As we ponder historian Newt Gingrich's ever more vigorous denunciations of President Obama's "war on religion," it is worth recalling the first time an American politician charged the political powers that be in the U.S. with seeking to "impose a secular vision" on the country (as Mitt Romney put it the other day).
That would be back at the Creation, in Philadelphia in 1787, when an anti-federalist delegate from Maryland named Luther Martin groused to his state legislature that “a great majority of the convention” had voted, with little discussion, that there be no religious test for holding federal office—despite the fact that “there were some members so unfashionable as to think, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that, in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”
I'm not saying that I think Mssrs. Gingrich and Romney would, if they had their druthers, do away with the constitutional bar on religious tests for office (though I'm not so sure about the Hon. Shadrack McGill, the Alabama state senator who recently defended Bible instruction in his state's elementary schools by saying, "I don't believe you keep God out of state...I don't believe in that separation"). The point is that setting limits on the role of religion in state business--say by requiring certain kinds of coverage in health care insurance or excluding church congregations from public schools--is as American as barring religious tests for public office. As also are charges that such limit-setting is anti-religious.
Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Program on Public Values. He joined Trinity College after working as a reporter, editorial writer and columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He writes on news media coverage of religious subject matter. His posts appear here via
RNS. Follow Mark on Twitter @directorsilk.