The Piety Trap

Sure, we want to know what a President believes in ... but that doesn't always mean he should tell us

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

Barack Obama is getting a lot of advice about how to hoist his poll numbers back into positive territory, which includes affirming that he is indeed a Christian and not a Muslim, as a quarter of Americans — and 46% of Republicans — believe, according to a recent TIME poll. Many a pundit has predicted that we are sure to see the Obamas attending some nice, safe church one day soon, the girls in their Sunday best, Obama with a big Bill Clinton Bible under his arm or explaining what Glenn Beck calls Obama's "version of Christianity." I devoutly hope the President resists this advice or, if he feels the call to worship, that he finds a way to do it that meets his private needs rather than his political ones.

The Constitution's crowded First Amendment protects freedom of both speech and religion, but that does not always protect a President who may not want to speak about his religion. We've seen what happens when it serves a President's interest to flaunt his faith — which it almost inevitably does, since every poll affirms that Americans want their leaders to submit to some higher power. Surveys have consistently suggested that a Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Mormon or Jew would have an easier time being elected than an Apathetic Agnostic who declares, "I don't know, and I don't care."

Religious tests, a constitutional taboo, are a political tradition. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson's opponents disdained his deism and argued that while the Constitution and the law did not disqualify him from the White House, public opinion should. In 1908, supporters of the Evangelical William Jennings Bryan condemned Unitarian William Howard Taft as an apostate: "Think of the United States with a President who ... looks upon our immaculate Savior as a ... low, cunning imposter!" Even the devout Dwight Eisenhower was attacked during the 1952 campaign as an "anti-Christian Cultist," partly because as an adult he had never been much for churchgoing, but more for the awkward fact that his parents were Jehovah's Witnesses. This helps explain why he consulted Billy Graham about which church to join and ran billboards that proclaimed "Faith in God and Country; that's Eisenhower — how about you?"

But the ultimate test came 50 years ago this month, when John F. Kennedy was locked in electoral battle with Richard Nixon, who was smart enough to know that Kennedy's Catholicism would likely hurt him only in states he wouldn't have won anyway. Don't touch this issue, Nixon ordered his surrogates; but that did not stop a group of Protestant leaders from gathering in Washington for an anti-Kennedy rally. "Our American culture is at stake," Norman Vincent Peale warned them. "I don't say it won't survive, but it won't be what it was." The group released a manifesto suggesting that a Catholic President would inevitably be a Vatican puppet.

Whether his hand was forced or he saw an opportunity, Kennedy accepted an invitation into the lion's den. On Sept. 12, 1960, he stood before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to deliver one of the sharpest speeches ever given on the public implications of private belief.

Kennedy told the pastors that he had come to talk about "not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in." That was an America where church and state were absolutely separate and priests and preachers did not tell parishioners how to vote. And then, the prescient warning: "While this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed," he said, "in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist ... Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped."

Half a century and many elections later, Obama does have a duty to speak, not about what kind of church he believes in but what kind of America. His muddled remarks about building the Islamic center near Ground Zero helped raise and roil that controversy beyond a local zoning fight. Intolerance comes in many forms; arrogance is one of them, as is dismissing one's opponents as being ignorant or bigoted rather than drawn deeply to different principles or priorities. Obama used to talk at length about reconciliation and common ground. Sometimes the faith a President needs to show is faith in his own principles.