Presidential Election 2008: Politics & Religion

January 3, 2008

The role of religion in politics has become a controversial 2008 election issue. Following an introductory quiz, three student readings address the Constitution and the founders on religion, presidential candidates' speeches on faith and politics, and the appropriateness of religious questions directed to candidates.

The role of religion in politics has become a controversial 2008 election issue. Republican candidate Mitt Romney felt compelled to respond to questions about his faith. Debate moderators asked about religion and faith. A campaign ad for candidate Mike Huckabee flashed the words "CHRISTIAN LEADER." Meanwhile, one survey reported that a majority of Americans believe the founders of the U.S. intended it to be a Christian nation.

Below is an introductory quiz for students on the question of politics and religion. Following it, three student readings address: 1) the Constitution and the founders on religion, 2) presidential candidates' speeches on faith and politics, and 3) the appropriateness of religious questions directed to candidates.

See "Teaching on Controversial Issues" on this website for suggestions on handling sensitive topics such as this one. For further background on the church-state issue, see also "Separation of Church & State: Four Case Studies."

Church and State: An introductory quiz

Before each number write T (True), F (False) or U (Uncertain)

1. To run for the U.S. presidency, a candidate must belong to an established religion.

2. The founders of the United States intended it to be a Christian nation.

3. Congress appropriates money for the use and support of religious groups.

4. The words "God" and "Christianity" appear in the Constitution.


All of the statements in the quiz are false.
1) See the quotations in Reading 1 from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
2) See "Presidents Washington and Adams on Christianity, below.
3) See the First Amendment.
4) See the Constitution. The appearance on US currency of the words "In God We Trust" and the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance began in the 1950s after Congressional legislation.


Student Reading 1:

Religion, the Constitution and the founders of the US

Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the founders of the U.S. intended that it be a Christian nation, according to a survey released by the First Amendment Center (9/11/07,

But is this majority view correct? Here are some quotations from the Constitution and from the views of the first four U.S. presidents.

Constitution of the United States:

Senators and representatives, the members of the state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers "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."
—Article VI

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
—First Amendment to the Constitution

U.S.-Tripoli Treaty:

"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion—and as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony between the two countries.'
— From the treaty of 1796-1797 between the United States and Tripoli, which was negotiated by the Washington Administration, ratified by the Senate, and proclaimed by President Adams on June 10, 1797. (See Irving Brant, The Bill of Rights: Its Origins and Meaning. )

President Thomas Jefferson:

In the First Amendment, the United States has built "a wall of separation between church and state."
—President Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association, 1802

President James Madison:

In 1811, Congress passed a bill reserving five acres worth about $10 for a Baptist meeting house on public lands. President Madison vetoed the measure because it would be a precedent for appropriating U.S. funds "for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment." President Madison was also chief author of the Bill of Rights.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What meanings do you give to the words "no religious test" and "no law respecting an establishment of religion"? Ask students to consider the following two situations:
a) A state pays for the transportation of students attending religious schools.
b) A state provides a prayer for students to recite at the beginning of the school day.

In your opinion, does either state action violate the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment? Why or why not? (Note: Each of these cases and the Supreme Court decisions on them is discussed in "Separation of Church & State: Four Case Studies" on this website.)

3. Why do you suppose that the US government thought it necessary to emphasize in its treaty with Tripoli that the nation "is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion"?

4. Do you think the following actions would breach "a wall of separation between church and state"? Why or why not?
a) A president concludes a speech to the nation with the words, "God bless our nation."
b) Congress passes a bill that appropriates money to support the rebuilding of a church, synagogue or mosque destroyed in a hurricane.

5. What do you think congressional legislation reserving five acres for a Baptist meeting house had to do with "an establishment of religion" in President Madison's mind? Do you agree with his veto? Why or why not?


Student Reading 2:

Presidential candidates on church and state

John Kennedy

In 1928, Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic to run for president, and he lost, in good part, because a fair number of Americans would not accept a Roman Catholic as their leader. Some believed his election would give the Pope power over the U.S.

In 1960, John Kennedy wanted to head off a similar result and decided to address the issue of his Roman Catholicism directly. Below are excerpts from his speech to Southern Baptist ministers on September 12, 1960.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either request or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

"I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice."

"I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office."

"Whatever issue may come before me as president-on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interests, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney is a Mormon—that is, he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the religion is formally designated. He is the first Mormon to run for president.

Romney fell behind Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, in Iowa polls published in late November. A Newsweek poll of 1,406 Iowans asked registered voters the following question: "Do you consider people of the Mormon faith to be Christian?" 57% of respondents said yes, 27% said no, and 16% said "don't know."

After some months of hesitation and probably experiencing pressures similar to those John Kennedy had felt, Romney decided to speak publicly about his religious faith before his supporters at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on December 5, 2007. An excerpt:

"There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams' words, 'Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.'"

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom....Freedom and religion endure together or perish alone."

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or any church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs within the province of church affairs and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

"There is one fundamental about which I am often asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind."

"We separate church and state in this country for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It's as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in American-the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'under God' and in God we do indeed trust."

"Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion—rather we welcome our nation's symphony of faith."

Barack Obama

The only other presidential candidate to address religion and politics at length is Barack Obama, but he did so before becoming a candidate. He has said he was "not raised in a religious household," but as an adult he became a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ. He made the following comments in a speech before the Call to Renewal Conference sponsored by Sojourners on June 28, 2006.

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject o argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, and those with no faith at all."

"Politics depends upon an ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible."

"A sense of proportion should guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach in the wall of separation—context matters. It is doubtful that children feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase 'under God.' I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat."


For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. John Kennedy said a president's religious views should be "his own private affair." Do Romney and Obama agree? Why or why not?

3. Do you think that Kennedy would agree with Obama's view that the use of school property
for voluntary prayer groups is not "a breach in the wall of separation"? Why or why not? Would Kennedy agree with Romney's warning about "the religion of secularism"? Why or why not? How would you explain what Romney means by the "religion of secularism"?

4. What significance might there be in the audience these candidates chose for presenting their speeches?

5. Do you agree with John Adams' quote in Romney's speech? Why or why not? Does morality require religious belief? Why or why not? Does freedom require religion? Consider not only the experience of the US, but the experience of other countries: Iran, Sweden, Saudi Arabia...

6. Do Romney and Obama agree about the "acknowledgement of God" in the public domain? Do you agree? Why or why not?

7. What words does Romney cite for his view that the founders "did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square"? What is the source of these words?

8. Why do you suppose that Obama believes that on an issue like abortion a leader must not invoke religious reasons to support his or her opinion but rather a principle that "people of all faiths and those with no faith at all" might accept? Do you agree? Why or why not?


Student Reading 3:

The role of religion in the presidential campaign

New York Times editorial, 12/7/07:

"The authors of the Constitution knew that requiring specific declarations of religious belief (like Mr. Romney saying he believes Jesus was the son of God) is a step toward imposing that belief on all Americans. That is why they wrote in Article VI that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Online responses to the Times editorial:

"Once, just once, I'd like to hear a candidate, when asked about his or her religious beliefs, reply: 'My religious beliefs are none of your business. Our form of government rightfully requires that government take no part in promoting religious beliefs.'" —Steve Emmons

"I am an atheist. I served in the military. I want a president who considers me just as worthy an American as anyone else. 'Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.' The latter may be true, Mr. Romney, but the former most certainly is not." —Brent Danley

A debate question

In a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube, one person made this comment, while holding up the Bible: "This question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book?"

On the WNBC program "Hardball," host Chris Matthews asked candidate Mike Huckabee about this and other questions like it.

Matthews: "[The Constitution] says there should be no religious test ever required as qualification to any office or public trust...Why are you Republican candidates submitting to religious vetting about your belief in the literal nature of the Bible? Why put up with those kinds of questions?"

Huckabee: "Well, Chris, when guys like you quit asking it, we'll quit answering it....If we act like we're not going to answer them, then we're going to get hammered for being unwilling to address the questions that are put to us. So that's why I keep answering them."

Huckabee campaign ad

"Faith doesn't just influence me. It really defines me. I don't have to wake up every day wondering, 'What do I need to believe?'"
—Campaign ad for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and former Baptist minister. As he's speaking the screen flashes in capital letters the words, "CHRISTIAN LEADER."

McCain statement

"The Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation."
—John McCain, interview with Beliefnet

"Appropriate" and "relevant" questions

"I think you can ask a Quaker, for example, 'Are you capable of being commander-in-chief?' Or, 'Are you a pacifist?'....I think you can ask a Jew, 'Are you able if you're Orthodox to serve and act as president on the Sabbath?' But I don't think 'Do you believe in Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind?' is an appropriate question or that it should be answered." [What's missing from all this talk about religion and politics] is its relevance to governance— an explanation for why these questions should matter in our assessment of who should be president."
—Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, 12/7/07)

"Religion is particularly relevant when it has bearing on policy matters. Whether we should teach, for example, intelligent design, in our public schools. The soul of religious freedom [is] the freedom to choose or reject God. And, really, if we're honest with ourselves, those of us who believe in a Christian faith, there's no real evangelism without recognizing that a person has a freedom to either respond to God's call or to reject God's call. That's a personal decision that is made. And we always have wanted in our country, and in our best have always tried, to ensure that we protect both the freedom to choose religion and the freedom to reject religion. One can be deeply, deeply religious and fight tooth and nail for his neighbor or her neighbor whose mind or conscience has not been swayed in the same way."
—Melissa Rogers, Director of Center for Religion and Public Affairs at the Divinity School, Wake Forest University and former counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, 12/7/07)

For discussion

1. What questions do you have on the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Do you agree with one, both or neither of the two comments about the Times editorial? Why or why not?

3. Imagine yourself a presidential candidate. How, if at all, would you have answered the question about the Bible?

4. Would it have been appropriate for Huckabee to refuse to answer the question about the Bible? Why or why not?

5. Kathleen Hall Jamieson said that what is missing from the current discussion about religion in politics is its "relevance to governance." If you agree, which of the following possible questions for candidates do you think would be "relevant to governance" and why?
- What does your religion have to say about stem cell research and would you uphold that view?
- Would your religion's views on abortion affect your selection of a new member of the Supreme Court? If so, how? If not, why not?

6. Do you think Huckabee's ad with the words "CHRISTIAN LEADER" unfairly injects religion into politics? Why or why not?

7. In the light of these readings, what question would you ask McCain?


For inquiry

1. Since most of the founders of the United States regarded themselves as Christians, why didn't they include the words "God" and "Christianity" in the Constitution?

2. Is President Bush's faith-based initiative a violation of the First Amendment?

3. Is studying the theory of intelligent design appropriate in a public school? Why or why not?

4. Would a non-denominational prayer to begin the school day in American public schools be supported by the Constitution?

5. What are the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the major beliefs of its members?


For writing

Write a well-organized paper with an introduction, middle, and conclusion in which you discuss your understanding of how Article VI of the Constitution and the First Amendment to the Constitution should be interpreted.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: