”
There are plenty of bad things one can do to win elections: Conspire with the Russians. Foment violence. These things may work, but that doesn’t justify them.
Will professing religion even benefit the Democrats? This is highly dubious!
“Values voters” in the heartland care about religion to the extent a candidate will legislate their religion into law, with pro-life laws, anti-gay discrimination, prayer in schools, and so on. A candidate can wear his religion on his sleeve as much as he wants, but if he pushes pro-choice and other civil rights laws, he’s lost those voters.
But more than that, it’s an inappropriate line of attack. Biden is the REAL Christian, Donald Trump doesn’t even go to church! my fellow liberals argue. (Giuliani tried this against Ruth Messinger, who of course doesn’t go to church because she is Jewish, and he had to apologize. Now the Democrats are doing it.)
If the parties create this kind of hurdle, if we Democrats are a religious party, a party of Faith that does not nominate atheists, then we’re helping to sustain a de facto Christian religious test for office.
What does one say to a young person who wants to go into public service, but who questions the existence of God? Well, profess belief anyway.
This is of course wrong.
Winning isn’t everything. And there is something to be said for doing what is right.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.