During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina advocated the addition of the following phrase: “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the U. States,” prompting a brief but intense examination of the role of faith in politics from the earliest days of American history. Those against the phrase believed that Enlightenment liberalism negated the need for such a test. Advocates of the phrase believed the requirement of a federal ban on religious tests would preserve the tests already practiced by the states at the time.

Fresh from their own contentious state conventions, the delegates sought to avoid the subject of religion in the Constitution. They trusted that the practice of religious freedom in general would prevent any one sect from dominating all others and casting undue influence over politics.

The honeymoon of religion-free politics was short-lived, however. Just three years later, a de facto religious test dominated the 1800 presidential election. Thomas Jefferson believed firmly in a private faith, between a man and his God. John Adams advocated that faith belonged in the public sphere, with the ultimate goal of preserving morality. Adams explained his loss of the presidency by reasoning that Jefferson’s camp framed the election in terms of religious liberty or religious orthodoxy; given those options, Adams, years later, didn’t fault the American people for choosing religious freedom over the risk of the establishment of a national faith.

Now, more than 200 years later, much has been made of religion in this current election cycle. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, the two have in fact had a long, convoluted, intertwined history, as explored by Frank Lambert in his new book, Religion in American Politics: A Short History. While no official faith-based litmus test has ever been established for those running for elected office, Lambert, a history professor at Purdue University, posits that the influence of religion is, and has been, both foreground and background in American politics.

In America’s early days, the Founding Fathers put their trust in the idea that religious pluralism would defend against any one sect or faith becoming too powerful. This was despite the fact that vying factions argued either that it was folly for the young nation not to acknowledge the work of providence in its creation, or, in order to avoid widespread religious conflict and oppression, that it was critical that no religion be nationally established. The resulting lack of federal — and later state — support mobilized religious groups to work within the political system to achieve their goals.

The role of religion in American life, and politics in particular, has resurfaced numerous times throughout American history. In his book, Lambert examines the roots, evolution, and developments of this relationship through the days of westward expansion, the rise of industrialism, the Gilded Age, post World War II, the rise of the conservative-leaning Moral Majority of the 1980s, and the dynamic between the Religious Right and the Religious Left as we approach the 2008 election.

Time and time again, the issue of faith has shaped and influenced American history. In the early 1800s, congressional approval of Sunday mail delivery was seen as a choice between the obligation of a Christian nation to keep the Sabbath holy and the federal government’s obligation to provide a national economy with the infrastructure necessary for growth. The Scopes trial of 1925 crystallized the conflict between science and religion, as John Scopes stood trial for violating the law that prohibited the teaching of Darwinism in public schools. Meanwhile, religious groups of the day resisted the growing influence of scientific thought on the basic tenets of faith — for example, the view of the Bible as a historical document instead of God’s literal word, or the use of technology in the form of radio with the growing influence of orators who celebrated their faith and motivated their followers.

In the 1960 election cycle, voters rejected an unofficial religious test in the Nixon/Kennedy race, merely requiring that their candidates reflect general Protestant heritage and values — a civil religion — allowing for the election of the Catholic Kennedy. Twenty years later, born-again Christian President Jimmy Carter, seen as a man of character and values, and who was elected in the wake of the turbulent Nixon administration, was repudiated by evangelical supporters after he failed to align his administration with their goals. This was another watershed moment at the crossroads of religion and politics that contributed to the dominance of Moral Majority in the American political landscape of the 1980s. It also contributed later to the election of George W. Bush, a candidate who, in effect, responded affirmatively to an unspoken religious test, an assurance to conservative Christians and evangelicals that his goals and theirs were aligned.

Lambert examines the centuries-long evolution of the relationship between politics and religion, and its ebb and flow in response to social, cultural, and economic concerns. His work shows that the arguments made by the Founding Fathers as a basis for their foregoing a religious litmus test, that religious conflict would jeopardize the “more perfect Union” that they’d worked so hard to attain, show an eerie presentiment. As the political right and left ratchet up their rhetoric in the run up to the 2008 presidential election, there is a divisive religious undercurrent that remains.

In 2007, the signs were clear that the unofficial religious test still existed as mainstream media reported on voters’ concern about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. He stated in a December 2007 speech at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library that “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.” And in early 2008, Barack Obama, who had been quoted in 2006 as saying that it is a “mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people,” was forced to defend his membership at Trinity United Church after the pastor of the church was reported to have made racially divisive statements.

The eight major eras Lambert chooses to examine more closely in his book reflect times of great change and opportunity in America — economically, politically, and socially — which is expressed in both politics and religion. The book weakens slightly in the middle, but is buttressed by a very strong beginning and ending.

Perhaps Lambert’s most successful achievement with his book is the correction of the perception that this phenomenon is anything new, or that it will go away any time soon. The book is light on suggestions for a resolution; but Lambert’s framing of his discussions so firmly in American history seems to suggest that only by reigning in all sides, in keeping with the Founding Fathers’ original intentions, can the tide of increasing vitriol be stemmed.

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