Commentary: Religion only seems important to Americans in an election year

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramJanuary 23, 2012 

The public prominence of faith during a presidential campaign is akin to Iowa's re-emergence as a state that matters once every four years.

People don't talk much about it the rest of the time. Could be because religion, like the Hawkeye State, isn't that important to most Americans.

The American Religious Identification Survey, conducted in 2008 by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans claim to belong to a religious denomination and that 60 to 75 percent identify themselves as Christian. However, only 9 percent of Americans surveyed said their religion was the most important thing in their life. More than 45 percent said family was paramount, and 17 percent said money and their career were most important.

And yet the candidates' religions and those of potential voters remain a hot topic for the media, especially as the Republican primaries move south of the Mason-Dixon line, where evangelical Christian conservatives are a special-interest voting bloc coveted by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.

Americans apparently don't mind having their religion used as a political foil because it's just another label they use to define themselves, like Rotarian, or Junior Leaguer, or Aggie.

That brings to mind a comment by Founding Father John Adams. The nation's second president wrote that if by religion people meant doctrines, specifically orthodox Christian ones, the world would be a better place with no religion at all.

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution clearly states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

That religion plays such a central role in the election of an American president would have baffled the Founding Fathers, whose system of morality was not the exclusive domain of Christianity. Many of them were not evangelical believers. They expressed aversion toward supernatural religion. Christian author and scholar Michael Horton outlined in detail the attitudes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Adams in his book Beyond Cultural Wars.

Jefferson, for example, berated the doctrine of the Trinity as superstition and went so far as to write his own Bible, devoid of the moral teachings of Jesus, discounting the deity of Christ, and excluding the resurrection and salvation.

The Founding Fathers were interested in building a free, just and civil state. Their interest lay as much in keeping religion in check as in guaranteeing citizens the right to worship as they pleased.

Benson Bobrick's narrative of the American Revolution, Angel in the Whirlwind, recounts Jefferson's draft of Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom. In it, Jefferson wrote: "Almighty God hath created the mind free. Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions of physics or geometry. The opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction."

The United States is a nation of religious pluralism, even if most Americans self-identify as Christians. That makes government's neutral stand on religion, as articulated by the Founding Fathers in the establishment clause of the First Amendment, both visionary and necessary.

The intractable position of some Christian activists who don't accept that laws are written to protect the minority continues to mystify. Mob rule is not the law of the land. Democratic country that this is, it's important to remember that it is first and foremost a republic. That means representative government, not government by popular referendum.

It's baffling that so many Christians allow themselves to succumb to the "us vs. them" mindset ignited by politics. Jesus didn't care one nit about creating a Christian nation. He was about creating Christians, although that label would have meant nothing to the devout Jew. He neither asked nor expected government to help him in that mission.

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