Religion and Politics: An Unholy Marriage

By Steven Rome

For someone whose campaign is based upon “restoring the Constitution” (this is the first menu item on his issues page), Ted Cruz has no trouble overlooking a fundamental tenet upon which the country was founded.

The Texas senator is a “tireless defender” of the Second Amendment (this is the second menu item on his issues page), but perhaps he ought to take a second look at the First Amendment. Cruz likes to say religious freedom is under attack, but as he and other candidates marry religion with politics, it’s freedom from religion that is threatened.

The First Amendment ensures that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Article VI specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Our founding fathers were clear: government has no place in religion, nor does religion have a place in government.

Cruz’s first sentence in his speech declaring victory in the Iowa Caucus was, “Let me first of all say, to God be the glory.” Front and center on his website is a chance to join the “National Prayer Team,” which, according to Cruz, would “establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans lifting us up before the Lord.”

He is not alone. At a recent Republican debate, the moderators cited a Time Magazine headline anointing Marco Rubio the “Republican savior” in a question about his electability. The senator responded, “Well, let me be clear about one thing, there’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.”

I could not care less about Marco Rubio’s religious beliefs. I do care about his vision and his policies. Perhaps his religion inspires his political views, but he should only stick to talking about the views.

The presence of religion is clouding political dialogue. If the Constitution mandates that the government reflect the voices of all the people, why should it matter whether the president is religious or not? The only constitutional way to govern is to protect both  religious liberty and separation of church and state. A candidate’s personal preferences mean nothing.

Yet the placement of the Iowa Caucus as the first nominating contest puts religion at the forefront. The state’s high percentage of evangelical Republicans has elected a candidate whose religion plays prominently into his candidacy the last three election cycles (Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Cruz). The line dividing politics and religion, especially in Iowa, is murky. Evangelicals are a political force, and they have a right to organize and support whomever they want. That, too, is protected by the First Amendment. But this outsize influence—manifested in Rubio and Cruz’s recent appeals—runs counter to the principle of separation of church and state.

To prove themselves to Iowa conservatives, Republicans feel compelled to trump up (no pun intended) their personal religious values—as if their religion makes them qualified to hold office. This is exactly what the framers wanted to prevent, as seen in Article VI. We shouldn’t be concerned if they are devout—we should be concerned that they are so glaringly oblivious of the Constitution. Cruz is right: we do indeed need to restore the Constitution, or at least refresh ourselves about what is in it.

Cruz claims the Constitution “protect[s] the liberties endowed to us by our Creator.” But the Constitution is a secular document. It protects all people’s rights, including those of people who don’t believe in any Creator at all. The First Amendment protects us from laws respecting religion, yet Cruz proudly touts his record as a lawyer defending the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, as if religious liberty would be threatened otherwise. He believes Muslim refugees from Syria should not be allowed entry into the US, but Christians are acceptable. It’s pure hypocrisy that Cruz positions himself as a protector of the Constitution when he advocates a government that works first and foremost for Christians. Surely his religion would educate him in the principles of fairness and empathy.

Religion should not be a political tool to curry favor with voters. At its best, religion encourages candidates (and all people) to be their best selves, to be humble and compassionate. But I have full confidence that the Constitution and our institutions will limit and stop any president who does not care adequately for others and act in the best interests of the country, regardless of his or her personal beliefs. Our government is messy, but it is structured to act in the interests of the people. This is the amazing thing about our country; our shared values constantly reinforce this message of inclusiveness and equality before the law.

It’s not Judeo-Christian values, as Rubio said at a recent debate, that make our country great, but that the rights of all people, regardless of their views and affiliations, are protected equally and have an equal voice in government.

Thank God for the Constitution.

 

Art courtesy of Steven Rome

 

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