Secularists or Christian? The Religious Lives of American Political Candidates in the Public Sphere

In my book, "Religion in America. A Political History" (Columbia University Press, 2011, translated by George Holoch with a foreword by Tony Judt), I attempt to explain the coexistence of two opposed political trends: a religious tradition that invites US politicians to talk openly about their faith and another tradition that insists on the necessity of preserving a real separation of church and state in America. These two traditions are based on rival narratives of the origin and essence of the American democracy: (1) the narrative of a secular Republic, defended by the Founding Fathers at the end of the 18th century and (2) the Neo-Puritan narrative of a government based on Christian roots, defended at the beginning of the 19th century by New England historians and politicians, among them John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and George Bancroft.

The current US electoral debate reveals the remarkable persistence of these two narratives of identity building. When Mitt Romney argues that a discussion of his religion has no place on the campaign trail, he clearly attaches himself to the secular narrative articulated by the framers of the Constitution. Religion, according to this tradition should not matter in political affairs and the faith of presidential candidates should be confined to the private sphere of individual beliefs. The point is not to reject the free exercice of religion clearly defended in the First Amendment, but to guarantee the neutrality of the political sphere. Article VI of the Constitution offers a vivid illustration of this neutrality when it states that no religious test should ever be required for the obtention or the election to a public office. Christian critics of the Constitution felt offended as early as 1788 and expressed the fear that a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic could become president of the United States. The answer of the Constitution's supporters was -- yes indeed -- nothing could prevent the election of an "infidel." This separatist tradition has been modernized by Justices of the Supreme Court who insist, like Justice Souter in McCreary County v. ACLU (2005) that "the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non religion." It is therefore unacceptable to treat a non-Christian as if he were an "outsider" and not a full member of the political community.

How well does Mitt Romney's political program fit this secular narrative? The answer can only be ambiguous. On the one hand he deplores the references to religion in the current pre-primary debates. On the other hand he did not hesitate to attack those who would like to establish "a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism" in a speech delivered at the George H. W. Bush library in College Station (Texas) in 2007. Has Romney, the secularist -- in the sense that he claims his faith should be irrelevant -- truly replaced Romney the anti-secularist? One can only wonder about the changing nature of his thoughts on religion and politics.

When critics of Mitt Romney denounce him as the member of "a cult" which does not belong to "historical Christianity," they revive, without realizing it, the second narrative which I defined as Neo-Puritan and which is today modernized and adapted by evangelicals. This narrative denies the secular foundation of the American government. It maintains that the nation was founded on biblical principles and that the Founding Fathers -- despite their acknowledged deism and their passion for the European Enlightenment -- were devout Christians. In that perspective, both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are alleged to be Christian documents deliberately misread by secular humanists. And yet the Creator of the Declaration of Independence is not the jealous God of the Old Testament. He neither condemns nor punishes those who may violate his commandments. He gives rights to be sure. But then he disappears and it is the sovereign people, the only legitimate and ultimate source of authority who define, defend or expand these natural rights. As for the Constitution, it completely ignores the existence of a God or a dominant Christian tradition; it is literally Godless.

Herman Cain's recent insistence at the values voters' summit that the City upon a hill was no longer on the top on the hill, and that his duty, if elected, would be to place it again on the top provides another illustration of the revival of the Neo-Puritan narrative, conceptualized nearly two centuries ago. And yet few modern politicians pretend, like Reagan or Cain that the United States is a "New Jerusalem".

Conservative Republicans like Michele Bachmann and Governor Perry are nonetheless convinced that the nation was founded on Christian principles and that the separation of church and state, a central theme of the secular narrative, is a myth that should be abandoned.

Barack Obama, when he expresses himself on the foundation of the US Government, clearly prefers the secular narrative and often mentions his admiration for the Founding Fathers. But he refuses to side with the "secularists" against the "believers." His dream is to reconcile the two narratives in a complex historical compromise. As he explained in his 2006 Call to Renewal Conference: "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door when they enter the public square."

Is this the reason why Obama recently suggested that Mitt Romney was a "weird" candidate? Perhaps, if one extrapolates from Obama's sibylline statement: Mitt Romney gives the impression of being too much of a secularist and not enough a Christian (or too much the supporter of a cult?).

What is certain is that the primary season has reopened a three century old battle of narratives opposing Enlightenment secularists to Neo-Puritan and evangelical believers.