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A Veteran of Congress’ Religious Wars

When I, a Jesuit priest, announced that I was a candidate for Congress in 1970, the American Civil Liberties Union spontaneously issued a statement that my candidacy violated no constitutional ban because Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution clearly states that no religious test shall ever be required for public office.

In spite of the clear and sound message of the Framers, some evangelical groups want to impose a religious test of their version of Christianity. Their vision of faith seems to begin and end with opposition to gays, abortion and silence about God in the public school.

During my 10 years in Congress (1971-1981), conservative Christian groups regularly gave me a zero on my compliance to their views of faith. They flunked me because I voted against a constitutional amendment to restore prayer in schools, favored the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and opposed the Hyde amendment, which denies Medicaid funding to poor women who have a constitutional right to an abortion.

In 1980, evangelicals persuaded the Republican platform committee and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to use the GOP platform to endorse prayer in the schools, aid to church-affiliated schools and opposition to abortion. As a result, the Republicans won more votes in the South than ever before.

Evangelicals seemed to lose some of their visibility in the Clinton presidency, but they saw unprecedented success in 2000 and 2004. Their new issue was gays.

Will evangelicals be strong and strident in 2008? The answer is yes — especially since they will receive more support from Republican groups of all kinds. They will imply or insinuate that incumbents or challengers who oppose their positions are not good Christians. They will aggressively and falsely assert that any candidate who would make accommodations with gays is acting contrary to the Bible. They will demonize even more — if that is possible — anyone who will not recriminalize abortion.

Some Democrats feel that their party should be friendlier to religion. That attitude can look attractive, but it can be filled with illusions, dangers, temptations and hypocrisies.

The place of religion in America’s public morality is complex. Some religious and moral principles are healthy and needed in America’s public life. But any campaign by religious groups, whether they be a majority or a minority, to stigmatize an incumbent or a challenger as “anti-religious” is against both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and the basic principles of American democracy.

Certain groups of Protestants demanded the 18th Amendment — the prohibition of alcohol — by securing support in two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states. That unbelievable domination of the churches was repealed in the 21st Amendment. It is still a frightening manifestation of the political power which some of the church groups in America can attain.

When I was in Congress, it was helpful to receive the guidance of large and articulate groups of mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jewish organizations with regard to legislation. This coalition has worked together since the days of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. They are united in their positions on issues related to the poor, aid to education, civil rights, the United Nations and foreign aid.

The only religious group beyond the social conservative sphere to rate Members of Congress on their voting record is Network, a coalition of Catholic nuns. My rating was always 100 percent or close to it.

In my 10 years in Congress, I witnessed some of the liaisons between conservative churches and conservative political groups. But that connection has increased since 1981. It now looks threatening. It is an alliance of religion and government which can be dangerous to both.

In 1800 the political opponents of Thomas Jefferson worked diligently to demonstrate that he was not religious enough to be president. The struggle was a foreshadowing of what some protestant groups would do in the next 200 years. We must remember that Jefferson won.

Let us hope (and pray?) that those groups in America who want to elect a candidate who agrees with their sectarian politics on certain issues will reconsider their priorities. Religious organizations in America receive massive benefits through tax exemptions of their property and their vast endowments. Their neutrality on partisan politics should be our expectation.

Former Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) served from 1971 to 1981. Drinan, an ordained Jesuit priest, is a professor at Georgetown University Law School. His 11th book, “Can God and Caesar Coexist? Balancing Religious Freedom and International Law,” will soon be issued in paperback.

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