John McCain and our Christian Nation

John McCain is at it again. This time out he’s arguing, in an interview with Beliefnet, that the Constitution established the US as a “Christian nation” and he comes dangerously close to suggesting that only a Christian would be fit to be president (in fact, he seems to say just that before waffling and backpedaling into an answer designed to draw a bit less fire).

But 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?”

McCain demonstrates a tenuous grasp of history and Constitutional knowledge here, especially when he says things like this: “We were founded as a nation on Judeo-Christian principles. There’s very little debate about that.”

Actually, there’s way too much debate, if the railings of the uninformed can be said to constitute “debate.” For the moment, let’s just note that McCain thinks we have an official state religion, despite this inconvenient bit of heresy buried in Article 6, Section 3:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

This is hardly the first time McCain has strayed down Dominion Alley. You might have caught the video of his appearance on Papa Bear’s show back in May where he climbed aboard the “white, Christian, male power structure” train, and whatever you may have once thought about the man, the “Bob Dolization” of John McCain that I wrote about last year is now thoroughly complete.

But is McCain perhaps on the verge of accidentally making a valid point? It’s certainly true that the US is a Christian culture.

  • Polls show the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian ranging as high as 85% or beyond.
  • The president is a Christian…
  • …as is the VP.
  • The Speaker of the House is Catholic…
  • …and the Senate Majority Leader is Mormon.
  • Well over 90% of our Congressional representatives are Christian, with a majority of the remainder being Jewish.
  • The Supreme Court features seven Christians and two Jews.
  • All of our major presidential candidates in both major parties.
  • Almost all of our past presidents; depending on how you count Unitarians, you have to go all the way back to Lincoln (ironically enough, the founder of the GOP) to even find one to debate over;
  • Hell, even sports franchises are starting to build their operations around the evangelical litmus test.
  • It seems unlikely that a similar review of the legislatures and courthouses in the 50 states would reveal too much variation from this overpowering Judeo-Christian norm.

So, what does this all mean? A few questions:

1: Is religion is causing us to field a weaker national leadership team? Regardless of what the Founders might have intended or whatever delusions McCain might be laboring under, it seems clear that Americans fancy themselves Christian and demand that their leaders toe that line, as well. When we think about the massive policy challenges that we’re facing on all fronts, you’d expect that we’d want our greatest minds on the job. But unless you believe that Christianity (or at least Judaism) is a prerequisite for genius, it seems evident that we’re not playing all our best players. If you run for office and it becomes known that you’re not on God’s Team®, you have wasted your filing fee, no matter how brilliant you may be.

Is America really served by this?

2: Hear all those crickets chirping? No, nobody is really bothered by what McCain said because his views are hardly controversial. If anything, he may be among the more moderate voices among the candidates on this subject. In fact, he acknowledges a faint possibility that a non-Christian could hypothetically be qualified.

I don’t say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just would–I just feel that that’s an important part of our qualifications to lead.

McCain later clarified his remarks: “I would vote for a Muslim if he or she was the candidate best able to lead the country and defend our political values.”

3: Don’t these remarks constitute a de facto challenge to the letter of the Constitution, which senators and presidents alike are sworn to serve? Or do you take his hedging and tapdancing seriously enough to believe that it lets him off the hook?

4: What about non-Christians? McCain is gracious in acknowledging the right of others to be here:

The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.

That’s awfully hospitable, John. But ultimately, it seems the message boils down to something like this: you’re welcome to be here, but keep your mouth shut.

5: Next up – denominational politics? While expressing reservations about the fitness of Muslims to serve, McCain says Romney’s Mormonism isn’t a problem.

Which is fine, except that not all Americans feel the same, and when Presidential candidates make it okay to discriminate on religious grounds they send a clear signal to our nation’s worst elements. There was a big dust-up back in the ’80s in Wilmington, NC, over – of all things – a church softball league. The local Mormon church entered a team in the city-run league, whereupon the other churches raised mortal hell. Said one spokesman, “we do not feel we can extend the hand of Christian fellowship to people who do not worship the same god we do.”

The Mormons stood their ground, those who worshiped a different god from the Mormons stood theirs, and the city was forced to cancel the league.

It isn’t just Mormonism, either. As a Southern Baptist kid growing up in the South, I was expressly taught that Catholics were going to Hell, and there was no point in even talking about people who were even further afield than our Papist friends. Jews would get one more crack at Heaven when the Rapture hit because they were God’s Chosen, but given their centuries of refusing to acknowledge Him, there was no reason to expect the Lord to linger over those who didn’t snap up the amnesty offer immediately upon the sounding of the Final Trump. And these days some Christians are being taught far weirder things than I was.

The Christianizing of American politics (and if you don’t believe that religious interests have exerted increasing pressure on our political landscape in the last couple of decades, let me be the first to welcome you back to Earth) leads in a particular direction, and it’s not one that even Fundamentalists ought to be comfortable with. Once we theocratize government – once we make that “Christian nation” thing official – there’s a clear next step: which Christian? Are we a Catholic nation, and if so should we fall more in line with the Vatican or continue along with some kind of American Rite (and at that point, what about Liberation Theology?) Or are we mainline Baptist? Non-denom (and if so, which superchurch should be setting policy?) Lutheran? Mormon?

As political theater goes, that would be a king-hell festival for the ages.

And if you don’t think we could slip down that path, then you’ve never played in a church softball league in the South, I guess.

27 replies »

  1. Thank you, Sam. This is illuminating. I particularly McC’s line in which he talks about defending “political” values. Seems a rather narrow outlook, methinks.

  2. I lost virtually all respect for McCain the minute it became clear he had no problem compromising those “straight-talk” principles to pander to the religious right. This comment destroyed whatever minuscule shred of respect I had left for the man, and I’m about as secular a Jew as you’ll ever meet.

    What makes it even worse is your very valid points about the US being a Christian culture, if not an officially Christian nation. The fact that the vast majority of people in our society are unwilling to fully separate religion from politics is disheartening and deeply offensive to me, but then again, I suppose logic flies right out the window when you’re willing to believe that an all-powerful invisible white guy and his kid are talking to you on a regular basis.