MLK’s Dream

The 2008 general election forged new ground in U.S. politics.  However, it did not fulfill Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Although the election of Barack Obama showed that at least in come cases we have moved beyond judging a person by his or her skin color, we have not arrived at the point at which we judge political candidates by the content of their character.

The scurrilous hatchet job based on religion Libby Dole, the incumbent U.S. Senator from North Carolina, attempted on Kay Hagan, her challenger, and the rumor-mongering about Obama’s connection to Islam are evidence of a concerted effort by the Christian Right and Center to impose a religious barrier against non-Christians being elected to public office.

Dole attacked Hagan as an atheist because she attended a fund-raiser sponsored by well-known liberals at the home of activists who advocate the separation of church and state.  Dole’s televison ad featured the image of Hagan and the voice of a woman — not her — saying “there is no God.”

“Elizabeth Dole is attacking my strong Christian faith,” Hagan said in a conference call with reporters.  She responded with her own ad portraying herself as a strong Christian who teaches Sunday School.

As appalling as Dole’s attack was, it is equally appalling that Hagan defended herself by clinging to the Cross, not by asserting that the qualifications for public office do not include belonging to the right religion, or any religion.  Hagan’s defense is as threatening to the separation of church and state as Dole’s original attack.  However necessary Hagan’s response may have been, based on the Bible-Belt mentality of her constituency, it is disappointing that she made no attempt to inform them that establishing a Christian theocracy is no more healthy or desirable than establishing an Islamic or Hindu theocracy, or adopting a governmental hostility to religion.

The Dole-Hagan affair was not the only disturbing development in the 2008 election cycle.  The so-called Saddleback Forum, really a religious vetting session inserted into the presidential campaign, made it apparent that both McCain and Obama were laying their religious convictions out for the electorate.  In this, they continued a trend set by the current President.

President Kennedy promised that his official actions would be based on his secular convictions, not his religious beliefs.  George W. Bush, however, solicited votes from the Christian right based on his claim to be Born-Again.  He made an implied commitment to run the country according to his interpretation of the Bible, rather than the U.S. Constitution.  That he was hugely successful in pulling votes by virtue of his “values,” despite the anti-family and belligerent biases of his policies, raises the question of whether government in the United States may one day be dominated by clerics, as in Iran.

The Saddleback Forum, in which the “presumptive candidates” for the two major parties presented themselves for examination by an Evangelist, is a terrifying turn away from secular government.  It is an acknowledgment by the candidates that the country is not merely Christian, but Evangelical.

Religious diversity has been one of this country’s strengths.  What happens to diversity when only Evangelicals can run for office with any likelihood of success?  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that qualification for public office may depend on approval by a Council of Clerics, as in Iran.  Approval by the religious establishment will never be an official qualification to run for office, but there may come a time when no candidate can mount a viable campaign without demonstrating his religious bona fides and the only way to do that is examination by religious authorities.

Thus, we have moved away from judging candidates by the color of their skin, but we have started judging them by the flavor and the fervor of their faith.  That falls far short of judging them by the content of their character.


John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2008 John B. Payne, Attorney

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