Willard Sterne Randall: Let's kick religion off the campaign trail

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Willard Sterne Randall, author of George Washington, A Life and Thomas Jefferson, A Life, is a distinguished scholar in history at Champlain College, in Burlington, Vt.]

NO PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION since 1800 has taken place without an attempt to damage at least one candidate’s reputation by innuendo, rumor or ridicule. Too often, the weapon of choice has been religion.

No campaign has more brutally combined these tactics than when President John Adams, a New England Puritan, faced off against his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, a Deist. Jefferson’s narrow victory left the country divided for decades.

In the first knock-down, drag-out campaign, Federalists pilloried Jefferson, who had written the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. With the aid of James Madison, he had waged a 10-year battle in the Virginia legislature to strip clergy of tax support — and many clergymen never forgave him.

It had been the bitterest fight of his life, Jefferson said as he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” But the 1800 presidential campaign proved worse. Adams’s supporters attacked Jefferson’s religious views from the pulpit, in the press, in the drawing room. In the Massachusetts legislature, he was tried in absentia for heresy.

Jefferson, like fellow Deists George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, believed that it was reason that led to social morality better than any single religion.

Yale University President Timothy Dwight set the tone in a Fourth of July sermon attacking the author of the Declaration of Independence. If Jefferson were elected, Dwight worried, if “our churches become temples of reason,” the Bible “would be cast into a bonfire.” The Philadelphia Gazette, the flagship Federalist paper, asked the question “to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to God and a religious President [Adams], or impiously declare for Jefferson — and NO GOD!!!”

If Jefferson won, the Hartford Courant warned, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” A Federalist woman reader was so terrified about what would happen to her family Bible that she took it to the only Democrat she knew and asked him to hide it. “It will be perfectly safe with you. They’ll never think of looking in the house of a Democrat.”

The first president, George Washington, had done all he could to keep religion separate from politics. Through revolution and two terms as president, he clung to his faith in God but scrupulously, like the Hebrews of old, declined to use the name of God, usually substituting “Providence.” Unlike most modern presidential candidates, he tried to keep his religious views private.

Washington grew up accompanying his mother to Anglican services. As an adult, he was an Anglican vestryman. He jolted 12 miles in a carriage over unpaved roads to church, but he never stayed for communion and never knelt during services because he wouldn’t bend the knee to the king and his established church’s authority.

As General Washington, he believed religion was important to maintain morality among his troops. If he couldn’t find a chaplain, he himself read the prayers aloud to his men. As president, he was always aware of his enormous influence. He refused to conform to any one religion for fear that whatever he espoused would become the new national church.

When he spoke, however rarely, he was taken seriously. As president, he extended his friendship and tolerance to the Jews of Touro synagogue in Newport, the nation’s oldest. All Americans, he wrote to them, “possess alike liberty of conscience.” The U.S. government, he wrote, “gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison all opposed tearing down the wall they painstakingly erected between church and state. Today, no American should have to worry about a candidate’s religion, or that, if elected, a president would transform his private religious views into a public agenda.

Maybe it would be better to keep religion off the campaign trail, too.

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More Comments:

Robert Lee Gaston - 4/3/2008

This seems to be a very high minded and principled article. One wonders how the Journal and Mr. Randall reacted about religious reporting about candidates before the current Obama/Wight flap. For instance did the Journal run those AP stories that began, “Mormon Republican candidate Mitt Romney” and did Mr. Randall take notice.

W. Lane Rogers - 3/28/2008