. . . but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
(U.S. Constitution, Art. VI, cl. 3)
The Framers could hardly have been clearer, but political history has made short shrift of their effort to create what in 21st-century parlance would be called a non-sectarian state. Over more than two centuries now, every president of the United States has been a Christian — and as a practical matter required to profess as much.
Still, nothing in American history provides a precedent for the extraordinary episode over the past weekend [Aug. 28-29] in which a radio and television commentator with no known theological training went on national television to depict the sitting president as a bad Christian. For that is what Americans who did not spend Sunday morning in church got if they watched and listened to Glenn Beck attack President Obama for what Beck called the president’s devotion to “liberation theology.”
In Beck’s telling (on “Fox News Sunday,” under relatively friendly questioning from his fellow Fox-man, Chris Wallace), Obama is wrong about how to achieve salvation. Beck says that instead of seeing salvation as requiring an individual relationship with God, the president views salvation through the collectivist lens of “liberation theology.”
“You see, it's all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation,” Beck said. “I don't know what that is, other than it's not Muslim, it's not Christian. It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”
Perversely, Beck’s critique of Obama’s supposed religious views came by way of an apology for his previous description of Obama as a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred of white culture.” So, now, instead of seeking to estrange Obama from his followers on the unacceptable basis of race, Beck chooses religion instead. And he did so in the context of the widely shared view among Republicans and conservatives that Obama is actually a Muslim.
Beck’s religion-based attack came one day after he presided over his self-styled “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, which drew an impressive if not overwhelming crowd stretching from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. The three hours of speeches were largely clear of political divisiveness, but in their overt Christianity — to the exclusion of other faiths — they carried the taint of sectarianism.
It is worth recalling that for 170 years, it was a recognized fact of political life that the president must also be a Protestant: no Catholics need apply. John F. Kennedy broke that barrier, but only after satisfying a “religious test” that he would not take his Catholicism into the Oval Office when making political decisions.
The country today is more religiously pluralistic and in some ways more religiously tolerant than ever before. Joe Lieberman’s religion was of course remarked when Al Gore selected him as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000 and the first Jew ever to run on a national ticket of a major party. But Lieberman’s religion never amounted to an issue in the campaign.
The country’s religious pluralism definitely has its limits. Could a Jew be elected president today — or in your lifetime? The odds are no better than 50-50. Can a Muslim be elected to Congress without controversy? No, as Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat, learned when he took the oath by swearing on a Koran instead of the Christian Bible.
And one need go no further than the pages of the week’s newspapers to know that religious divisiveness is spiking these days. Exhibit No. 1: the debate over the proposed Islamic center to be built in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from “Ground Zero.” Even if one grants the particular sensitivities of some Americans to siting a mosque — one of the planned uses of the center — so near to the epicenter of the Sept. 11 attacks, there is also exhibit No. 2: the apparent torching of construction equipment at the site of a planned mosque in Murfreesboro, a town in Tennessee hundreds of miles from New York City.
Beck’s understanding of “restoring honor” to America had no room for an appeal for tolerance for those who do not share his Christian faith, no room for denouncing the acts of intolerance and even violence against Muslim Americans. As a Mormon, Beck should know better. Mormons themselves were and still are depicted as un-Christian by many Christians, who see them as worshiping a false savior other than Jesus.
Beck’s rally was at the same site, and on the same date, as the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963. Among the great anthems of the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome” with one of its refrains celebrating “black and white together.” On the dais that day, and in the audience, Christians and Jews were conspicuously united in a cause truly dedicated to “restoring honor” in the United States.
Sadly, Beck’s rally did not appeal to that unifying sentiment. There would have been honor indeed had he done so, but little real honor in its absence.