Politics, Religion and the Principled Life
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch,” said Benjamin Franklin. Democracies had failed in the past, blown to pieces by demagogues inflaming raging passions, the majority trampling minority rights underfoot. Thus the Founders settled upon a republic, in which the people would elect “enlightened and rational” men who would represent their interests in the workings of government.
So the president and members of Congress were expected to be men of honor and integrity, as exemplified by George Washington who declined an offer to be king, and did not run for a third term as president, partly because he did not wish to be “charged with concealed ambition.”
Presidents and members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and with few exceptions, American presidents were raised in or embraced Christianity. Thus the Constitution and the Bible were the foundations of honor, integrity and enlightenment.
American presidents were Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, even Quakers. But until John F. Kennedy there were no Catholics.
Kennedy, speaking before a crowd of Houston-area ministers during the 1960 presidential campaign, said: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me … I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
Kennedy thus satisfied most critics who feared he would follow the dictates of the Vatican, but in doing so he repudiated the tenets of his religious faith in his conduct as president.
“The separation of church and state” was a phrase in some of Jefferson’s writing, intended to keep government out of personal religious belief, now embedded in the Establishment Clause. But the Founders never intended political leaders to be anchored to the Constitution, but adrift morally, bereft of personal conviction.
Recently, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, discussing his vote to impeach President Trump, addressed the intersection of faith and public service a bit differently, saying: “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious, my faith is at the heart of who I am.” Romney broke from his party – the only senator ever to vote to impeach a member of his own party – and was attacked because of it. But while grounded in his Latter-day Saint faith, he also said that he believed the Constitution was inspired by Providence.
So where is the divide between integrity and political expediency? We have seen examples of personal integrity that extracted a political cost – Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse and Alaska Sen. Ernest Gruening voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Ross Perot illustrated in excruciating detail how our national debt was crippling the country and called for specific reforms. Sen. Romney broke from his party to vote his conscience, Sen. Bernie Sanders is stumping for socialism. Even if one disagrees with the position, one can admire integrity, something in short supply these days if the trust-in-government polls are any indication.
And while there may be a wall of separation between church and state, a man or woman who compromises with personal moral precepts – with the 10 Commandments if a Christian, with the Five Moral Precepts if a Buddhist, the example of Muhammad if Muslim, or with the Golden Rule and other standards of a principled life – then they fall far short of the enlightened men and women of honor worthy of representing the hopes and aspirations of citizens.
President Eisenhower said “Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, I don’t care what it is.” Even in a morally floundering society, integrity is recognized and admired. It is a wholeness of person, a consistent moral standard that is not compromised for political gain. No one is perfect, and in politics, opponents are only too happy to attack one’s character. But a principled person is a beacon amid a storm of political and social change, and our best hope for a government that will guide us through to a future of opportunity and promise, and leaders who will have the courage to intervene when two wolves and a lamb vote on what’s for lunch.