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.
Adams was not the only founder to look askance at clerical meddling with government business. George Washington opposed all forms of religious lobbying. He would have recoiled at any reverend politician who bathed the Constitution in a scriptural light.
Thomas Jefferson flip-flopped on the subject. Having been burned by figurative brimstone from New England pulpits, Jefferson declared near the end of his life that preachers who dabbled in politics were guilty of “a breech of contract.” But at the outset of his presidency, he wrote that ministers who had “absorbed democratic principles” and therefore had “relinquished all pretensions to privilege,” ought to possess the same right to stand for office as lawyers or doctors.
By “pretensions to privilege,” Jefferson was alluding to the established churches' earlier religious sway in governmental affairs. Those days were now over. “Democratic principles,” as codified in the Constitution, encompassed full religious liberty, placing all citizens on an equal standing, regardless of faith. All citizens, Jefferson seems to be saying, are entitled to serve their country by standing for public office, but not, as Huckabee would have it, “to take this nation back for Christ.”
Two founders actually voted on the question of whether clergy should be permitted to serve as legislators. In the Virginia Constitution Convention of 1829, delegate James Monroe supported a motion that “no minister of the Gospel or Priest of any denomination… be eligible to either House of the General Assembly,” while James Madison voted “Nay.” The Ayes had it, 81 to 14, a vote expressive of the Southern attitude toward reverend politicians throughout much of the nineteenth century.
At one time or another, 13 states (all but one either in the South or a border state) have adopted clauses in their Constitutions prohibiting clergy from holding political office. Even in states where the clergy were free to stand for office, church leaders routinely looked askance at clerics who appeared too eager to entangle themselves in worldly concerns. In Illinois, the Rev. Peter Cartwright, the Methodist politico whom Abraham Lincoln defeated for Congress in 1844, simultaneously risked losing his standing in the Methodist Church. Neither Baptists nor Methodists approved their pastors profaning the clerical office by standing for any other than divine election.
Strictly speaking, Mike Huckabee would not be the first Christian clergyman to serve as president. James Garfield preached on occasion in his youth and was even ordained by the Disciples of Christ. Disciples granted ordinations quite casually, however, requiring no special theological training. Years later, Garfield's strict defense of church-state separation rendered moot any lingering question as to where his primary loyalties might lie.
Chief Justice Warren Berger was certainly correct when he ruled that state laws against ministers running for public office deny this group of citizens their full civil rights. On the other hand, is it really fair to expect a minister of the gospel to take an oath that may bind him to betray his fidelity to a higher law in order to fulfill his civic responsibilities?
Thomas Jefferson's standards remain the best benchmarks for voters to follow, when they consider the credentials of reverend politicians who present themselves to the voters. Have they “absorbed democratic principles?” And do they relinquish “all pretensions to privilege?”
In his address on “Faith in America,” Gov. Mitt Romney made it clear that he would answer, as president, not to his church but to the America people. Huckabee, meanwhile, invoking Jesus on the campaign trail, has said, “I can say that I have one client I have to please.”
We must ask ourselves whether a candidate who advertises himself as “a Christian leader” and declares himself answerable only to Christ has, in fact, “absorbed democratic principles” well enough to serve as president of all the people. To preserve the institutions bequeathed to us by our founders, we must be certain that our next president intends to swear on the Bible to uphold the Constitution, not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible.