Here at Irregular Times, we’re known for being both passionate and particular about the separation of church and state. Our position has been consistent, across party lines: We recognize that the Constitution prohibits the use of government powers in the United States to promote religious belief, and bans religious tests for public office. We have opposed right wing Christian fundamentalist efforts to usurp America’s secular democracy in order to promote theocratic ends, but we have also criticized the clumsy efforts to organize a political party defined by the atheist identity. We’ve debunked the crazy right wing conspiracy theories claiming that Barack Obama is secretly a Marxist Muslim spy, but we have also decried Obama’s own use of churches as tools to further his own political ambition.
We have opposed the use of religious beliefs as a criterion for judging the worthiness of candidates for Congress and the Presidency. However, there have been times when we have noted a candidate’s religious beliefs as a point of criticism. We have done so when the candidate has crossed the line between private religious belief and public policy. When a candidate for public office promises to create government legislation or regulation in accordance with their religious beliefs, they have made their religious beliefs an unavoidable part of public debate. In these cases, the candidate’s inappropriate efforts to force their own religion onto other Americans, using the force of law, is a legitimate issue.
Recent comments by incumbent congressional candidate Paul Broun provide an opportunity to illustrate this distinction. Broun was videotaped campaigning at a church (a violation of IRS tax-exempt status by that church), and was recorded making the following comment:
“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”
In this statement, Paul Broun isn’t just making a profession of his private faith in supernatural spirits guiding the course of life on earth. He’s also making claims about science, which is a completely separate realm of thought from religion. Congressman Broun doesn’t seem to understand that scientific knowledge is not subject to the same sort of loose metaphorical evaluation as religious ideas are. He treats scientific data as something that can be re-adjusted according to what people wish to be true.
Most significantly, U.S. Representative Paul Broun promised to make the Christian Bible, rather than the Constitution of the United States, the ultimate source of his interpretation of U.S. law. He promised to implement Christian religion as law over all Americans, including citizens who choose not to be Christian. In doing so, Paul Broun crosses the boundary from misguided and sloppy personal thinking into unconstitutional and undemocratic public policy. Congressman Broun has allowed his religion to lead him into irrational actions in the U.S. House of Representatives, and that’s bad enough, but when Broun proposes to undermine the religious equality that is at the center of American democracy, he moves into outright disloyalty to the Bill of Rights.
A politician who is willing to go to such extremes to promote the interests of one group of citizens over all others cannot be trusted with power. That’s why, whether they’re Christian or not, the residents of Paul Broun’s congressional district in Georgia would do well to vote him out of office on Election Day next month.