Blogs > Cliopatria > God, ministers, and politics

May 23, 2008 4:49 pm


God, ministers, and politics



If God intervenes in presidential politics, he or she does so discretely. That’s frustrating to those candidates who want God’s endorsement. So they turn to the Supreme Deity’s local representatives. Alas, as Barack Obama and John McCain have learned recently, the local representatives are all too human. They are not necessarily more bigoted than the rest of the population, but they speak in public a lot. The most successful ones play to their audiences emotions, and those public displays generate lots and lots of verifiable quotes. Just a few nasty quotes can skunk a long-sought endorsement.

Once upon a time American politicians were not always so eager to have the clergy involved in politics. A number of antebellum state constitutions banned active ministers and priests from holding political office. This ban had its roots in the rejection of state-sponsored religion, particularly in the former colonies where the Anglican Church had been strong. It was reinforced in the late antebellum era, at least in a few places, by the association of the antislavery movement with some northern ministries.

In parts of the North, the antipathy that many mainstream politicians had for evangelicals pushing issues like temperance was quite high in the 1840s and 1850s. Of course, the efforts by some northern evangelicals to increase their political influence in the face of such antipathy was one factor in the creation of the Republican Party.

A ban on active clergymen holding office would be unconstitutional today, and rightly so. More practically, truly enforcing such a ban—and I’m not sure that one was ever put to the test—would require government to figure out just who is or who isn’t an active minister. That might even be harder to figure out than whether or not some bloggers are journalists.

Still, religion is not going to leave the current campaign. The recent California Supreme Court decision on gay marriage has energized many conservative Christians who are part of the Republican’s base. Whether the issue will have the same traction this year as in 2004, I doubt, but on balance it is still likely to help McCain some, if only by getting some of those Republican evangelicals who are suspicious of him to vote anyway.


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