OUTSIDE KNOTT’S BERRY FARM, BUENA PARK, CALIFORNIA — My name is Quay Fortuna, and I am running for president of the United States. I’m also a Christian – which is really none of your business, as a voter in a presidential contest. I am aware, however, that the fact of my faith probably requires an explanation.
Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and a candidate for president, incorrectly declared not long ago that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Christian clergymen. The highest count that PolitiFact.com could confirm was that 4 out of 56 signers were men of the cloth. Another presidential candidate, John McCain, recently stated that this nation was founded upon Christian principles. It is tempting, during this Thanksgiving season, to think of the pilgrims at Plymouth and to agree with Mr. McCain; however, one need only remember the band of horse-trading opportunists who landed at Jamestown thirteen years before the Mayflower ever got to Plymouth to realize that Christian principles weren’t the exclusive reason for the colonization of North America. It is as accurate to say that, because the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 white property-owning men, that this country was founded upon white, male or mercantile principles.
And yet, at the same time, public life in America has never been, and was never intended to be, as clinically secular or as morally relativistic as some activists would have us believe.
The story of church and state in this country is unfortunately not one simple, straight forward narrative of the operation of religious faith within a bold experiment in republican government. It is, rather, a bundle of many stories:
- It is the story of men like William Penn, a Quaker who was persecuted for his faith in England, and who established the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven of religious freedom for anyone who believed in God; and yet it is at the same time the story of how, in the late 1700s, the Pennsylvania constitution required officeholders to affirm their belief in the divine origin of the Old and New Testaments, thus eliminating the chance that a freethinker, or even a Jew or a Muslim, could hold political office there.
- It is the story of Roger Williams, who found himself subject to religious oppression by the Puritan government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his subsequent exile to Rhode Island, where he established a colony based on the principle of church neutrality in affairs of state.
- It is the story of the establishment of the colony of Maryland as a haven for Catholics in North America, and the subsequent prohibition of Catholicism there by Puritan leaders that lasted until after the American Revolution.
- It is the story of the battle between Patrick Henry who, after the American Revolution, attempted to lead the passage of a bill establishing the Episcopal Church as the state religion of Virginia, and James Madison, who subsequently authored the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the federal government from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion” or laws that prohibited the “free exercise of religion.”
- It is the story of the customary 19th century American public school curriculum, which typically required Bible reading and encouraged the teaching of general and common doctrines of Christianity; and yet it is also the story of 10-year old Thomas Whalen, a Catholic, who in 1858 was required to recite a Protestant translation of the Ten Commandments at a Massachusetts public school, and who was whipped for a half hour when he refused to do so on the advice of his parish priest, setting off a controversy known as the Eliot School Rebellion.
It is, ultimately, the story of the pitch, roll and yaw of thousands of incidents over the course of more than 200 years of American history — some significant and some petty, some public and outrageous, and many very private and painful — that reflect the tensions embodied in the co-existence of church and state within a society. These tensions come from the same place within our civic culture that scared some voters about the Catholic faith of Al Smith in 1928 and that of John F. Kennedy in 1960, and that raise questions about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith in 2008. They were, in essence, the same tensions that were reflected in that phrase of the founders, the “separation of church and state,” the tensions alluded to by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote: “Believing … that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
We didn’t invent the concept of separation of church and state here in America. To be sure, both Madison and Jefferson were familiar with the ideas of John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers on the subject. But they were also both familiar with Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican friar, who, while no advocate of democracy, had a command of logic that frequently parted the gray clouds of his era to reveal a timeless blue sky. In his Summa theologiae, Aquinas recognizes two distinct yet overlapping communities existing within any rightly-organized society. One is a secular political community, led by secular political leaders, who are charged with preserving an orderly society by maintaining internal and external peace and by ensuring the satisfaction of man’s material necessities. The goal of a secular political community is the attainment of the secular common good. The other is a spiritual community, through which moral virtues and a moral code of conduct are inculcated, and the goal of which is the spiritual common good – eternal life for those who are virtuous.
Significantly, Aquinas doesn’t believe that it is reasonable for a secular political authority to make laws abolishing all sins. For Aquinas, while it is good to enact laws that encourage virtue and discourage vice, sometimes it makes good sense to do neither — particularly where the threat of punishment behind a law will have little effect on whether a sin is committed or not. One need look only as far as the Tenth of the Ten Commandments themselves to see the wisdom in Aquinas’ approach: we do not legislate against the cold thoughts that comprise greed or envy, though these are sins and are the roots of the sin of theft, because it is impossible, without an overt accompanying physical act, to prove what lies within the mind of a human being. No responsible earthly government makes a thought into a crime.
I won’t, as president, be seeking to administer this country wholly in accord with all of the dictates of Thomas Aquinas, even if I will, privately, aspire to be his equal in faith. But there are other good reasons why I believe that the single-minded preoccupation with “values issues” – and the breed of activist, pro and con, that is produced thereby — is a symptom of deterioration within both the spiritual community as well as the secular, political community.
My most serious objection – whether as a Christian, as a believer in civil liberties, or as a civic-minded American — is the notion that my responsibility to my community in any of these roles can be fulfilled simply by voting for a candidate for federal office who, for example, promises to either ban abortion or preserve the legality of it, or by giving money to activists or lobbyists. These gestures are lazy habits encouraged by those pathological politicians in Washington, aiming to goof you into buying their Capital-centric bill of goods and to divert your attention from their failures in practical governance. They are lazy habits that are ultimately engendered by the tragic falsehood that a president can solve all of your problems.
Such habits have created a fat economic subculture of professional political mercenaries – a feeding frenzy of pollsters and press flacks, media advisors and white-paper hacks, smooth lobbyists and sharp lawyers, lap-dog sycophants and pundit-bookies, grass roots agit-irritators and prime-time TV squawking heads – getting paid to slash away at the flesh of the enemy in a bloody, suspiciously endless fight over God or liberty. Not only is it the wrong question, in most cases, but it has all the dignity and grace of a schoolyard brawl — or, if you prefer, of moneylenders at the temple, reaping grotesque profits at the expense of the pilgrims of both God and liberty.
As a concerned member of my community, I am appalled at how the ability of me and my neighbors to affect change and build a better tomorrow — in the yards and on the porches and in the kitchens and family rooms where we actually live — has been hijacked by pro-pol hired guns whose primary everlovin’ daily objective is to draw dark, jagged lines of battle separating me and my neighbors. The problems in my neighborhood need immediate attention, and we simply don’t have any more time for such paralyzing nonsense.
As an advocate of civil liberty, I stand ready at a moment’s notice to put on Voltaire’s jumpsuit, helmet and boots, preparing to fight to the death to support the right of my fellow citizens to enjoy a freedom that I do not have any use for today, and yet … I cannot help but have a queasy feeling in my gut while supporting the unadulterated right to commit an act of will that, in the abstract, most of my fellow citizens fervently wish would never occur again in any instance. Call it a human frailty in me if you will, but it diminishes my ability to breathe fire. And my love of liberty lifts my eyes to other injuries to freedom in America – warrantless surveillance, guilt by association, charges of disloyalty levied upon earnest critics of federal policy – and forces me to ask myself another quiet question: Does being a warrior in the fight for liberty foreclose my ability to prioritize among freedoms, or do I have to fight equally for all freedoms and ultimately compromise my effectiveness?
As a Christian, speaking only for myself, my conscience will not permit me to rest assured that I have done God’s will by simply supporting a “values” candidate. I cannot help but wonder what my God’s reaction will be, when I reach the gates of paradise, and He asks me what I’ve done to deserve eternal life. “In your name, I voted for James F. Copensmythe.” What? Is that all you have to say about the sanctity of life? What about actively helping the poor and the hungry? What about getting up out of your chair and striving for peace? What about facing your neighbors and healing the fractures that divided your community? Did you actually let someone talk you in to believing that their assumption of political power with your assistance was good enough to supplant the stewardship with which I entrusted you, to assume responsibility for what happens around you?
If we take, alone, the top three pro-life organizations and the top three pro-choice organizations in America, we are looking at an aggregate annual budget that is probably approaching $30 million. Such organizations have no doubt been spending some amount on their causes since the 1970s, since the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade – 30 years of spending on pro-pol hired guns, reaching a figure, in all likelihood, of say hundreds of millions of dollars. If this money had stayed in our communities rather than ending up in the coffers of national lobbying groups or the pockets of mercenaries – how much could we have spent on feeding, clothing and ministering to the needs of children? How much time could we have spent building self-esteem in young women and encouraging discipline and social respect in young men? How much could we have done to honor both liberty and the sanctity of life in our own communities, and to improve the context of this painful debate?
My instincts as a candidate for office lead me to wage battle, first and foremost, for the restoration of political power to our communities, both to permit and to require self-determination. And while I refuse to judge anyone else’s faith, my instincts as a Christian lead me to aspire, outside of my political identity, to assuming the role of God’s steward within my community – a role, according to Paul, in his epistle to the Apostle Titus, that requires me to act without arrogance, to reign in my temper and aggression, and to avoid being greedy for sordid gain; a role that requires temperance and self-control in the conduct of holy work.
Politics is ultimately a game for the proud, with one’s name emblazoned colorfully across handbills and a big voice to shout down opponents; Christianity is ultimately a life of humility. On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful that I live in a country that permits me, if I have the fortitude for it, to play a good public game in the service of civic goals, while living a true private life within my community in the service of God.
I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.