Religion and Politics Gone Wrong

Since the founding of America, religion has played a key role in America’s political procedures and campaigns.  Whether it was the inclusion of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that created the establishment and free exercise clauses for religion, or President John Adams leveling accusations of atheism against his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the presidential campaign of 1800, religion has been a constant presence within American politics.

Now, in 2016, religion has once again emerged as a major issue within the current presidential race. First, the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country and the surveillance of U.S. Muslims by federal, state, and local authorities.  These dangerous suggestions violate the very conscience of the American experiment.  America was established on the foundation that “all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” America was not founded on the basis of suspicion and suppressing human rights.

The First Amendment establishes a precedent for the freedom of religion and prohibits unfair targeting of religion by the government.  We cannot sacrifice foundational principles at the alter of political grandstanding.  Security must be a priority for any political candidate in America, but to use religion as a gauge for patriotism is un-American.  Granted, America should be guarded against any person or country that seeks to harm us, but we cannot mistake the religio-political rhetoric and practices of extremists with the heartfelt conscience of most Muslims living out their faith and attempting to make their lives better.

Second, it was recently revealed that leaders within the Democratic National Convention were attempting to influence the primary by using Senator Bernie Sanders’ Jewish faith or atheism (never confirmed) against him.  As stated previously, political rivals have long used personal religious beliefs or lack of belief as political fodder since the foundation of the country.  From Jefferson to John Kennedy, presidential hopefuls have had to answer critical questions about their personal faiths.  Religious litmus tests were wrong then and they are wrong now.

In Article VI, paragraph three, of the United States Constitution, the framers concluded, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  When Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, ran for the presidency in 2012, it was wrong for anyone to use his Mormonism as a disqualifying argument for public office.  In 2008, former Republican Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, articulated this sentiment beautifully when false allegations were leveled against Democratic Senator Barrack Obama for being a Muslim.  Powell rightly concluded that even if Senator Obama was a Muslim, which he is not, it would not prevent him from being president because we have a “no religious test clause” in this country.  As American citizens, if we say we believe in the Constitution then we should also live by it.

There is no denying the reality that religion has always, and will always, play a part in the American political process, but we must denounce situations when religion and politics go wrong.  As a country, we must come to a more mature understanding of religion’s proper role.  Religion should never be used as a target for the purpose of oppression and marginalization.  Religious Liberty is a foundational American principle; an ideal we cannot jeopardize.  When we begin using religion as a tool to advance political agendas, we then devalue every religion and cease being American.

In 1790, Baptist minister and advocate for Religious Liberty, John Leland, penned, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

This is the American spirit….

Welcome to Colonial Oklahoma

The Daily Oklahoman and Tulsa World reported the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed House Joint Resolution 1062, by Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, by a vote of 86-10 on Wednesday, March 9, 2016. The resolution proposes a ballot initiative that will allow Oklahomans to repeal Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution that declares, “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”

This dangerous resolution was proposed in reaction to the recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision that required removing a statue of the Ten Commandments from the capitol grounds.  The court ruled that the placement of the Ten Commandments monument violated the Oklahoma Constitution, citing Article 2, Section 5, as a basis for their ruling. Immediately after the high court’s decision, proponents of utilizing public money for the advancement of religion immediately began to work towards repealing Article 2, Section 5 from the state constitution. If they are successful, they will be one step closer to returning our state to the Colonial era when government was ruled by the established church of the day.

When Puritans fled religious persecution in England, they arrived on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and quickly established their version of Christianity as the only appropriate religion for the Colonies. There was no separation of church and state, thus the Puritan church was allowed to enact laws that were supportive of their religion and detrimental to all others. Taxes were collected by local magistrates, then used to establish and promote the Puritan religion. Those from other traditions were forced to pay taxes that funded a religion they did not support. In addition, at times, they were even persecuted by it.

Dissenters were not only discouraged from practicing their religion, but they were often fined, jailed, whipped, banished, and even killed in the most extreme cases. One such case involved Mary Dyer of Boston. Dyer was a Quaker, a religion strictly prohibited by the established Puritan church. Because her faith was unacceptable by the establishment, Dyer was banished numerous times by civil magistrates. Returning home to Boston, the Puritan government finally arrested and sentenced her to death. She was hung on June 1, 1660 near the Boston Commons.

During this terrifying time when church and state worked together for the establishment of the preferred religion, ex-Anglican, Roger Williams, held that personal conscience was a gift of God and should be protected as a right of every citizen in Colonial America. In his most famous work, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, he argued, “An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Williams fought for the liberty of conscience for all people (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Non-believers) because his religious conviction promoted that God gave humanity a freewill that should not be infringed upon by civil authorities.

To protect this sacred freedom, Williams argued that the “garden of church” should be separated from the “wilderness of the world.” He spoke of a “hedge” separating church and state so that both might be protected. Later on, after the Revolutionary War, President Thomas Jefferson picked up on this metaphor assuring persecuted Baptists from Connecticut that a “wall” of separation would forever remain between church and state.

While the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that congress will make no laws establishing religion nor impeding the free exercise of religion, states have passed their own laws offering these same protections. The most famous of these state laws was penned by Thomas Jefferson: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Passed, January 16, 1786). Jefferson penned these now famous words beginning in the second paragraph of the statute…

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

When Oklahoma entered statehood on November 16, 1907, our state leaders comprehended the dangers of church-state entanglements. With testimonies from Native American children being whipped and forced to attend Christians worship services at agricultural schools funded by the government, the new state understood the evils of coerced religion. In the new state of Oklahoma, the notion of “killing the Indian to save the soul” would not be acceptable for a state seeking to enact freedom for all of her citizens. The establishment and promotion of religion by the state would not be tolerated. Thus, when the Oklahoma Constitution was adopted in 1907, Article 2, Section 5, was included to protect the rights of every Oklahoma citizen, especially those coming from Indian Territory.

Clearly, proponents of this resolution do not know or have failed to learn from history.  If successful, they will be taking a big step backwards in returning our state to a time when religious persecution was acceptable under Colonialism and Native Americans were forced to worship as those in authority dictated. Oklahoma law will no longer have a prohibition against the establishment of religion, thus legal precedent would fall to the U.S. Constitution that still upholds the first sixteen words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This attempt to dismantle the wall separating church and state is misguided, because fortunately the U.S. Constitution continues to be applied to the states. Repealing this portion of the state constitution will only bring lawsuits that will cost Oklahoma much needed resources; resources we cannot afford during this revenue shortfall and budget crisis. Like the current attempt to pass school vouchers, disguised as Education Savings Accounts, repealing Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution is wrong for our state and wrong for the church.