The presidential campaign is veering in a disturbing direction over how the candidates are handling religion, a subject which ought not to be in the campaign at all.
Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush have been talking about it for months in ways more banal than alarming: Both profess deep religious faith. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman took this a quantum leap further in remarks in an African-American church in Detroit when he said: "The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. There must be and can be a constitutional place for faith in our public life."
What Mr. Lieberman ignores is that freedom of religion necessarily means freedom from religion. If you are not free to reject all religions, then you are reduced to the freedom to choose among different religions. This is better than no freedom at all, but it is less than the freedom that Americans have enjoyed for more than 200 years and that the Supreme Court has repeatedly reinforced.
There is an exact analogy with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and of the press. The freedom to make hateful remarks or to show offensive pictures necessarily carries with it the freedom not to read, or listen to, the remarks and not to look at the pictures. The essential corollary of freedom to watch television is freedom to hit the "off" button.
The day after his appearance at the Detroit church, Lieberman attended a prayer breakfast in Chicago. There he found that the Fifth Commandment - "Honor your father and your mother" - is reason to include prescription drugs in Medicare. He also called the US "the most religious country in the world" - a categorization that several other countries would dispute.
One can only hope that Lieberman was carried away in the fervor of the moment and said more than he meant. At the least he has blurred the line between church and state; at the most he has crossed it. Nor has he been alone. The same day Lieberman was at the prayer breakfast in Chicago, Bush spoke to a Bnai B'rith convention in Washington. "Our nation is chosen by God," he said, "and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division. Jews and Christians and Moslems speak as one in their commitment to a kind, just, tolerant society."
This idea of a divine mandate to be a model for the rest of humanity is as old as American history. It is more a display of jingoism than it is a threat to religious freedom, but it is no less upsetting as an inappropriate mixture of religion and politics. The Constitution has more to say on this subject than to guarantee freedom. Equally significant is the last sentence of Article VI: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." In 1787, the proximate reason for including this in the Constitution was to ensure against an oath which had been used in England to keep Jews out of Parliament. But the constitutional provision has much wider significance. It reinforces the First Amendment. It is supposed to keep elections free from religious influence.
In this, it has clearly not succeeded. Al Smith's religion cost him the White House. The propensity of many people to vote for or against members of a particular church - Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Baptists, others - has decided many an election down to and including seats on city councils.
But there is another constitutional purpose, at once nobler and more modest. This is to keep religion out of political campaigns. The thrust of the Constitution and of the American tradition is that religion is not, and ought not to be, a political issue. Candidates this year are coming dangerously close to making it one.
To say that religion ought to be kept out of politics is not to disparage religion. It is, rather, to protect religion from the whims and transient passions to which politicians and governments are subject. The wall between church and state serves to protect each from the other. It keeps us from having an official state religion. Let those who want prayer in schools beware that the next step could be dictation from the government as to what kind of prayer it should be.
*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society