Just before and during the 1960 presidential election cycle, there appeared an epidemic of media stories that posed the question, “Can a Catholic be president?” The answer in most cases was why not, assuming that he (since the thought of a female president in those days would have been considered science fiction) follows the constitution and not the dictates of the Vatican. The conclusion was not surprising since the father (Joe Kennedy) of the candidate in question (JFK) controlled a company that at the time was one of the largest media advertisers in the country (Cutty Sark).
What’s interesting is the assumption back then that to participate as a candidate in a national election, the candidate couldn’t be too religious. A quick trip to church every few Sundays would do. In a sense, religion didn’t matter. The 1960’s of course represented the high point of secular humanism in the United States. Wikipedia has a great working definition of secular humanism: a secular philosophy that embraces human reason, ethics, justice, and the search for human fulfillment. It specifically rejects religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.
We can see just how far we have veered into allowing religion to affect our politics in two news stories today. The first is Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to overrule the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and not allow a perfectly safe birth control method to be sold over the counter to anyone as the dangerous acetaminophen is. This obvious sop to the religious right needs no further comment.
The second story revolved around a new television ad Rick Perry’s campaign is running. Here is the complete text of the ad, pulled from the Reuters report:
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian. But you don’t have to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers wrote in 1996, as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayers there also. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again. I’m Rick Perry and I approved this message.”
In 30 seconds, Perry comes out in favor of public school prayer and the celebration of the rites of one religion in schools. He implies that his opposition to gays serving openly in the military is a religious matter. While he ends with a call to the amorphous concept of “faith,” all his examples have to do with but one faith.
That the Obama administration has not declared war on religion was made painfully clear by the decision to shoot down the FDA plan to make Plan B more accessible. It’s ironic that the announcement came out on the same day as the news about the new Perry ad: the religious right believes that both Plan B and the Perry-supported vaccine that prevents cervical and other cancers will make more teenage girls break with fundamentalist Christian religious views and want to have sex (and here I thought that hormones and young men sealed that deal). Of course, it’s possible that Perry would have supported Plan B, too, if Teva Pharmaceuticals had given his campaign enough money.
But Texas Rick Perry is little more than a footnote to history. What’s disturbing is that someone who had a viable shot at the presidency, even for just a few short weeks, should make wearing his religion on his sleeve central to his campaign.
What’s even more disturbing is that he’s not the only one: A majority of the Republican presidential candidates have openly declared the centrality of Christianity to their political views. The rest of the list of fanatics includes Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich and former candidate Cain.
The fact that about two-thirds of the country practices or affiliates with the religion in question does not excuse the professions of faith that seem increasingly de rigueur for candidates. We may have a large Christian majority, but we are not a Christian country. We don’t have a King who was crowned by a Pope or Archbishop. Nowhere is there a reference to one specific religion in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. In fact, the first amendment explicitly prevents government favoring one religion over any other. Although many Americans have deep, often Christian, faith, we are not by definition a nation whose government or governance is faith-based.
Call me a cranky old man, but I miss the good old secular humanist days when religious candidates were marginalized and the country was dedicated to creating a more equitable distribution of wealth. Today, in our era of rich and poor, the religious fanatics are taken ever more seriously by the mainstream media.
The connection of the growth of religion in politics and the growing inequitable distribution of wealth is important to note. The final ascension to political power by the right, consummated by Newt and Bush II, came only through the marriage of right-wing free market, low-tax economics with the social agenda of right-wing Christians. It is only now, in the throes of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, that evangelicals are beginning to realize that the deal they forged has economically left behind millions of their number.