The issue of Mitt Romney's Mormon faith and how it might influence him as president has dominated the nation's airwaves and chat rooms for months. Of much greater relevance to the tradition of church-state separation, however, is Mike Huckabee. Is it appropriate to elect a minister of the gospel as president of the United States?
Huckabee, a former governor, is utterly open about being a Baptist pastor. His faith, in fact, is his political meal ticket. Before entering politics, he served several congregations and then as president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. More tellingly, he appears to view his foray into government service as a strategy to leverage his Christian creed.
"Government knows it does not have the answer, but it's arrogant and acts as though it does," Huckabee told a convention of Baptist preachers in 1998, when he was governor of Arkansas. "Church does have the answer but will cowardly deny that it does and wonder when the world will be changed." To redeem the fallen government, Gov. Huckabee issued a religious call to arms: “I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."
If you think that kind of talk is well suited for the pulpit but ill-suited for the White House, you’re not alone. American ambivalence toward reverend politicians stems back to the nation's founding. Elected in 1775, the Rev. John Zubly, a Georgia Presbyterian émigré from Switzerland, was the first man of the cloth to serve in the Continental Congress. John Adams groused to his wife, “I cannot but wish he may be the last.”
Zubly was on a mission. God, he believed, had called him to Congress to elevate America into a Christian nation. “A republican government,” Dr. Zubly avowed, “is little better than [a] government of devils.” Into the howling wind of a British military occupation, he irrelevantly preached that civil liberty was worthless as long as the people remained slaves to lust. The good reverend's political service to his country was short lived. His frustration with Congress's impious agenda drove Rev. Zubly home, first to Georgia and then into the arms of the Tories.
Later, the Rev. John Witherspoon entered the Continental Congress, serving as ably there as he did in his role as president of Princeton College. Widely respected by his colleagues, he went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. Unlike Zubly, Witherspoon championed church-state separation. He was never tempted to confuse his clerical role with his political one.
Contrasting the first two clergymen to serve our nation in Congress offers a criterion by which modern reverend politicians like Huckabee should be judged. The question is not, “Are clergy capable of performing state business?” It is, “Are clergy able to subordinate the specific tenets of their faith to the broad demands imposed by their constitutional oath?” When he assumed his governmental duties, Witherspoon was able to look beyond the pages of his Bible; Zubly was not.