Intruding Upon the Constitution by the Religious Right

by Walter Brasch

Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky, of Peoria, Ill., ordered all parish priests in his diocese to read a letter to their congregations condemning Barack Obama. The letter, to be read the weekend before the election, declared that Obama and the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate had launched an “assault upon our religious freedom.”

He wasn’t the only priest who used the pulpit to attack the President. Bishop David Lauren of Green Bay, Wisc., told his congregations that voting for Obama and other candidates who were pro-choice or who believed in embryonic stem cell research or gay marriage could put their “soul in jeopardy.” Others, primarily from evangelical Protestant faiths, were even more adamant in their religious intolerance, declaring that voting for Obama would definitely condemn their souls to Hell.

Southern Baptist evangelist Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham, said President Obama was “waving his fist before God” by supporting same-sex marriage and women’s abortion rights. In full-page newspaper ads, shortly before the election, the 94-year-old Billy Graham, whose words may have been written by his son, declared that Americans should vote for “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles.” Those principles, according to the ad, include opposition to same-sex marriage. A spokesman for the Grahams said that neither person endorses candidates. However, Billy Graham reportedly told Romney he would do “all I can to help you,” and removed Mormonism from a list of cults on one of their web pages. In February, Franklin Graham, who earns about $600,000 a year as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, declared that Obama had plans to create “a new nation without God or perhaps under many gods.”

The re-election of President Obama didn’t stop the attacks. The Rev. Jerry Priscano, a Catholic priest from Erie, Pa., said Obama was the anti-Christ. On his Facebook page, he declared, “It will only be a matter of time before our nation is completely destroyed,” and that Hurricane Sandy, apparently a sign from God to the liberal northeast, “was only the beginning.”
A Pew Forum study of the 2012 vote showed that white Catholics favored Romney (59%–40%), Hispanic Catholics overwhelming supported Obama (75–21). Romney also had the evangelical Christians (79–20), and other Protestants (57–42). Although Romney pandered to Jewish voters, claiming he would be Israel’s best friend, and that Obama couldn’t be trusted, Jews went for Obama (69–30). The Pew exit poll measured only persons who identified themselves as Jews or Christians.

Factoring into the vote against Barack Obama is religious bigotry that drips with the hatred of anything not Christian. About one-fourth of all White evangelical Protestants believe he is a Muslim, although the President goes to a Protestant church and has never held Muslim values or beliefs. In one of the great leaps of faith, evangelicals also believe Obama is a “godless socialist Muslim,” something much rarer than a Klan leader voting for a Black Jew for president. Overall, about one-sixth of Americans believe he is Muslim, according to a poll by Public Religion Research Institute. Ironically, most evangelical Protestants also believe Mormonism is a non-Christian cult and refused to support Mitt Romney in the primaries. Faced by a “Muslim” and a Mormon in the general election, the evangelicals supported the Mormon, who had flip-flopped from moderate to conservative to get the nomination and then tried tacking slightly to the center for the general election.

The right-wing believe that America is a Christian nation and should elect only like-minded Christians to office. Even many Christian religions, such as Unitarianism, are suspect in the eyes of those who absolutely believe they absolutely know God’s intent, and everyone else is wrong. They support Israel, far closer to being a socialist nation than the U.S. ever will be, as a Biblical necessity, but would be conflicted if a Jew should ever become a major party candidate for president.

The religious bigots claim the U.S. was founded by Christians and is a Christian nation—or, reluctantly, say it is a Judeo-Christian nation. But, no matter how much they screech, the facts don’t support their beliefs. George Washington declared, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” John Adams and the Senate later ratified a treaty with those exact words.

Most of the Founding Fathers were primarily deists, not Christians, and specifically rejected many Christian beliefs, including the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and that the Bible was written by God. They also believed that God, having given mankind the power of reason, then stayed out of the lives of His people. Among the deists were Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe. But they and the other Founding Fathers were explicit in their declaration, embedded into the First Amendment that established the principle that all people had a right to their own religious beliefs.

Several distinguished historians (including Drs. James McGregor Burns and Richard Hofstadter, each of whom won the Pulitzer Prize for history) have pointed out that in 1776 and much of the 19th century, as much as 90 percent of the population did not identify with the Christian church.

There is another aspect to the First Amendment, often overlooked by those who don’t know history or Constitutional law, yet believe they do. Jefferson, in his first year as president, in a letter to a Baptist congregation, referred to the intent of one of the five parts of the First Amendment as “building a wall of separation between church and state.” Numerous times, the Founding Fathers had reaffirmed this separation, creating what became known as the “establishment clause” in 1787. Several rulings by the Supreme Court reaffirmed this doctrine.

However, 28 percent of Americans, according to a Nate Silver poll in February, don’t believe there is a Constitutional separation of church and state. The Constitutionally-ignorant have established religious tests for persons seeking political office. It should make no difference if Mitt Romney is a Mormon. It should also make no difference if Barack Obama is or is not a Muslim, Protestant, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Pagan, Vodun, Vodouist, or even an atheist.

But it may be a Hindu, Gandhi, who has last the last word. Discussing his experience with missionaries in South Africa, he said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He was specific in his dislike for some, but not all, Christians. He had never met the extreme right-wing.

[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, which looks at religion and social issues.]


Award-winning journalist and author, specializing in social issues, media, and pop culture.


  1. Look, religion has absolutely no place in how government is run. What you believe God to be, or even if you believe God to be is a very personal decision. Church and state separated a long time ago.
    Just one more example of how the right-wing Republicans want to travel back in time, but they would have lost the argument even then.

  2. I still struggle to see how those who enact and/or support legislation counter to the beliefs of these individuals is an infringement upon their religious rights. No one is telling them that they cannot attend their church. No one is barring them from practicing or praying as they wish. No one is tearing their church down in place of a state-church. They retain the right to speak-out against these things they disagree with as well.

    Is it the tax argument? That their tax dollars go to fund these things that they disagree with? And then therefore they’re forcibly complicit in things that go against the teachings of their religion? If that’s the case, there should be many more things that they protest than the hot-topic wedge issues.

    Can someone with a legal background please explain how their religious rights are being infringed upon. Thanks.

  3. Steadystate is spot-on.

    It’s a dangerous game churches are playing here. Even amongst the Christian denominations, there is differences between doctrines. Whose brand of Christianity should the government mimic? Believers in the Holy Trinity or not? Deifiers of the Virgin Mary or not? There are denominations who prefer one Gospel over another, or who treat women differently than others, or who have different takes on sacraments.

    Favoring one automatically means disfavoring another. Getting government in the middle of faith is a BAD idea.

  4. As I understand it:

    See that’s the thing about Protestants and the Catholic claim of “authority”.
    No one can “order” pastors to read anything to congregations. “Ordering people”, is a principal reason Protestants left the Catholic Church 500 years ago. What an individual Protestant Pastors decide to read, they read.

    Any religion has its defined boundaries in belief. That’s why there are different religions and different denominations within those religions themselves. Christianity is a religion, Catholic is a denomination and has further Catholic denominations such as Greek Orthodox. Methodist is a Christian protestant denomination, just as Baptist or Presbyterian. Islam is a religion with several denominations such as Sufi, Sunni, Shia, etc..

    Should one be inclined, one picks the religion one wishes to follow. Just about all expect, but do not require, members to give money and devotion. It is stupid and will undoubtedly be a frustrating experience to choose to join, or, continue to remain in, a religious body that you do not agree with concerning it’s belief boundaries.

    I firmly believe in the separation of church and state, but its also the Constitutional right of religion to believe what it wants to believe. The scope of that right is broad, very broad and as an example; A religious body that does not want a particular race in it’s congregation, has full right to exercise that desire. Now THAT’S pretty broad and very hard for non religious people to understand. But that is fact.

    The Constitution grants religeous freedom. Accordingly the United States has granted tax free status to religion. However religion must follow certain guidelines to retain that status, but as I understand it, even if they lose that status, the only requirement is that they pay tax. They can still discriminate freely without government intervention under the law.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong. This is a fascinating subject for me.

  5. I understand what you are saying Carl. ” A religious body that does not want a particuliar race in it’s religion has full right to exercise that desire” according to your understanding of our constitutional right? Yes, I think that also applies, though I am not sure that is what is meant necessarily by freedom of religion. There are no laws that I know of that make it illegal for any religion to exclude anyone they wish, for whatever reason. It is with their own bi-laws and tenets that they make those decisions. And yes, as long as they pay their taxes I doubt the government cares WHAT their rules are, but they should care if those tenets infringe upon the people outside their faith.

  6. Sheknows

    The power to include or exclude by definition is a freedom.

    But I’m trying to discern how on earth saying to a congregation that you should vote against, or, for something, “infringes upon the people outside your faith”, as you say.

  7. It doesn’t. If they purported going out and burning crosses, then it would.

  8. Telling their OWN congregation how to vote is their business I suppose. I think that is why the author wrote this article. It doesn’t legally infringe upon anyone else to verbally tell your own religious followers what to do politically..but when you tell others based on YOUR beliefs, it is offensive.

  9. It’s She Knows!

    I thought it was Shek Nows and that you were Jewish!

  10. I kind of believe what you are saying is the way it is legally. Though I keep hearing that it is illegal to preach politics from the pulpit. Can’t imagine why anyone would attend a religious body that did, boring as it would be. Not the reason why I go to church anyway.

  11. If it were illegal, than the Evangelicals would all be locked up in jail cells. That’s funny about Shek Nows :) Actually I am half Jewish.

  12. I’m a dummy. I can’t believe I didn’t see “She knows”. I’m thinking…ok well shek-nows is Jewish, he might have “this” take on the subject and is coming from a different perspective than…ect…ect…

    big FAIL on my behalf.

  13. Thanks, a very sobering read…How did Christ’s message of love your neighbor as yourself, get turned into hatred?…Sad state for Christianity…no wonder why many are leaving the church….There is nothing in the world more important for me than faith, but i sure don’t believe it belongs in politics as many do…religion such as this is heart breaking…

  14. Eeehh… the whole point of a pastor/priest is to preach to their flock about their decision making in all things, including elections, and how it effects their relationship with god and their internal souls. While phrases like, Vote for Obama and you are going to hell, are way over the top, I don’t think it can change a tax status. I think things change once a church reaches out past their congregation.

    as for this quote

    evangelicals also believe Obama is a “godless socialist Muslim,”

    my grandmother truly believes this…something she gets from Fox News and her church. Something that scares her to tears…and I have seen her cry while talking about Obama.

  15. What I find irritating and absurd is the Democrats who are perfectly happy when liberal Catholic bishops support Democratic policies will at the same time raise a fight about separation of Church and State when Catholic leaders oppose their policies. You don’t get to have it both ways…and that goes double for non-Catholic liberal churches where liberal policies and candidates are constantly promoted.

  16. I disagree with my Catholic bishops on many things, not the least of which is their disregard for the constitution except when it pleases them.

    As for constitutionality, it is plain that many of our founding fathers wanted a ‘wall of separation’. But those words did not make it into the document. As a reminder, the document says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

    How the Supreme Court has interpretted that over the centuries is beyond a combox discussion, but a plain reading of the text is clear: it prohibits government intrusion on religious affairs, but in no way does it say religious ideas should not contribute to the public debate. In no way does it prohibit religious leaders from speaking their mind even in matters of public policy. Take away their tax exemption if you like, but don’t supress their speech.

    History tells us that governments often do evil things. The people should be allowed to hear what religious leaders have to say. Some of us will be convinced and some of us won’t. That’s democracy. Hushing up the preachers is not.

    I am a consumate moderate, but my closest friends are extreme lefties. Many are convinced that Christianity is best represented by the extremist nutcases that get most of the press. They believe Christianity is a scourge on humanity and must be driven out of the public square, back into the catacombs.

    My lefty friends are quite pleased when the bishops are forced to accept their world view. They are happy to force the bishops to pay for contraception. They are happy to force Catholic adoption agencies to serve homosexual couples. They are happy to force everyone to pay for abortion on demand.

    So, we have bishops who don’t understand the constitutional imperative to tolerate behavior that they believe is wrong, and we have lefties who don’t understand the constitutional imperative not to intrude on the bishops’ free exercise of their consciences.

  17. History tells us that governments often do evil things

    and history tells us that religion has been far worse….

    I have to wonder if anyone has tried to tally the number of people the Catholic church has killed over the centuries.

  18. You don’t get to have it both ways…and that goes double for non-Catholic liberal churches where liberal policies and candidates are constantly promoted.

    To quote Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.”

    Nice generalities Christine but, as usual, no specifics. “They all do it!”… “It’s the same!” does nothing to further this conversation.

    Do you know of (links please) any liberal church spouting the kind of outright nastiness like the examples Walter Brasch cites in the first four paragraphs of his article?

  19. Uhhh, Steve…does a certain fiery liberation theologist not ring a bell, at all? Why does it not count when liberal preachers call on divine wrath for America’s policies when we haven’t tacked left?

    You first with links, if you really want to go tit for tat…i don’t see Walter linking to primary sources or quotes, so I’ not going to denate against HIS charicaturization of what was said. I have to go out for a bit anyway so I will try to check back later.

  20. Shannon, I’m a consumate moderate and you’ll get no argument from me on that.

    The traditional Christian view is that all of us – Catholics, Democrats, Atheists, Republicans, Jacobins, Inquisitors, Bolshevics, Progressives, Conservatives, in short any flavor you like – all of us are flawed humans prone to horrible misdeeds.

    I also share your dismay over believers I know who buy into the FoxNews propaganda.

  21. No wait … I agree that the church has done very bad things. Worse that then Kmer Rouge? I don’t think so.

  22. Uhhh, Steve…does a certain fiery liberation theologist not ring a bell, at all?

    “a certain fiery liberation theologist” Now you’re getting more specific… Thanks for clearing it up, I can’t believe I was so mistaken.

    Edit to add: and JDave tosses out the old ‘Kmer Rouge’ ploy to show that governments are worse than religions when it comes to ‘bad things’. I yield… You guys are on your toes today.

  23. Steve, Though I think it would be hard to prove that the worst crimes of churches have outdone the worst crimes of governments, it is not a very interesting discussion. More importantly, it is entirely beside my point.

    My point is that PEOPLE do bad things, in the name of churches, governments, progress, etc. Traditional Christian thought holds that humanity is flawed – each and every one of us. Like the very humans that run it, the church will do some good, and sometimes will do some very bad things. It’s sad and tragic, but every human endeavor is prone to the same thing.

    steadystate – it was your question I was trying to answer with my original post, next to last paragraph.

  24. Here’s some more evidence, Steve (yes, both sides really do it…interesting to note which side is overrepresented here.)
    Scroll down to politics and the pulpit:

    There really are two different issues though…one is whether or not the line is being crossed with respect to nonprofit status (churches like any other organization can speak out on issues but not directly campaign for or against specific candidates) and then there’s the seperate issue of whether or not one considers the rhetoric offensive when it goes to the degree of calling on God’s judgement.

  25. You are right CStanly

    Liberals do try to have it both ways regarding church and state issues. What is really interesting is current Vatican tolerance of liberal Catholic Churches. Under Catholic law, (which protestants generally do not have), there are no churches in disagreement with the Pope. It is at the Pope’s discretion to excommunicate them if he wishes. Unfortunately, the Vatican would lose billions of dollars immediately if he did and I think that is the reason he does not squelch this liberalization of Catholicism from the laity. The Catholic church runs from the top down, not vice versa. So at some point a Pope will have to make some examples. I suspect that there are some American nuns about to get the boot, but I’m not a Catholic so I don’t really care what the Pope does.

  26. Carl I am a Catholic and I think it is a bit more complicated than just financial motivation for overlooking things. A lot of the liberal Catholic orders are among the most active in running hospitals, schools, and other ministries. This is to their credit, even though as a conservative Catholic I disagree with liberal politics. Basically this is what leads to confusion for some outside the Church and tension for those within the Chirch- our theology can easily be said to line up with liberal economic policy while it also aligns with the prolife platform of the GOP.

    So I think the biggest problem from the vatican’s perspective would be the risk of schism which would crush the ability of the US Catholic Church to perform countless acts of coporal mercy.

  27. CStanley

    Very well said. A small tweak though: our views are pro-life, the GOP’s are anti-abortion.

    I’m curious how you stand on gay marriage. Personally, I think on the balance, natural law favors gay marriage. The church’s opposition to it just, but it is a religious opposition and should not be supported by law in this country. Politically, the bishops do themselves much harm on this issue and it can only get worse as the years go by.

    (I’m a consumate moderate and a bad Roman Catholic. I’d make a darn good Greek Orthodox, but I love my church and can’t leave it.)

  28. Jdave- my opinion on gay marriage is that the best way to balance secular equal treatment under the law and religious freedom to define marriage as heterosexual only (along with any other religious framework as a sacramental union) would be to embrace civil unions, and call it that for both hetero and same sex couples, the churches woukd be free to then marry whomever they choose, or not, while all couples get equal civil status and protections,

    I have become increasingly agnostic on the legal questions on any number of issues, although it’s hardest to get to get there on abortion.

    LOL about the Greek Orthodox comment. I don’t know anything about their political interfaces but they do have rich tradition that I could easily embrace. They seem to overdo the incense even more than we do though, and the backward sign of the cross would be hard to get used to.

  29. That first paragraph wasn’t very clear I’m afraid, and the edit function isn’t working…shorter version I guess is that i would get the govt out of defining marriage altogether and have civil unions for everyone as a means of codifying relationships, while churches deal with the sacramental aspect of marriage.

  30. C Stanley –

    Oh forgive me, I didn’t mean to suggest that the Vatican operated on the basis of profit. More like they could be trying to coral and control all money on the planet as to have finally ensnared underfoot the root of all evil. J

    It may be complicated, but something must happen. The Vatican cannot say that the Pope is in control and the Pope not be in control at the same time.

    Regarding church and state, I am not sure the laws of the United States regarding politics from the pulpit and tax exempt status granted religion.
    On one hand religion has the right to teach what it believes, but on the other no religion can be allowed to control the state. I think it is doing just that when it’s belief becomes law forcing non-believers and other religions to obey it’s theology or tenants.

  31. Thanks CStanley. That’s all reasonable and very much what I would like. Just a fine point though: In France, the government defines words. England and America just allow people to do as they please. Wrestling, fighting, and screaming about the definition of a word is one of the things I hate about this ugliness. It’s almost as if we’re using the democratic process to decide propaganda strategems. I’d like govt out of the marriage business altogether too, but our govt has stayed out of the language business and should continue that wise policy.

    Besides, the legal definition of marriage has been abyssmal for a very long time. My marriage of 28 yrs is a sacrament. I care deeply what my church has to say about it and don’t give 2 hoots what my government thinks about it.

    Agnostic about legal issues…. If that’s like being “in the world but not of the world,” then me too. If it’s like “accept the things you cannot change,” then me too again. But human rights and protecting the weak and vulnerable are things we cannot ignore.

    I like incense in RC doses! But the GOs are too flowery for my tastes.

    Thanks again CS. You’re a class act.

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