Stanford Hosts Forum on Religion and the Presidency

On Friday, February 21, three scholars met for a forum on one of the most controversial presidential issues of our time: religion. The Religious Studies Department hosted the annual Howard M. Garfield Forum for Undergraduates on the topic of “Religion and the Presidency.” The event consisted of three lectures by Jack Rakove, Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford, Hugh Heclo, Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University and Jacques Berlinerblau, Associate Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. Before an audience of mostly faculty, including History Professor David M. Kennedy, and a smattering of students, each speaker offered their own perspective on the topic.

Professor Rakove began with an exploration of the roots of the relationship He argued that religion was in fact “marginal” to the story of America’s early Presidents. Political issues, he pointed out, were largely the territory of the states. In the colonial era, each state tended to have its own unique political makeup. Maryland, for example, was largely Catholic, Pennsylavania had a large Quaker population, and Massachusetts had a large Protestant population. There was, therefore, more likelihood in churches aligning themselves with state governments, not the national government. On a national level, however, the Republic was imbued with an “unregulated freedom of conscience.” The ability, in other words, for individuals to think for themselves without any centralized religious authority. This frame of mind created “a basis for sustained attack” on any sort of official relationship between church and state. Instead, there was toleration of religious diversity. President Washington famously expressed this toleration in a 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island: “The Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants.”

On a perosnal level, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and others were hardly orthodox in religious views. Instead, they were products of the Englightenment: Deists skeptical of “revealed” religion. Intellectually, they relied little on traditional Christian texts. Professor Rakove pointed out, in fact, that in education they preferred using history as a guide, rather than religion. Formal religion had little influence in the intellectual life of the Founding Fathers.

Professor Hugh Heclo of George Mason, speaking second, gave rousing pre-prepared remarks about the complicated historical relationship between faith and the nation’s highest office. The specific relationship between the American presidency and religion is, in fact, just “one piece in a larger puzzle.” In Professor Heclo’s view, the larger question is, “Is it legitimate for presidents, legislators or other officials to use religious beliefs—their own or those of the citizens they represent—in making decisions?” The answer, in Heclo’s own words, is that “we are tempted to answer based on the particular policy results we want to achieve.” In current terms, religiousness is a feature of “conservatism.” But spiritual beliefs informed, for instance, Woodrow Wilson’s progressive foreign policy and the economic populism of William Jennings Bryant. Thus, looking at American history, the choice between democracy and religion is a false dichotomy.

The truth is that, yes, “religiously-grounded moral convictions” have always played an important role in American political history. In countless speeches, internal documents, even Inaugural Addresses, Presidents have used religious rhetoric. Indeed, America’s unique religious history – its Protestant dissenter founders, its free market competition between churches, its separation of church and state- has led to “a highly moralistic but safely non-theocratic attitude toward political life.”

Professor Heclo’s more controversial point was that this relationship changed during the 1960’s. Partisan “hard secularism” began to actively target religious influence in public life, causing, in turn, partisan religious forces to enter public life in the 1970’s. Since then, American democracy has been embroiled in a “culture war” unique only to this era. Fortunately, Professor Heclo sees this as changing in 2008. A more healthy form of religion has injected itself into public discourse: a personal sort of religion that informs leaders morally.

The forum, overall, was highly insightful and thought-provoking. It injected historical fact, complex arguments, and varying views into a debate that has recently become cartoonishly simple.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review