An express trains speeds past Ramsey station in this 2003 photo, ruffling Mayor Richard Muti's jacket, but not the mayor.

IN MY OPINION . . .

The God Factor in Politics

May 4, 2016

Tags: politics and religion

After his recent double-digit win in the Wisconsin Republican primary, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., TX) opened his victory speech with the same words he's employed after every other victory, changing only the state name: "God bless the State of Wisconsin," he shouted to a cheering throng.

Cruz, the son of a Baptist minister, has tailored his presidential campaign to specifically target evangelical Christians, who comprise the largest segment of the Republican base, using not only his personal piety, which appears to be genuine, but also his anti-abortion stance and fervent defense of traditional marriage, the two issues that matter most to religious voters. Non-Christian religious voters get the same attention. Cruz recently visited a bakery in a Hasidic section of Brooklyn and went through the motions of making matzo, the unleavened bread that is traditionally part of the Jewish Passover celebration. During the matzo-making process, he was inspired to call out, "Next year in Jerusalem," the prayerful toast devout Jews give after the Seder dinner.

Businessman Donald Trump, whose adult lifestyle for the past 50 years has hardly been a model of Christian piety, courted Iowan evangelicals by touting his Presbyterian upbringing and holding aloft at rallies his very own childhood Bible. "Nothing beats the Bible," he assured the crowd, relegating his own best-selling "The Art of the Deal" to second place in the Trump hierarchy of all-time great books—Trump's only concession to humility in this entire campaign.

Gov. John Kasich (R., OH), the third Republican still in the race, has taken a more low-key approach to mixing religion and politics, as have the two remaining aspirants for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D., VT).

Most candidates in the crowded Republican field at the start of this election cycle fell into the Cruz-Trump mold of religiosity, despite a recent Gallup poll that showed Americans becoming less religious over the past six decades. Those identifying themselves as Protestants in 2015 (38 percent) were just above half the number in that category in 1948 (69 percent); Catholics fared better over the same span, holding steady at about 23 percent. Other denominations were in the low single-digits. The fastest growing segment involved those who claimed no religion at all, increasing from 2 percent to 17 percent.

One has to wonder at the reaction of the founding fathers, if suddenly transported to this future America, where religion so pervades politics. Thomas Jefferson would likely be horrified . . . but then again, maybe not. As the leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, forerunner of today's Democratic Party, Jefferson was branded an atheist in the heated presidential contests of 1796 and 1800 by members of John Adams's rival Federalist Party, despite Jefferson's four references to God in the Declaration of Independence.

Raised in the Anglican Church, Jefferson gave his political enemies ammunition to challenge his religious faith, including this advice to a nephew: "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." Expounding on the role of religion in government, Jefferson was clear. "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others," he wrote, in Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, "but it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Our third president was probably not an atheist, but he certainly was not a Christian either. His religious philosophy was more in line with deism, a belief in divine creation without further involvement of the Creator in the affairs of mankind. Benjamin Franklin held similar beliefs and was similarly suspected by John Adams of being an atheist.

Whether men of faith or not, the founding fathers were near unanimous in their espousal of the separation of church and state. Even before the First Amendment protections of religious liberty were enacted, Article VI of the Constitution provided that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

In Federalist 10, James Madison propounded a litany of ills that had "divided mankind into parties [and] inflamed them with mutual animosity and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppose each other than to cooperate for their common good." At the head of Madison's list was "[a] zeal for different opinions concerning religion."

Those men who sat in Philadelphia that steamy summer of 1787 to craft what would become the world's oldest written constitution were not far removed from the bloody religious conflicts not only in the England of their forebears but also across the continent of Europe. They were determined to remove the temptation for such conflict in the founding document of their newly created republic. Most states followed suit in their own individual constitutions.

The New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 also prohibits any religious test to hold state office or other position of public trust, but the language in that document clearly encourages a more spiritual outlook among the state's citizenry. While the U.S. Constitution makes no reference to God or a Supreme Being, New Jersey's constitution is not so restrained, proclaiming that "No person shall be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience." No particular religious sect shall be given preference, but worship of an "Almighty God" is clearly the defining precept in New Jersey.

For the first 139 years under the federal Constitution, every presidential candidate of a major party has been an avowed member of one of the Protestant sects. That changed in 1928 when Al Smith, the Democratic governor of New York, lost by a wide margin to Herbert Hoover, primarily because of Smith's Catholic faith. The Protestant majority in America did not want a leader who, in its mind, answered to a foreign Pope. Thirty-two years later, Sen. John Kennedy (D., MA) erased that electoral stigma by eking out a narrow victory over then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

In 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., CT) became the first Jew nominated by a major party when Al Gore chose him as his running mate. Gore and Lieberman actually won the popular balloting by more than 500,000 votes, but lost in the Electoral College when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida and handed the election to the Bush-Cheney ticket. Mitt Romney gained the Republican nomination in 2012, a first for a Mormon, but lost the general election to President Barack Obama.

Many Americans these days seem tolerant of whatever religion a presidential candidate chooses to follow, provided that the candidate has affirmatively chosen a religion. The degree of religious fervor seems not to matter. The degree of religious fervor seems not to matter. Joe Lieberman, for example, was an Orthodox Jew; Bernie Sanders is a non-practicing Jew. Ted Cruz wears his religion on his sleeve . . . and every other piece of apparel, while Donald Trump's religious emblems seem like Velcro patches, easily removable when no longer important to his purpose.

But there is hope for the closet atheists among us who are aspiring politicians, as well as the growing number of non-believers willing to be open about their lack of religious beliefs. A new Gallup poll out this year shows that 58 percent of Americans are now willing to vote for an avowed atheist, up 40 percentage points from 1958, when just 18 percent expressed that view.

The prohibition against any religious test being a barrier to holding office in this country may soon be a reality, rather than just a worthy principle espoused by the founding fathers so long ago.

Selected Works

Biography
A fast-paced, one-volume study of the most fascinating entertainer of the 20th century. The book isn't an academic tome, although it is extensively researched and footnoted; rather, it is designed to be a highly readable page-turner, for avid Sinatraphiles as well as more casual fans of his music and films. It examines the forces, both positive and negative, that made Sinatra Sinatra, with special attention given to the love-hate relationship he maintained toward Hoboken and New Jersey for most of his life. He once called the city of his birth a "sewer," but later observed, "When I was there, I just wanted to get out. It took me a long time to realize how much of it I took with me."
Essays
"Richard Muti's essays are smart and provocative, personal and political."
–Linda Fairstein, former prosecutor
and crime novelist
As this eBook is published, Gov. Chris Christie enjoys a 72 percent approval rating, the highest level attained by any governor in New Jersey history. Yet, the man still evokes passionate feelings from supporters and foes, alike.
"Much needed fresh air out of New Jersey, where the political atmosphere has long been foul."
Kirkus Discoveries
True Crime
"The Charmer is definitely one of 2012's 'must read' books."
True Crime Book Reviews
Novel
Filled with “brilliant plot twists, vivid descriptions, and great dialogue, with a smooth, easy-to-read writing style.”

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