Our Political Leaders Mustn’t Be Evangelists

Norman Lear Selected Writings

Our Political Leaders Mustn’t Be Evangelists

USA Today, Friday, August 17, 1984

By Norman Lear

LOS ANGELES — Gov.  Cuo­mo’s dispute with Archbishop O’Connor and Rep.  Ferraro’s challenge to President Reagan threaten to overshadow what I believe is the most troubling example of mixing religion and politics: the president’s assumption of the role of a fundamentalist Evangelist-in-Chief.  In his first re-election campaign speech, he asserted that the Bible is the basis of his political platform.  “Within the covers of that single book are all the answers to all the problems that face us today — if only we’d read and believe.”

Earlier he had rebuked those who disagree with him on a range of political issues: “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.”

His introduction of religion into public policy threatens both open debate and religious freedom.

To me, it is no coincidence that the framers of the Constitution wrote Article VI, which prohibits religious tests for political office, and the First Amendment, which guarantees both free speech and the separation of church and state.  History shows that these freedoms are inextricably linked.

Our Constitution does not simply prohibit the establishment of an official state church.  It means that government cannot prefer one religion over another in its actions, or even prefer religion.

These conflicts over religion and politics are not between atheists and believers.  In a free society, the government should in no way attempt to use its powers to impose any creed or doctrine — whether that creed be Catholicism, fundamental­ism, Judaism, Buddhism, or atheism.  It is not the substance of what is imposed but the imposition itself that is objection­able to a free people.

I agree with President Rea­gan and Rep.  Ferraro that the “basic moralities” of civiliza­tion should be promoted by government.  Sectarian doc­trines, however, should have no government sanction.

In a recent interview, the president said, “We have re­spected every other religion.  They’re free to practice in our country….”  What “other” religion?  There are no other religions in “our” country.  America be­longs to all its citizens, whatev­er their religious beliefs.  No faith has a special patrimony in the eyes of the Constitution.

All public officials must “preserve, protect, and de­fend” the Constitution and the individual freedoms guaran­teed in the Bill of Rights for all citizens. The spirit of liberty is not advanced by suggesting that some beliefs are more American than others or by equating disagreement with sin.