Since President Bush took office, religion has been the litmus test to discern a presidential candidate’s electability. And in the current pool of 2008 presidential hopefuls, this litmus test has produced a star-studded cast of Democratic prophets extolling their religiosity as well as Republican religious bigots promulgating their politics. The one-time separation between church and state has been hijacked by both political parties.
John McCain is our latest, but certainly not our last presidential hopeful to tell the country that a government’s embrace and execution of Christian principles is the quintessential marker that the right person is holding the highest office the land. As McCain said in a interview posted on Beliefnet:
I think the number one issue people should make in the selection of the president of the United States is, ‘Will this person carry on in the Judeo-Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?’ I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, ... personally I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith.
A solid grounding in McCain’s faith of Judeo-Christian principles would not only run aground of America’s solid tradition of religious pluralism, but it also runs counter to upholding the civil liberties of marginalized populations in this country - like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, who are continually battered by the way religion is used by social conservatives.
I assume it was McCain’s Judeo-Christian principles that allowed him to say in an interview with Reuters in December 1999 that he would be “comfortable with a homosexual as president of the United States.” However, these same principle would not support a federal move toward same-sex marriage rights should this homosexual president want to legally consecrate his or her partnership.
Last month, William Sleaster, a Concord, N.H., high school student, asked McCain, “Do you support civil unions or gay marriage?” A testy exchange ensued.
“I do not,” McCain answered. “I think that they impinge on the status and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. I understand the controversy that continues to swirl around this issue,” McCain said. “That debate needs to be continued. Discrimination in any form is unacceptable in America today.”
Confused by McCain’s response, Sleaster said, “I came here looking to see a leader. I don’t.”
Bloggers went wild commenting on the heated exchange between McCain and Sleaster. One commenter wrote, “To those … who continue to push their ‘theology’ on the rest of us, I would like to point out a couple of things. … The Constitution strictly prohibits the government from promoting religion. The only arguments against gay marriage are religious. The government needs to live up to the obligations given by the Founders. Stay out of my religious and personal affairs. Please tell me how gay marriage is any more threatening to the institution than a 50 percent failure rate in straight marriages.”
It is these same Judeo-Christian principles that guided McCain to vote no on extending the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation back in January. And in support of the anti-gay military policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” McCain wrote in an April 16 letter to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, “The Department of Defense doesn't ask questions exploring the sexual orientation of prospective service members, and individuals are required to keep their homosexuality to themselves. However, the legislation unambiguously maintains that open homosexuality within the military services presents an intolerable risk to morale, cohesion, and disciple. I believe polarization of personnel and breakdown of unit effectiveness is too high a price to pay for well-intentioned but misguided efforts to elevate the interests of a minority of homosexual service members above those in their units.”
But it is obvious McCain has not checked out the 4-1-1 on him.
For example, according to the February 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans say they would not vote for a 72-year-old candidate. That is about the same willingness found for a hypothetical homosexual candidate. And a February 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press speculated that McCain's age will be a potential liability for him in the campaign. The February 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also found that 60 percent say they would not likely to vote for a candidate who is “Christian,” would not vote for McCain because he is "too close to Bush" or that he "gives in to the political right."
As one who gives in to the political right, McCain uncritically repeats what is an article of faith among many of social conservatives – that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. While the separation between church and state prohibits the establishment of a state religion, it does not mean that the public sphere in American life should be religion-free. But it also does not mean that religion shapes the entire American landscape.
American democracy suffers when people have to be closeted about their faith because it fosters a climate of religious intolerance. However, to suggest as McCain does that an important qualification to lead this country is to be a practicing Christian is an affront to us all.
McCain as a religious person in public life would be just as scary as Bush not only because of the sordid baggage of religious bigotry he would bring. McCain’s sentiment is contrary to the American ideal of the United States as a democratic society without a religious test for public office.