David Weiss says the exact phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, but it has been part of our political discourse since the founding of the United States when it was used as part of Thomas Jefferson’s political platform.
“One of the issues that Thomas Jefferson ran on was freedom of religion, and he did not like the idea of official national or state religions,” said Weiss.
Dr. Weiss is the Montana State University Billings professor of media studies. He spoke recently at the Alternate Service at the Billings Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in a presentation called “Running Races with God: How (and Why) our Presidential Candidates Talk about Religion on the Campaign Trail.”
Nine of the original 13 colonies that became states had official religions. The Danbury Baptist Church of Connecticut – along with other congregations – saw this as a potential threat to their own free worship. They appreciated Jefferson’s position on the matter, and sent him a thank you note for winning the 1800 election.
Jefferson wrote back to them in 1802, citing the First Amendment for his reasoning for opposing state-controlled religions: “… the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
So even though the words “separation of church and state” were not in any official government documents but a letter, Weiss explained, “The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ did become part of our legal code when a Supreme Court decision in the 1870s used that phrase as part of their ruling against polygamy laws.”
Other Supreme Court rulings used that phrase, and it became part of the American vernacular.
“Many people say, ‘There’s no such thing as separation of church and state. It’s not in the Constitution!’ And they’re right, it never was,” Weiss said. “But it is in a number of important Supreme Court decisions.”
The issue remains controversial to this day, as it was 200 years ago when many politicians favored state religions. “Since day one, there’s been sharp disagreement on whether there should be separation of church and state,” Weiss said.
Spreading rumors about a candidate’s religion has happened long before President Obama was thought to be a Muslim - even though Obama speaks about Christianity often and comfortably.
During the Rev. Rick Warren’s 2008 Saddleback Presidential Forum, Obama stated “that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis. Yes, I know that I don‘t walk alone.”
Franklin Roosevelt had opponents who claimed he was a Jew, and William Taft had to respond to rumors that he was an atheist.
The first and only Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, had opponents telling people that because of his religion, he would abide by the will of The Pope and not the American people.
Kennedy gave a speech in September 1960 stating he wouldn’t force his religious principles on America. In the well-received speech, Kennedy said, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be Catholic.”
“Kennedy was in this awkward position that he had to argue that he wasn’t too Catholic, and Catholicism wasn‘t going to make any major impact on his decisions,” Weiss said.
“Jump forward 44 years and John Kerry – who was the next major Catholic candidate to run – found himself in the exact opposite position.”
Since he was a pro-choice senator, many anti-abortion Catholics and Protestants didn’t see Kerry as Catholic/Christian enough for their tastes.
“Kerr had to straddle this line and basically say, ‘I am a good Catholic, I am religious, I pray every day, I do go to church, but at the same time I’m not going to let my church’s leaders dictate and determine my policies as the President,’” Weiss said.
Religion hadn’t been a serious issue for a Democratic candidate since President Carter baffled the media by his 1976 claim he was “born again.” Weiss said he doesn’t believe that Kerry handled the issue well.
He noted that during the Democratic primaries – while pandering to the more liberal minded voters – Kerry said that George W. Bush had brought too much religion into the White House and presidency.
However, when Kerry became the Democratic nominee, in an effort perhaps to pander to Christian votes that George W. Bush had been so successful in collecting, he began discussing the importance of his faith and did things like give speeches in churches.
“He tried to make himself appear as religious and pious as George W. Bush,” Weiss said. “I think that he felt he had to do this in order to win, and it backfired. I don’t think it’s the main reason he lost the election, but I don’t think it helped.”
Weiss said that although Kerry was called a “flip-flopper” on many of his political stances, it’s interesting no Republican said it about his religious stances. Weiss said Kerry flip-flopped on religion.
“In January of 2004 versus what Kerry said in October of 2004, it was like two different people,” he said.
Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave a speech defending his Mormon religion during the last presidential primaries. Weiss doesn’t believe the speech eased Republican or Christian suspicions about his Mormonism.
Media personality and Tea Party figure Glenn Beck is also a Mormon, but he paints his popularized religious right beliefs and values with a broad stroke by simply invoking “God” a lot, and no specific belief that might off put his audience.
The recent Tea Party originally formed with a goal of being primarily concerned with economic issues, but many members have used the platform as a way to drift further right on social issues.
“I think there’s some tension in the Tea Party over those very (social) issues,” Weiss said. “I think some people in the Tea Party want them to be focused almost purely on economic issues, and other members of the Tea Party argue that social issues are just as important.”
Abortion is a major issue among voters, and Weiss said the Tea Party’s unifying stance against it has been overlooked by the media who seem preoccupied by theoretical racism among members and other trivial issues.
He believes that the media should be focused on more pressing consequences like how the Tea Party would actually govern, and how their minority – which could grow steadily or fade in popularity in the coming years – in the Senate or House would affect the overall voting.
Weiss said the media are too infatuated by the “horse race coverage” of political candidates, in that they’re just interested in polling points and who is ahead.
He said, “I think that there’s far too little actual analysis of the issues in our media coverage. The media coverage is much more about the strategy, ‘who’s winning, who’s losing?’ (Delaware Tea Party Senate candidate) Christine O’Donnell said she was a witch 10 years ago and now says she’s against masturbation. Will this help or hurt the Democrats?’”
He likened such coverage to analyzing a football game as opposed to what it would actually mean for the country.
“If these people get into office, what will these people do?” Weiss said. “Few if any of them have actually said what they’re going to do.
“They’ve offered a critique of many things in the system, but they haven’t offered solutions. In many ways they’re just ‘running against government.’ They just think ‘government is bad, and big government is bad,’ but they haven’t really provided a clear vision on how they will govern.”
Weiss pointed out an irony of the Tea Party. “What will anti-government people do if they find themselves in positions of governance? There’s this strange collision here.”