If opinion polls on religion and politics are accurate, the American public reached a turning point last March, in the heat of the Republican primaries. For the first time in the 12 years that the Pew Research Center has been surveying attitudes, a plurality—38 percent—said that politicians talked too much about faith and prayer, exceeding the 30 percent who thought they talked too little. Until now, the figures had been reversed. The “too-little” camp reached a high of 41 percent in 2003. And this year, only 25 percent—down from 60 percent in 2001—felt that political leaders were expressing religious faith in just the right amount.
Does this indicate a growing distaste for candidates who mix religion into government? Let’s not get ecstatic quite yet. The First Amendment still sits uncomfortably on a good number of citizens, especially white evangelical Protestants. The poll results continue a trend that was probably accelerated by a backlash against Rick Santorum, who a month earlier had announced his desire to “throw up” after watching a recording of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign declaration: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Of course, Kennedy was working to overcome a broad anti-Catholic bias; he had to reassure voters that his membership in a hierarchical church would not subject him, as president, to orders from the Pope. It is a perverse tribute to our advancing tolerance that Santorum, also a Catholic, felt no sting of prejudice and felt free to vomit at the founding principle of church-state separation.
Santorum is an aberration, but his constituency is embedded in the Republican landscape. Fifty-five percent of his backers told the Pew pollsters that there was “too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders.” Romney supporters split the other way, with 24 percent saying there was too little and 33 percent saying too much.
Still, Romney has not exactly been a beacon of pluralism. Despite benefiting from millions from pro-Israel donors, most notably Sheldon Adelson, Romney sometimes sounds as if he were running for Preacher-in-Chief of a country made up entirely of Christians, with no Jews, no Hindus or Buddhists, and certainly no Muslims or non-religious citizens among the people he seeks to lead.
Speaking last May at that bastion of religious absolutism, Liberty University, Romney paid lip service to the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as central to the country’s global leadership, but then proceeded to ignore every religion practiced by non-Christian Americans. “There is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action,” Romney declared. How illuminating it might have been for those young adults, having just been schooled in the exclusivity of Christian virtue, to hear a presidential candidate open their minds to the country’s rich, robust religious diversity.
It was diversity at the founding that protected the new United States from church-state fusion. Unless you’re a historian, you might have forgotten that the colonies were hotbeds of raging religious persecution. As Steven Waldman writes in Founding Faith, Virginia banished Jews, Quakers and Puritan clergy, deported “Popish priests” and required Catholics to take an oath to the Church of England before they could hold office.
Anti-Puritanism reigned in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, where the Church of England dominated. In New England, the Puritans and their Congregational Church held sway. Quakers were whipped and hanged in Massachusetts, which denied the vote to Catholics, Jews and other non-Congregationalists. Maryland, created as a refuge for Catholics, prescribed death for non-Christians and then, when Protestants took power there, prohibited Catholic worship and sentenced priests to life in prison.
Liberty often relies on the raised voices of persecuted minorities. Out of this oppression came the First Amendment, pressed on a congressional candidate named James Madison by the growing Baptist minority in Virginia, where preachers had been jailed.
Today’s religious prejudices take different forms. Anti-Catholic bigotry has ebbed. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is Catholic, and little notice has been taken of Vice President Joe Biden’s Catholicism (except when he defies the church on abortion and same-sex marriage). Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and the remaining three are Jews; since John Paul Stevens retired, the Court has no Protestants for the first time in its history.
Emboldened, the Catholic Church has entered toxic political clashes with the Obama administration against abortion and the new health care law’s requirement that church-owned institutions, as employers, buy medical insurance covering contraceptives. This may have triggered another backlash registered by the Pew poll: 54 percent overall, including both Republicans and Democrats, said that religious institutions should stay out of politics, the highest proportion since the question was first asked in 1996.
Having elected a Catholic in 1960, Americans have grown open to presidents in various religious flavors—as long as they’re Christian. George W. Bush was born-again, Barack Obama is a nominal churchgoer, and Mitt Romney’s Mormonism generates little concern beyond extreme evangelicals who will vote for him anyway. But American pluralism has yet to overcome Romney-style parochialism. Well into this third century of the American experiment, an avowed atheist still has about as much chance of getting elected president as, say, a devout Muslim.
David K. Shipler’s latest books are two companion volumes on civil liberties: The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties and . He writes online at The Shipler Report.