A Letter to George
While there is long list of challenges Americans are working to overcome - from economic instability to the cost and reach of health care, from rising poverty to educational quality, and from wars waged to address terrorism to the pernicious influence of money in the political process - the most troubling and seemingly intractable is an issue of faith.
There is trouble these days, and the trouble is religion in politics.
Our political leaders are so afraid of putting religion in its proper place (as a private source of consolation, strength or solace, or for some of no personal use at all) that we have made it an inseparable part of all politics. Rather than demonstrating one’s moral compass with ideas and ideals (or better yet, behavior) it has become easier to use religion as a shorthand sign for morality. Just as it is simpler to wear a flag pin than explain its absence, religion has become the sine qua non of a politically viable career.
Have we allowed this conflation of morality and piety because we are lazy? Because we are insecure and the absence of repeated declarations of faith threatens our own belief? Or do we genuinely require religious affirmation as a prerequisite to leadership? Has theism become our only standard to judge character?
You made tolerance more critical than belief, and good citizenship more valuable than piety:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
And you were clear that America was not founded as a religious state:
“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”
Yet you added the words “so help me God” to the president’s oath of office and said “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.” But you were decried at the time as a Deist (a believer in a creator of nature and man, but not a God acting as a companion and judge of their actions).
Article 6 Paragraph 3 of the Constitution says, in your time quite provocatively, that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”. How is it that we have so ignored this in practice, requiring every applicant to high public office to declare not just their belief in God but their churchgoing credentials?
Before the advent of antibiotics, Darwin and the mapped human genome; before manned flight, moon exploration and the theory of relativity (but well after Newton); before the industrial and atomic ages (but after the age of enlightenment); before the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and direct election of federal offices; it might be understandable, or even inevitable, if faith played a normative role in governance. But would you have countenanced an increased presence of extroverted religious faith guiding the governance of an age of increasingly fact-based existence?
How do we best remind Americans that the three branches of government are not The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost? Can you recognize the nation that you fathered as a haven from persecution and inquisition?
I await your divine wisdom and guidance.