One hundred and twenty-three years ago, a presidential election may
well have been decided by a matter of religion.
On the eve of the close 1884 race between Democrat Grover Cleveland of
New York and Republican standard-bearer James G. Blaine of Maine, a
Presbyterian minister named Rev. Samuel Burchard earned infamy by
characterizing the Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism and
rebellion" in a speech given in Blaine's presence.
Everybody including Blaine, who failed to rebuke the clergyman knew
what he was talking about. What Burchard meant was that he saw the Dems
of his day as a party of drunken immigrants (an insult aimed at
Irish-Americans), Roman Catholics and ex-Confederates.
The slur had the unintended consequence of enraging immigrants and
Catholics, and causing them to turn out to vote. Most contemporary
observers believed that it provided the margin of victory for Cleveland
in New York and handed the Democrats their first presidential win since
before the Civil War.
ANOTHER 'MAN FROM HOPE'
Ever since then, the dour shade of Rev. Burchard has hung over any
campaign that consciously seeks to invoke religious prejudice for gain.
The moral of the story is that no matter how deeply ingrained such
biases might be in the body politic, ours is too diverse a democracy
for such a scheme to ultimately succeed.
Yet, with the Iowa caucus only a couple of weeks away, the question is
whether Mike Huckabee, Southern Baptist minister and former governor of
Arkansas, is aware of this chapter of history. If so, it would seem
that he is bent on, if not erasing it from our political primers, at
least providing a new interpretation.
Huckabee, who possesses a personality widely hailed as being as
charming as the previous "man from Hope" (fellow Arkansan Bill
Clinton), has emerged in recent months as a serious contender for the
Republican nomination. He has taken aim at former Massachusetts Gov.
Mitt Romney, his primary competition for the votes of religious
conservatives, in ways both subtle and overt, while raising questions
about Romney's Mormonism and touting himself as a "Christian leader."
Romney responded earlier this month with a speech defending not only
his own religion, but also asserting his own belief that religious
faith had a place on the public square.
It's unclear whether it did him much good. It certainly did not deter
Huckabee from continuing to harp on his Christianity. His latest gambit
is a disarming television ad that seeks disingenuously to tone down the
debate for the holiday season while still talking about the primacy of
"the birth of Christ" while a cross-like image hovers over him in the
It remains to be seen if this revival tent act can win Huckabee Iowa or
any other state. He may turn out to be a 2008 version of Howard Dean,
whose Democratic star peaked in late 2003 and then plummeted to earth
with a scream in the Hawkeye state. Should the Republicans actually
nominate Huckabee, there's little doubt that almost any Democrat would
dispatch this evolution-doubting foreign policy ignoramus in a
But even if all Huckabee gets is a Dean-like 15 minutes of front-runner
status before being consigned to the dustbin of history alongside
Blaine and Burchard, the ensuing debate about the role of faith in
politics is still worth pondering.
In a riposte to Romney, Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman blasted
Romney for the "subtext" of his defense of the separation of church and
Comparing Romney's stand with John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech, in
which JFK answered those who opposed the election of a Catholic to the
presidency, Foxman said that there was a big difference between the
two. While Kennedy disavowed any impact his faith might have on his
politics or his decisions as a leader, Romney made it clear that while
religious tests are abhorrent, he had no intention of running away from
"I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any
religion, but I will not separate us from the G-d who gave us liberty.
Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage," declared the
Romney is signaling Americans that while we should have no state
church, he believes religious faith has not only helped shape America
but that it ought to continue to influence us.
That is a message that alarms the ADL, whose strict separationist
principles deem any overt political religiosity as a potential danger
to our liberties.
To Foxman's credit, this is not the first time he has expressed his
discomfort with a candidate speaking in this manner. Seven years ago,
the object of his ire was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose message
embracing faith was earning him ecumenical applause as the Democrat's
Though it was largely lost amid the hallelujah chorus sung for
Lieberman's historic achievement, Foxman then saw a danger in the
popularity of this faith talk. As with Romney, Foxman took Lieberman to
task for flaunting his religious observance and his status as a person
of faith as being a credential for high office.
THE FAITH CARD
Though the ADL's position certainly speaks to the fears of both
religious minorities and secularists who worry about the future of
church-state separation, it is tone deaf both to the sensibilities of
the American people and the reality of our politics.
One need not agree with either of their very different political
platforms to understand that the point here is there is a big
difference between the likes of Lieberman and Romney, and that of a
Huckabee. The former are men whose faith informs their consciences and
policy decisions, and who rightly understand that Americans consider
these to be trustworthy attributes. The latter is one who employs
religion to trade on prejudice.
Contrary to the strict separationists, religious liberty in this
country is not based on what philosopher Will Herberg once described as
the "naked public square," in which faith is unwelcome. Though atheist
books are the literary rage this season, the idea that the unique
blessings of American freedom stem from a hostility to faith is an
absurd misreading of history.
While their theology and their history could not be more different,
both Judaism and Mormonism are safe in this country, not only because
we do not "establish" any single religion, but because our shared
national heritage of deep faith is inherently welcoming to all
denominations that support the values of political freedom.
Our experience as an oppressed minority in Europe may have bred in Jews
a phobia for public Christianity, but that's irrelevant to present-day
America where it is believers, rather than unbelievers, who are more
likely to stand up for Jewish rights and Israel. In 2008 as has been
the case in the past the ability of American voters to understand the
difference between principle and prejudice is something that we can all
have faith in.