The Flutters of Religion in Affairs of State
If America now defied the founders and set up an established church, would its head be the collector of internal revenue?
Oswald Spengler, in "The Decline of the West," observes that, although the number of nominal estates in any society may be more than two, there are really only two estates - the civil and the religious - that are relevant. According to Spengler, when one of these two fundamental estates loses power, that power is assumed by the other, or by some other institution or passing estate, or one carrying another name. In our time, as religious power has been scattered and weakened, religious functions and powers have been picked up by the press, by civil powers, by corporations in a kind of feudal relationship, and by the military.
The American Colonial practice was for the most part one that accepted, in the English tradition, an established religion. Congregationalists prevailed in most of New England, and Anglicans of the Episcopal variety in the Southern colonies: Catholics and Methodists and other sects had not yet become religious forces requiring political attention.
The men who wrote the Constitution faced this choice: Either establish a church or provide for religious toleration. They chose the way of nonestablishment. This seemed a good choice, and it worked well throughout the 19th century. A mild kind of civil religion was accepted. Politicians, some of whom were believers, some who thought religion to be useful, even necessary for the support of democracy, accepted this relationship. Early documents of the new republic emphasized strong religious commitment; for example, the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's inaugural address. The God of early politics was somewhat impersonal and detached, described in rather general terms as "The Creator," "The Invisible," "The Almighty Being," etc.
With the passage of time, relationships between God and the politicians became more personal, manifest in exchange of endorsements - the politicians usually endorsing the Divine and His works and claiming a responsive endorsement of the politicians' works by the Divinity. Lincoln's second inaugural address, by a scholar's count, had 14 references to God and four quotations from the Scriptures (Genesis, the Psalms, and Matthew).
Approximately 100 years later, President Lyndon Johnson, speaking about the civil rights law of 1965, declared: "It is rather our duty to do His Divine will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking we begin here tonight." Johnson, like Lincoln, kept the line between church and state reasonably clear, if not the line between religion and politics.
The significant blending of the two took place in the Eisenhower campaigns and administrations. The first Eisenhower campaign was presented under the banner of a crusade, although the cross was a little vague. One of the crusaders, a member of Congress, charged that the previous administration had tried to "make a settlement with the devil Communism, instead of spurning him as Christ did when tempted." The inaugural parade of 1953 featured what was called "God's float," a late entry. The pledge of allegiance to the flag was changed during the Eisenhower administration to include the words, "under God." The postmaster general issued a stamp bearing the motto, "In God We Trust," and the same slogan was prescribed for United States money, scarcely a vote of confidence in the secretary of the treasury.
Vague belief, strongly held
The Kennedy campaign and administration had a different religious thrust. Whereas Ike had included as part of his inaugural proceedings a prayer he had himself composed, the Kennedy inaugural was sustained by prayers by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cushing, who was followed by Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church, by John Barclay, a Protestant minister, and then by Rabbi Nelson Glueck. Whereas, as William Miller wrote in his book "Piety Along the Potomac," Eisenhower had a religion that was vague but strongly held to, the Kennedy religion was strong but vaguely held to.
The fusion of religion and politics advanced noticeably in the Nixon administration. Charles Henderson observed early that Nixon was appropriating the vocabulary of religion, of the church - faith, trust, hope, belief - and that he was applying these words to the nation and, even worse, to his personal vision of what the nation should believe. He did not go so far as to say that the religion of the prince is the religion of the people, but he did say that the president was the moral leader and moral spokesman of the people.
President Ford, when he pardoned President Nixon, was more restrained. He said that he was acting as God's humble servant.
More recent presidential candidates and presidents have demonstrated variations on the mingling of religion and politics. Jimmy Carter, while giving lip service to the civil religion of tradition, has said that he prayed many times a day, especially when he felt a "trepidation," and that he spoke to Jesus (not to the Great Architect). Candidate Pat Robertson said that he spoke to God but that he would not use those communications in his campaign. And President Reagan once said that he was reborn, but that he did not remember when it happened or what the experience had done for or to him.
The latest fine religious distinction, relative to politics, was made by Pat Buchanan, who distinguished the Old Testament from the New by declaring that the earlier testament was based on the inspired word of God, while the later testament was the direct word. Pat's politics relied on the direct.
The Spenglerian projection seems to be manifesting its accuracy. Whereas the lost or abandoned powers of the religious estate seemed to be moving to the Fourth Estate (the press), the greater attraction and power of the civil estate seemed to be asserting itself; and both the civil and the religious powers are settling into one estate.
A bomb for every faith?
A constitutional amendment declaring that the United States is a Christian nation, including belief in life after death, is pending. Moral issues like abortion, aided suicide, and euthanasia are receiving attention from the state.
In the order of international relations and military action, religious issues are intruding. Years ago the president of Pakistan argued that Pakistan should be allowed to build a nuclear weapon since Islam was the only major religion that did not have one. This argument has been made more recently by Saddam Hussein.
Politics in India is complicated by a religious conflict between Muslims who eat beef and Hindus who hold that cows are sacred.
The confusion of church and state, the shifting of religious functions to the state, have reached a point at which formal intervention to establish or reestablish the church is in order.
A church, low order, like the Episcopalian church of England might do, with the Queen of England serving as head of the American church, acting as judge and arbiter, especially in cases of marriages, divorces, adultery, runaway fathers, school truancy, and the like.
Or a unique United States Established church might be set up conforming to the standards now used by the Internal Revenue Service in determining whether church applicants for tax exemption are true churches. The collector of internal revenue could be head of the church.
Should these options fail, there is the fallback position of the poet William Stafford, who once proposed a proper prayer, which runs something like this, "Our Father who is in heaven, can like your Father, which art in heaven," or possibly vice versa.
*Eugene J. McCarthy is a former Democratic senator from Minnesota, presidential candidate, and a poet.