Religion Matters

There has been a lot of strong, hostile reaction from conservatives to the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. Some preached non-compliance before the law, or as the Washington Times described Mike Huckabee's position, citizens should just "ignore it." The former Arkansas governor declared, "I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch." At the local level in Alabama, Fred Hamic, the elected probate judge in rural Geneva County, stated flatly, "I will not be doing any more ceremonies," rather than preside over the betrothal of these couples.

The overriding sense from these arguments is that religion trumps civil law. Bobby Jindahl asserted that, "Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that." Judge Hamic based his decision on interpretation of holy text: "If you read your Bible, sir, then you know the logic. The Bible says a man laying with a man or a woman laying with a woman is an abomination to God."

Put another way, they are arguing that there is a balance between loyalty to one's faith and to the U. S. Constitution. And that the former takes precedence over the latter. The right declares that good citizenship demands that being loyal to religion is a priority, especially for leaders, over upholding one's civic responsibilities.

The issue of this balance, and where the right has stood on this, has come up before in American politics. In 1928 Alfred E. Smith ran for president, the first Roman Catholic to do so on a major party ticket. For Smith--a devout member of his faith--there was no question of which allegiance had primacy--his civic duty came first, a practice he had followed for decades. Years before the presidential run, as a state legislator Smith was confronted by a priest who wanted exemption for his church from fire codes. Smith calmly responded that these statutes were there to protect the parishioners, and generously offered to arrange a fundraiser to pay for the changes.

Notwithstanding this record, the right accused Smith--loudly and profanely--of being a danger to America because he might choose his religion over the laws of the state, the same point the right is making now. Sadly, in what was actually one of the more elevated moments of the anti-Smith campaign, Atlantic Monthly highlighted on its cover an article by Charles C. Marshall, a legal expert, that claimed that Catholics should all be barred from holding political or judicial office because of what he felt was their dual allegiance to the pope and to U.S. law.

After that it went downhill. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, assistant attorney general of the United States in charge of prohibition, delivered a partisan speech in that presidential year. Willebrandt, who referred to Abraham Lincoln first and foremost as "the greatest Anglo-Saxon", told an audience of twenty-five hundred Methodist minsters that Smith "was the one Governor in all of the American states who, notwithstanding his oath to support the Constitution of the United States, pulled down one of the...pillars the people had erected for its support." She then urged the ministers to organize their flocks in a crusade against Smith and to vote for his opponent, Herbert Hoover. The editors of Christian Century, a leading magazine of that era, wrote that they could not "look with unconcern upon the seating of a representative of an alien culture, of a medieval Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of the President of the United States." There was in fact, they claimed, "a real issue between Catholicism and American institutions."

That last sentence is particularly important, because it is exactly the argument the right is making now, that there is a contest between faith and the U.S. Constitution. In 1928 they decried a figure they falsely accused of standing by his church first and foremost. This time, however, they are taking the one-hundred-eighty opposite position. In American history, what one's religion is truly matters.