Clashes over religion in the public square are as old as the Republic. (There was a battle during the ratification of the Constitution over rewriting the preamble to include an assertion of the nation's fealty to Jesus.) That the fight is familiar, however, does not make it any less dispiriting.
The current religious-rhetorical storm began when Rick Santorum said that President Obama adheres to "some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology." Then a 2008 speech resurfaced in which Santorum talked about Satan's designs on the U.S. In the run-up to the Michigan primary, Mitt Romney announced that Obama "has fought against religion." On Morning Joe on Feb. 21, Franklin Graham readily accepted that Santorum and Newt Gingrich were Christians but declined to extend Obama the same courtesy. "He has said he's a Christian," Graham remarked, "so I just have to assume that he is." Graham is also noted for having said--wrongly--that Obama was "born a Muslim."
It's all enough to make the most religious American ponder the virtues of secularism. From Santorum to Graham, the ferociously religious are doing religion no favors at the moment, and it's beginning to feel as though we may need to save faith from the extreme pronouncements of the faithful. Believers should remember that when he was on trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. It still isn't.
For some conservatives, congenial religious belief is a de facto test for political office. And for some secularist purists, any inquiry into candidates' religious beliefs and practices (the two are not the same, obviously) is a step toward theocracy. Yet for most Americans, I think, religious faith, at least in general, is a legitimate subject of political inquiry.
What's at risk in the current corrosive atmosphere is a long-standing covenant between believers and nonbelievers in which secularists live with public religious appeals and imagery in exchange for self-regulating moderation on the part of the faithful. It's an ancient and wise accommodation that allows religion and politics to inform each other without prompting an eschatological war between church and state.
This implicit cultural compromise is one of the great, if largely unspoken, facts about American life and politics. Through it the U.S. has preserved a role for overtly religious appeals and arguments in the public realm while protecting religious liberty--including the essential liberty not to believe. In 1908 the Unitarian William Howard Taft ran against the Evangelical William Jennings Bryan. Bryan supporters attacked Taft's faith; that year a Pentecostal newspaper wrote, "Think of the United States with a President who does not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but looks upon our immaculate Savior as...a low, cunning imposter." Defending Taft, Theodore Roosevelt said the real test of a potential President was whether he was a good man--and the answer to that question was enough. A century on, however, the unfolding conversation in the Republican Party seems to have more in common with Inherit the Wind than with T.R.'s moderate sensibility.