Preacher-in-Chief, or President?
by Derrick G. Jeter
Our country should be preserved from the dreadful evil of becoming enemies of the religion of the Gospel, which I have no doubt, but would be the introduction of the dissolution of government and the bonds of civil society.1
No one remembers Elias Boudinot. But in the latter years of the American Revolution (1782–83), Mr. Boudinot served as the President of the Continental Congress.
Mr. Boudinot, and other Founding Fathers, developed, from their study of history and human nature, a keen awareness that nations rise, endure, and fall on three indisputable principles. First, freedom is the native right of all humankind, but it must be won, ordered, and secured. Freedom is supported by the second principle—the ability of individuals to govern their own passions. This in turn is a result of the third principle—private and public religious affections.
An article written by Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street Journal (“People Before Prophets”) got me to thinking about these issues. More specifically, about our presidential candidates’ private faith commitments as a part of their public persona. Ms. Noonan eloquently makes the case that faith is a personal matter and by implication candidates for the presidency should keep their faith private. She says,
There are some people who believe faith doesn’t belong in politics. But it does, and it is there inextricably. . . . It’s not that it doesn’t matter. You bring your whole self into the polling booth, including your faith and your sense of right and wrong, good and bad, just as presidents bring their whole selves into the Oval Office. I can’t imagine how a president could do his job without faith.
But faith is also personal. You can be touched by a candidate’s faith, or interested in his apparent lack of it. It’s never wholly unimportant, but you should never see a politician as a leader of faith, and we should not ask a man who made his rise in the grubby world of politics to act as if he is an exemplar of his faith, or an explainer or defender of it.2
Ms. Noonan goes on to explain that the current questioning of the 2008 presidential candidates about their faith has become bizarre and condescending. With this I agree. There is something odd about the inquiries—asking candidates whether they believe in the literal six day creation of Genesis, or whether faithfully practicing Jews and Muslims will go to hell because they don’t believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are, as she so pointedly put it, “about to hire a president, not a Bible study teacher.”
Fair enough, we don’t hire presidents to be Bible-thumping preachers. But her reason why presidential candidates should be mum about their faith strikes me as politically and historically wrong. Religion, she contends, is “private . . . personal” and should remain that way.
Contrary to popular belief, America is no in danger of becoming a theocracy simply because politicians voice religious sentiments. What does hang heavy in the air is the real possibility that faith in the public square will be marginalized and disappear altogether.
The naked public square, where expressions of faith are taboo by candidates and citizens alike, has been detrimental, historically and politically to those countries that have stood before the world without the robe of religion. In America, the naked public square would violate our founding principles and order of government, most notably in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment.
The other extreme, however, is just as troublesome. The sacred public square, likewise, defies America’s ideas of order as outlined in Article VI of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
What is needed, and what our Founders devised, is a civil public square—a place where religious faith can be lived out, privately and publicly, by candidate and citizen alike. In such an environment our political leaders can be, in fact would be, leaders of their faith, or as Ms. Noonan put it, “exemplar[s] of . . . faith.”
Candidates may not be running for Preacher of the United States of America, but this shouldn’t preclude them from speaking of faith in an open and honest manner. This has been true since the founding of the country, and advocated by the very men who held the office our current candidates seek.
It was George Washington, after taking the oath of office, who added the words, “So help me God.” A tradition carried on by every President since. One only need read his Farewell Address, or John Adams’ Inaugural, or Thomas Jefferson’s Bill Establishing Religious Freedom and his Notes on the State of Virginia, or Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s D-Day Prayer to grant that faith in America is not just personal and private, but should be public.
And we haven’t even mentioned the monuments and public buildings in which God’s name is carved in marble; or the opening prayer which begins each day of Congress and each session of the Supreme Court.3
Within a civil public square—if we could recapture that ideal—even within a pluralistic society, we could speak of faith in public and treat each other with civility. We still affirm this truth as self-evident that “the Creator” is the giver of rights, including the right and privilege of speaking about faith in public . . . even if you are a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America.
1 Elias Boudinot, The Age of Revolution or the Age of Reason Shewen to be an Age of Infidelity (Philadelphia: Asbury Dickins, 1801), xxii, in New Gingrich’s Rediscovering God in America (Franklin, Tenn.: Integrity Media, 2006), 20.
2 Peggy Noonan, “People Before Prophets,” The Wall Street Journal electronic edition, www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110010893, accessed 26 November 2007.