The men who wrote the Constitution faced the choice: Either establish a church, as some of the colonies had done, or provide for religious toleration. They chose the way of non-establishment. This seemed a good choice and it worked well throughout most of the 19th century and well into the 20th. A mild kind of civil religion was accepted. Politicians, some of whom were believers, some who thought religion to be useful, even necessary, for the support of the Republic accepted the relationship. Early documents of the new republic emphasized strong religious commitment, for example, the Declaration of Independence and Washington's Inaugural Address. The god of early politics was somewhat impersonal and detached, described in rather general terms as "The Creator", "The Invisible", "The Almighty Being," etc..
With the passage of time, relationships between God and the politicians became more personal, manifest in exchange of endorsements -- the politicians usually endorsing the Divine and His works (the issue of the sex of God had not arisen) and claiming a responsive endorsement of the politician's works by the Divinity. Lincoln's second inaugural address, by one count, had 14 references to God, four quotations from the Scriptures.
Approximately one hundred years later, President Johnson, speaking about the Civil Rights law of 1965, declared, "It is rather our duty to do His Divine Will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight." Johnson, like Lincoln, kept the line between church and state reasonably clear, if not the line between religion and politics.
The significant blending of the latter two took place in Eisenhower campaigns and administrations. The first campaign was presented under the banner of a crusade, although the cross was a little vague. One of the crusaders, a member of Congress, charged that the previous administration had tried to "make a settlement with the devil, Communism, instead of spurning him as Christ did when tempted." The inaugural parade of 1953 featured what was called God's float, a late entry. The pledge of allegiance to the flag was changed during the administration to include the words, "under God." The Postmaster General issued a stamp-bearing the motto, "In God we trust", and the same slogan was prescribed for United States money, scarcely a vote of confidence in the Secretary of the Treasury.
The Kennedy campaign and administration had a different religious thrust. It was more detached and impersonal. Whereas Ike had included, as part of the inaugural program, a prayer he had himself composed, the Kennedy inaugural was sustained by the prayers of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cushing, Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church, by John Barclay, a Protestant minister, and then by Rabbi Nelson Glueck. Whereas, as William Miller wrote in his book Piety along the Potomac, Eisenhower had a vague religion, strongly held to, Kennedy had a strong religion vaguely held to. The fusion of religion and politics, or of morality and politics, proceeded under President Nixon. He did not go quite as far as to say that the morality of the prince is the morality of the people, but he did say that the President was the moral leader and spokesman of the people.
President Ford, when he pardoned President Nixon, was more restrained. He said that he was acting as God's humble servant.
More recently presidents and presidential candidates have claimed more direct and personal relationships. Many claim to have been reborn, including Jimmy Carter, John Anderson, and in milder form, Ronald Reagan, and the current front runners of the major parties. Jimmy Carter was most outspoken, reporting that he prayed many times a day and that he spoke to Jesus. Candidate Pat Robertson said that he spoke directly to God but that he did not use those communications in his campaign. John Anderson announced that God was his campaign manager or director. He later enlisted the public relations expert David Garth, as supplemental.
Some politicians have enlisted more modest aid, from the deceased. Larry O'Brien campaigning for Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War in 1968, on the occasion of dedicating a stamp in General Marshall's memory, declared that if Marshall were alive he would be for the war. This was in the mode of long-time Prime Minister Mackenzie King who in his autobiography reported that he had kept in touch with his dead dog and deceased mother, Which prompted me to wonder who is servicing the telephone which Mary Baker Eddy, reputedly had installed in her casket or mausoleum -- ATT, MCI, or Sprint?
Even the corporate world has turned to Divine help or shared responsibility. The great brown-out in New York City was called an act of God by Con Edison. In the same spirit the flooding of a subway tunnel during construction in Washington, D.C., was explained not as a direct act of God but as one in which God was an accessory before the act. The explanation in this case was, by implication, that on the third day of creation, when the waters were separated from the land, the building of the subway was not anticipated.
After waiting for subterranean or extra-terrestrial help for several days, and getting none, I decided to seek the wisdom of the past for help and guidance in dealing with some of the political issues that are a part of the current campaign.
After seeking out opinions or speculating on what the recommendations of Socrates, Thomas More, Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others, I concluded that Jonathan Swift, or his Spirit, might best be consulted. These are the "modest" questions submitted to his judgment and the modest recommendations received in return.
1) What is to be done about the problem of slander, libel, and misrepresentation? The media are regularly accused of libel. Politicians slander each other in thirty-second TV and radio spots. Neither the courts nor Common Cause seem able to establish the truth. One of our greatest presidents, A. Lincoln, was challenged to a duel for writing scurrilous things about a rival politician, James Shields.
Swift: The restoration of the duel may be the only way to settle public disputes in the post-modern age.
2) The vice-presidency has been the cause of embarrassment and confusion for over 200 years. It serves no useful purpose. It has been derided by the wiser occupants of the office. It has ruined good men. It has taken some out of public service; some for four years, some for eight years, some forever, It has put the undeserving and unqualified in line to become presidential candidates and even presidents.
Swift: It should be abolished.
3) We have a problem of infidelity in marriages and of sexual misconduct among high public officials and candidates for high office.
Swift: I propose celibacy for presidents and vice presidents, and for candidates for those offices, and for the Senate. This is consistent with the practices in some religions.
4. There is evidence of dishonesty among bankers and stock brokers, and other money changers. These are the priests, high and low, of capitalism. Just as priests in primitive societies were expected to demonstrate special traits of character by living on the edge of volcanoes, handling snakes. Higher religions have exacted vows of varying kind from their priests and priestesses.
Swift: the persons who handle money and property for a society should be required to prove their detachment by renouncing personal property and taking a vow of partial poverty
5. There are two continuing conflicts involving public schools - busing students to school and having them pray while at school. The persons favoring busing are, as a rule, opposed to prayers in school. The opponents of busing are, as a rule, in favor of prayer.
Swift: The obvious solution is to have the prayers said on the bus.
6. Chasing stolen automobiles, arresting car thieves, convicting them, holding them in jails and prisons is time consuming and demanding work for law enforcement officers and expensive for society. Meanwhile automobile dealers spend a great deal of money encouraging people to buy more and bigger cars; car theft insurance rates continue to rise.
Swift: This whole complicated process could be greatly simplified, if anyone who steals a car had to pay Hertz rates for the time the car was in his or her possession, were given the car and required to support it for life, thus participating in the test of the speculation that if Karl Marx had known about the automobile as a cultural and economic force, he would have written another chapter, stating that the capitalistic system can be stimulated by war or by the automobile.
7) There seems to be an irreconcilable difference among or between US citizens on the matter of gun control. Charlton Heston says such control (speaking with his Moses voice) is un-constitutional. President Clinton, speaking as a former professor of constitutional law in Arkansas, says it is constitutional.
Swift: I propose a solid constitutional solution based on the doctrine of original intent and realities, which would allow citizens to bear the kinds of arms available in 1789, muzzle-loaded rifles and flint-lock pistols, with Justice Scalia designated to write the opinion.
8) There is need for a comprehensive settlement of the complex issues raised by our military needs and by the realities of the Military-Industrial complex.
Swift: I recommend restoring the cavalry. Such a restoration would attract frustrated polo players who might otherwise go into the CIA, or, with nothing to do in October, run for political offices. The feeding, grooming, and conditioning of equine corps would take up much of the time of colonels, and junior officers -- who might otherwise devote their time to contingency planning. Arms negotiations might shift to downward and backward weapons and equipment. And the losses to the economy caused by the shift from nuclear and other high-tech procurement would be balanced by the growth of saddlemaking, blacksmithing, and increased production of oats and hay.
Eugene J. McCarthy was a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).