If you’re my age, it is sometimes easy to forget just how distant the 1980s have become. And then something comes along, an anniversary, a death, a Men at Work song, and you suddenly realize that a quarter of a century has elapsed since the cool kids were programming their Sony Betamax to preserve each episode of Miami Vice. Or maybe you're talking about the day the Space Shuttle exploded, and someone asks, "Which one?"
Another of these moments of realization came just a few weeks ago when the withered ghost of Pat Robertson appeared on a stage somewhere to endorse for president a man who, by Robertson's own standards, professes comfort with the notion that women should be permitted to kill their unborn children. The old reverend had worked his entire career to banish people like Rudy Giuliani from public life, and yet there he was taking one last, desperate stab at relevance by giving the press its daily man bites dog story. He probably had to go wash Rudy's car in the parking lot afterward.
Not long before Robertson's well-earned day of humiliation, the press announced the death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a fellow Virginian and one-time co-leader of the movement to mobilize evangelical Christians for partisan ends. During the last thirty years of his life, Falwell had fallen from rock star to sideshow, popping into our consciousness now and again to embarrass himself by weighing in on the sexual preferences of Teletubbies. In the obituaries that followed his passing, many reporters felt compelled to explain to younger readers who Falwell had been and why he was once so much more than just Tinky Winky's nemesis
Still, while both Robertson and Falwell were fittingly condemned to reach their twilight years more as curiosities than celebrities, their original cause—the politicization of Christianity—has been a fabulous success. We live in their world today, one in which candidates compete with one another to claim the most fervent religious conviction and in which millions of American Christians regard the voting machine as an instrument of God's will. Thirty years ago, Jimmy Carter's profession of born-again faith was considered exotic and, to some, troubling. Today, it is rare to find any serious candidate who does not confess a personal relationship with his or her savior.
In the process, we have once again learned why the Framers of the Constitution included the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, discouraging entanglements between church and state. When faith becomes a campaign talking point, it becomes a political issue. And as a political issue, it becomes something to explore, dissect, and debate. In the process, both religion and government are diminished.
When John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was challenged in 1960, the contentious issue (other than bigotry) involved whether or not JFK was willing to separate his personal fealty to Rome from his civic duties as President of the United States. When he answered that question in the affirmative, the concern largely receded, though prejudice no doubt dampened his vote totals anyhow. At the time, nobody wanted to hear about the depth of Kennedy's commitment to his church; rather, they sought reassurance that he would keep that faith firmly sequestered in the East Wing—the family quarters—of the White House.
By contrast, nobody today would dream of asking Mitt Romney whether he intends, as president, to take his marching orders from the alpha temple in Salt Lake City. Any reporter who dared to suggest such a thing would be accused of fomenting religious intolerance and read out of the profession. Perhaps this is a good thing, evidence that the sort of ignorance that Kennedy faced nearly fifty years ago is nearing extinction. Or, to be less optimistic, maybe this simply demonstrates that faith and public policy have become so intertwined during the intervening half century that the question no longer makes any sense.
Instead, and bizarrely, the concern about Romney's religion centers mainly on the fact that a lot of Americans find the Mormon faith itself to be strange. There's Joseph Smith and the seer stones, the location of the Garden of Eden in suburban Kansas City, and the long-time (though now renounced) practice of polygamy. Jacob Weissberg of Slate.com went so far as to argue that devout Mormons should, by the very nature of their doctrine, be disqualified for the presidency, calling the faith "Scientology plus 125 years".
Thus has the life's work of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell slowly but inevitably poisoned our national discourse. Of all the responses Romney can give to his critics, the least acceptable would be, "That's none of your business." He cannot do so because people like Robertson and Falwell, Reagan and the Bushes, and—let's be fair—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have turned JFK's hard-won victory on its head. Religious conviction, once honored by politicians only in generic terms, has become the wellspring from which all policy and philosophy are expected to flow. So elevated, how can the discussion of religious tenets possibly be off limits?
When the candidates in both parties' recent debates were asked (offensively, in my view) to name their favorite verse from the Bible, nobody mentioned the passage about reaping what you sow. In this case, however, it seems depressingly appropriate. Religion has become fair game in a manner that would have been unthinkable just one generation ago. Today, we demand that Giuliani square his divorces with his Catholicism. We expect Mike Huckabee to justify a fundamentalist viewpoint that rejects the science of evolution. We force Hillary Clinton, the daughter of mainline Midwestern Protestants, to speak of her religion in near-evangelical terms, as though it were she who had dragged Bill to Arkansas. And, of course, there's the highly inappropriate question of whether Romney wears the temple garments ("Mormon underwear", to the less decorous) beneath his unwrinkled, tailored suits.
The Establishment Clause was not added to the Constitution in the interests of secular humanists or atheists. It was added, at least in part, because the Framers well understood that the interests of neither government nor religion are served by inserting faith into the inherently filthy business of electioneering. Robertson and Falwell were men of great ambition who sought and gained power by blurring the lines between church and state, and persuading parishioners that God takes sides in earthly politics. The damage they have done will long outlive them.