By Mariya Ilyas & Cassie Rasmussen
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors’ only.
America’s relationship with faith is a prism of contradictions. On the one hand, religious freedom is central to American history and identity. On the other hand, dominant Christian culture has, and in many ways continues to, actively partition off or subjugate minority religions. Nowhere is this more clear than in the controversy surrounding the vetting of those we elect to the presidency.
We are a nation with no official religion, with a myriad of religious traditions represented amongst our people. And yet the figurehead of our nation, the President of the United States, is expected to represent a very particular portrayal of American religious traditions and beliefs. Every year, the White House hosts thousands of guests to celebrate Easter, one of Christianity’s most sacred holidays, by rolling Easter eggs in a tradition with strong pagan roots. Would a non-Christian president be expected to continue the Egg Roll tradition, or put up a ‘National’ Christmas Tree on her lawn and inside her house? Our guess is most likely—if they could get ever elected in the first place. As a society, we expect a certain performative religion from our presidents, but the blade cuts both ways.
When it comes to the public display of their religion, elected officials have a very narrow sphere in which to function. As Kevin Kruse chronicles in his book One Nation, Under God, the particular form that religion is expected to take in the lives of our presidents is largely a construct of the 1930’s that crystallized in the 1950’s, driven by corporate interests opposed to New Deal era reforms. Kruse notes that under the Eisenhower era, there seemed to be a broad consensus of ambiguous deism, characterized by national prayers at the inauguration, the addition of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the distribution of Bibles in public schools, but this “unity under faith” drove separate sects and faiths apart when policy became local and specific. It was one thing to assume that the country was majority Christian and that it would welcome Bibles in schools; it was quite another to find a version of the Bible that would please everyone. “During the Eisenhower era,” Kruse writes, “Americans were told, time and time again, that the nation not only should be a Christian nation but also that it had always been one…And they’ve believed it ever since.” But not even all Christians were included under this umbrella, particularly not those running for president, as we’ll address later.
Even today, we limit our presidential candidates to a narrow margin of accepted religiosity, and we challenge anyone who does anything but straddle that precarious line of pseudo-secular American Protestantism.
During the 2016 General Election cycle, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump criticized his opponent Hillary Clinton’s lack of expressed religion.
“Now, she’s been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there’s no—there’s nothing out there,” said Trump in a closed meeting to top Christian leaders in June 2016. He reiterated as if his point were not clear enough: “There’s like nothing out there.”
By contrast, in the 2012 General Election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was criticized for his Mormon faith, even though Mormonism is a sect of Protestantism. Even Slate asserted that “Mitt the Mormon” needed to answer for “the bizarre beliefs of his church.” To add insult to injury, the same article also criticized Romney for complaining of ‘anti-Mormonism.’ These attacks forced Romney to publicly explain not only his relationship with faith, but his faith itself. His “Faith in America” speech underscored that “a person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.”
And this is not the first time a presidential candidate has had to defend his faith. On September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke to a group of Protestant ministers in response to accusations about his ability to “make important national decisions as president” because he was Catholic.
In affirming his dedication to America—and reminding his fellow citizens about the underpinnings [tradition] of religious freedom—JFK said, “this is the kind of America for which our forefathers died, when they fled here to escape religious test oaths that denied office to members of less favored churches.” He added that there were “real issues which should decide the campaign. And they are not religious issues—for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.”
In the looming threat of nuclear war, the country wanted to know whether its presidential nominee took his Christianity pre or post Reformation.
The absurdity of these cases lies in their contradiction of America’s proclaimed ethos of religious tolerance, because our country was founded on the premise of religious freedom.
Time and time again, immigrants and refugees have sought a place where they could openly and freely practice their religion—whatever form that took. Maryland was a haven for Catholics; William Penn founded Pennsylvania for the Quakers; puritan separatists seeking freedom of worship came to call Massachusetts Bay home. (Isn’t it interesting that we now refer to those puritan separatists as “pilgrims,” forever tying their immigration to the vocabulary of a religious journey, as if America were the sanctuary to which they made their pilgrimage?) And when Roger Williams left those very puritans to found Rhode Island, he did it expressly for the purpose of complete religious tolerance. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” he said.
Truly, is there anything more American than freedom and tolerance of different religious traditions (or lack thereof)?
So, why does a country founded on religious tolerance have so little room for deviation from the religious norm, whether that be in the president of the United States or the citizen who votes for her?
Perhaps a larger issue is the role of religion in the public in general. Religious language acts as a shibboleth—you must have precisely the right kind and right amount of religion to be trusted, and the words you use to describe your beliefs act as code words that can let you through gates of acceptance or deny you entry. In some circles, you may be looked at askance for not going to church. (How could you be trusted to babysit my children if you don’t sing the right hymns?) In others, your religious beliefs will condemn others to see you as unintelligent, prejudiced, unreasonable, biased, or hypocritical, backwards, irrational. (How can you be trusted to teach a science class if you believe in an ancient sacred text?)
Strikingly, the narrative of constructed American religiosity chronicled by Kruse functioned in part by laying claim to words in everyday parlance. For those politically aligned in Kruse’s camp, the word “freedom” meant nothing—even Communists could toss the word around as an empty phrase—but “Freedom Under God” communicated true liberty, true dedication to the vision of capitalistic, meritocratic piety, and American exceptionalism.
It is as though we as a society are confused about not only our elected officials, but also ourselves and the ways in which we are expected to present ourselves to the public. There’s a double standard in which we must at once be perfectly ‘rational,’ non-religious entities in order to be taken seriously, and yet have a moral compass to “make important national decisions”—with morals which, very likely, were formed by religious identities.
As Yale law professor Stephen Carter writes in his book, Culture of Disbelief: “We should stop the steady drumbeat, especially in our popular culture, for the proposition that the religiously devout are less rational than more ‘normal’ folks and that we should avoid the past assumptions, all too common in our rhetoric, that religion is more dangerous than other forces in American society and must therefore be carefully reined.”
Yet, President Donald Trump did exactly that within the first week of taking office. His Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States—or more commonly known as the “Muslim Ban”—reined the influx of immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries. It appears that one religion in particular has become politically marked as a “dangerous force” in American society. And that there is a certain class, certain identity of people who gets to decide who can and cannot cross the borders—the same borders that were once so porous to the Europeans fleeing religious persecution.
Immigration rhetoric in this country makes us wonder what type of crisis would unfold if someone from a minority, non-Christian religious background were elected to the highest office of the land. Perhaps, more than anything, it comes down to an issue of trust. Whom can we trust to lead our country, and to do what is best for our country? Can we not trust someone who does not reflect the most prevalent American religious beliefs? We can, and we should, because that is what it means to be American. The refracting light that intersects within our prism of contradiction should bend such that they may illuminate a path of deeper acceptance of our fellow Americans.