Walking a donkey into the room won’t raise nearly as many eyebrows as an elephant. And that may be why presidential wannabe, Rick Santorum, trotted his uniquely pious pachyderm out into the center of the Republican primaries. With his usual mild and self-deprecating style he opined that John Kennedy’s 1960 assertion that church and state should be separate made him “want to vomit.” I would be less concerned were Mr. Santorum merely running for the office of “First Hurler,” but no, he seeks the presidency of the United States. He wants to follow in the footsteps of other “deciders.” Now, one would be a fool to assert that religion played no role in American politics. It always has, and always will. But it was usually an elephant kept behind the curtain in a vain hope, I suppose, that we might avoid further shredding whatever tatters remain of civil discourse in American political campaigning. But St. Rick seems bent on washing the clerical undergarments in public.
That is truly a shame, because nothing good will come of it. Here in the Carolinas, Franklin Graham — who sadly possesses little of his father’s oratorical skills and seemingly none of his compassion — openly wonders about the sincerity of President Obama’s Christianity. “The President [pause, pause] says he is a Christian,” Graham muses, and anyone who has spent any time in the Old North State hears in that subtle pause the great Southern qualifier “Bless his heart!”
The founding fathers were, for the most part, men whose feelings about the place of religion in politics had been formed by living in countries or colonies where one stripe of belief or another was routinely privileged over others. They had experienced theocracy first hand, lived where your manner of prayer could be fined, land you in the stocks, or even get you killed. It is hardly surprising that they wove into the documents of our young nation the notion that religion should stand apart from government. Those who tell that we have “always been a Christian nation under one god” are either ignorant, lying, or both. The blood spilt to create this nation gave us the freedom to worship god as we chose, or not to worship were we so inclined. Theocracy demands religious fealty of all citizen to one faith, one god, one right and usually lots of wrongs.
We must never lose sight of the fact that the history of theocracies is writ in varying shades of blood. Ancient examples span the globe, from the Mayans to the Conquistadors to the Crusades to the Inquisition. And the beat goes on. Catholics kill Protestants, who return the favor. Sunnis kill Shiite, while the Sufis spin madly around trying to keep an eye on the Druze. Hindis and Muslims rattle the nuclear saber over Kashmir. Generic "Christians" kill generic "Muslims" who attack generic "Infidels." And everyone seems to attack the Jews. Humans are killed because books are inadvertently burned. Tibetan monks burn themselves alive to confront religious oppression. Muslim women and children blow themselves up to fast track themselves to paradise. And now Santorum wants the nomination because he is "more Christian" than all the other candidates? Have we all really checked our brains at the door?
Our government utilizes a system of checks and balances. Congress, the legislative branch, checks on the Judicial Branch. The Justices keep an eye on the president, who appoints the Supreme Court and must sign off on the laws passed by Congress. Nobody has all the toys. The idea is if we can’t have all the toys, perhaps we will be willing to share. OK, that’s not going so well right now, but that is the idea.
These partitioned forms of government grow out of the seemingly cynical but ultimately truthful notion that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Poles of power must be kept at least partially isolated. Most human cultures seem to consistently evolve four pillars upon which society rests: marketplace, military, religion and government. The reality of power in human society plays out through a shifting set of alliances that form, dissolve and form again as each pillar seeks its own advantage. We have no historic record of a culture in which one of the pillars subsumed the roles of the other and ruled successfully. It is true that dictators, strong men, and god kings have seized all four pillars for brief heady bursts of absolute power. But the Greeks seemed to have gotten that part right — those who rise to the heights of the gods, will be cast down with a viciousness that mirrors their meteoric rise. It seems that in addition to absolute corruption, absolute power holds the seed of its own disaster.
Some of my evangelical friends seem compelled to ask if I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I must reply, “No, but I am quite close to his father.” My point, all kidding aside, is that religion is an intensely personal aspect of an individual’s life. One should not wrap it around you like a new outfit: “Oh, how nice! Don’t you look godly?” “What a pious petticoat!” My spirituality is intensely important to me, and it is utterly private. I prefer not to pray, or be prayed for, in public. Prayer should be a private conversation, not a doctrinal pep rally.
To pick a president, or any other elected official, on the basis of the public fervor of their religious conviction is sheer insanity. Choosing our elected officials is our most important public task and should be split apart completely from the private issues of faith and belief. The road to an American theocracy is paved with religious litmus paper tests of the kind implied by Santorum and Graham. I encourage you to think long and hard before you set your feet on that icy, narrow path. Not only does theocracy lead us down the slippery slope to jihad and crusade, to Inquisition and its secular twin, the Reign of Terror, but it also leads us to an inevitable coalition among faith, government, marketplace and the military. And that, my friend, is an unholy alliance that dies bitterly and hard, sweeping the streets with the blood of the innocents.