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Ray Suarez has thirty years of experience in the news business. He came to the news hour on PBS in 1999 as a Washington-based senior correspondent, departing his position with National Public Radio, where he'd been host of the noontime show Talk of the Nation since 1993. Prior to that, he spent seven years covering local national and international stories for the NBC-owned station WMAQ TV in Chicago. He was also a Los Angeles correspondent for CNN, a producer for ABC Radio Network in New York, a reporter for CBS Radio in Rome, and a reporter for various American and British news services in London. Suarez shared in the National Public Radio's 1993-1994 and 1994-1995 DuPont Columbia's Silver Baton Awards for on-site coverage of the first all-race elections in South Africa and the first hundred days of the 104th congress, respectively. (Two different sets of stories.) He's been honored with the 1996 Reuben Salazar award for the national council La Raza, Current History's 1995 Global Awareness Award and the 2005 Distinguished Policy Leadership Award from UCLA's School of Public Policy. His latest book is The Holy Vote and it examines the relationship between politics and religion in our country. And that's the subject of today's program. Please join me in welcoming Ray Suarez. Now if you happened to watch the news hour last night, there was sort of a karmic convergence because I was on interviewing Sara Chase, who's going to be speaking here in a couple weeks, and right after us came David Brooks, so...if you can't come here all the time, you can sort of top off your diet. When we were young (and I say "we" because though you and I might have been young at different times, I don't think the world was that different... I'm assuming the way you grew up is not all that different from the way I did) I could depend on getting a sharp look from across the room when at a grown-up party or any gathering with neighbors and friends I was caught discussing politics or religion with the guests. It was thought that these were two topics that would divide people who otherwise thought of themselves as together, as neighbors, as friends, as extended family, and it wasn't considered polite to mess with that presumed unity by bringing up things that would drive us apart, even if it was just conversationally We think of courtesy in slightly different ways forty years later, I think. We think our relationships can stand up to disagreements about these two important parts of our common lives. But today I think I'd still get that sharp look from across the room from my mother...we just go to different parties now. But those terrible twins, religion and politics, have gone from being social unmentionables to something we talk about at the drop of a hat, something we feel no restraint about discussing with intimate friends and complete strangers. It may be the talk-radio-ization of American culture, but as those private concerns came out of the conversational closet, and as politics has become a basic divider in American life, we've also moved religion in particular to a very different place in our political life. Many of you here today probably know that George Bush is a methodist. Yes, born and raised in the Episcopal church of his parents, but an adult convert to his wife's Methodist church. You know that: it's mentioned in the papers, it's mentioned in magazine articles, it's mentioned in books. To what church did Dwight Eisenhower belong? Here he is, five-star general, twice-elected President of the United States... did it ever come up in daily conversations or in stories in the newspaper which church claimed one of the most prominent Americans of the 20th century? Ike had a very interesting religious history, as it happens. His parents were members of a branch of the Mennonite church called the River Brethren but they became members, when he was a little boy, of the precursor church to the Jehovah's Witnesses, called the Russellites, or the Bible Students. His father then left that church when the prophecies of the end of the world in 1914 or 15, as I'm sure you've heard by now, didn't come true; but his mother remained a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses throughout her long life. Eisenhower became a Presbyterian in 1952. Anyone raised among Jehovah's Witnesses knows their scriptures pretty well. It is known that in later life Eisenhower rejected many of the teachings of that church, and in fact never mentioned publicly that he was raised in that church. He only joined the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church shortly before he became President. He was only baptized at National Presbyterian Church (just a few blocks from where I live in Washington) after he became President. I don't know how au current you are with religious matters - how much you follow this kind of thing - but just ask yourself whether, in 2003, someone first baptized in their sixties could make a successful run for President. You've got to wonder whether a man of such interesting religious background and no denominational affiliation throughout his adult life could be elected President in the frame of mind that the country's in now. The governor of Massachusetts may find out in 2008 whether there's a de facto religious test for public office when he finds out if there's a ceiling for Mormons in public life. I did dozens of interviews in preparation for writing my book and asked all my subjects one question: Do you think an atheist could be elected president? Everyone: left, right, center, religious, and not so, said "No." Now there's explicitly no religious test for holding public office in the U.S. Constitution. One of the very few times the Constitution even mentions religion is to say that there is no religious requirement for public office. Yet in effect, there is such a test. What denomination was Lyndon Johnson? Was that president's religious faith much of a concern for a country in the middle of a war and a social revolution at home over civil rights? I remember one morning in Paris C-SPAN's In-Morning News Round-up I nursed a cup of coffee while running through the newspapers with Brian Lamb, and he presented me with an unexpected topic of morning chit chat: Thomas Jefferson. Now he wasn't in that morning's papers...as it happened I talked about the just-passed anniversary of his birth and the rehab job just completed on his memorial in Washington, and almost as an aside, given the religious fervor with which bill Clinton's moral failings were being debated right at that moment on capitol hill, how the sage of Monticello would match few members of the Christian coalition's definition of a Christian A caller from South Carolina dismissed my opinion of the third president's religiosity from the secure bunker of ignorance, calling it, sickening and typical anti-Christian NPR propaganda. Well, I told her that while she could have her opinion about what I just said, in fact there were only one set of facts, and they were incontrovertible. There are many presidents, as we look down the long corridors of American history, whose religious convictions might be called a total mystery. We very rarely discuss the inner soul workings of James Knox Polk or Millard Fillmore or Chester Allen Arthur. But Jefferson is not on that list of mysterious inner life presidents. The prolific Virginian sometimes seemed scarcely to have had a thought in his long and active life that he didn't then commit to paper. So, he's got the proverbial paper trail. One of my favorites is the letter to his nephew Peter Kerr in 1787. His nephew was moving ahead with a demanding course of study, which Jefferson heartily approves...he endorses in his letter the study of Spanish over Italian, and calls it a language of the future. Just another thing to piss off some people today, I guess. He speculates on the study of astronomy and math. Then when he comes to the subject of religion, Jefferson suggests to his nephew, "Question with boldness even the existence of a God. Because if there be one"...if there be one...see what he wrote: "...if there be one he must approve the homage of reason rather than that of blindfolded fear." Now, that isn't bad advice even for a 21st century Christian. If that approach leads you to faith, it gets you there from conviction rather than from intellectual laziness. If it leads you to unbelief, at least it gets you there with integrity rather than a shrug. Jefferson continues, "Read the Bible, then, as you would Livvy or Tassivus." Now we're treading on dangerous ground. The Word of God, even his very existence, held up to the same kind of critical analysis that you would bring to a work of literature or philosophical treatise. In a final riff of advice to young Kerr, the future president delivers what would be the final blow to his chances for election in 2008 instead of 1802. He writes, "You will next read the New Testament. It's the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1) Of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the law of nature at will and ascended bodily into heaven, and 2) Of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally. Jefferson's Jesus was a moral teacher of modest birth who did not call himself God. It is frequently declared in the current debates over religion in public life - separation of church and state, the use of publicly owned land and buildings for religious purposes - that America was founded as a Christian nation. The people who say it in speeches and write it in essays often use the phrase in the full and serene confidence that the listener or reader knows what it would mean to be a Christian nation, like it's a fixed definition. Well what is a Christian nation? And is the United States one of them? If the majority of Americans really wanted to aspire to the lofty boast of this being a Christian nation, what obligations if any would they have to undertake? Author and Christian layman Bill McKibbin, also a Methodist like George Bush, notes that the vast majority of Americans believe - told pollsters so, in a recent survey, 75% in fact - said that the adage "God helps those who help themselves" comes from the Bible. Its actual author was none other than that crusty old skeptic Benjamin Franklin. Now maybe you've heard that saying your whole life without thinking oo much about where it comes from. But the distinction, I think, is absolutely crucial. "God helps those who help themselves" is a very American notion. But it is most certainly not a Christian notion. In fact, you can read the New Testament cover to cover and realize that it flies directly in the face of almost everything that Jesus said. Now would being a Christian nation mean finding a way to stop being the wealthy industrialized nation with the highest rates of murder and violent crime on the planet? Would being a Christian nation mean finding a way to climb off the bottom of the league chart of wealthy nations in government giving to the world's poor? And I mean that as a percentage of GDP, not in gross dollar amounts, where the United States obviously fares much better because of the sheer size of its economy. Both the very secular and the very religious make a key error in looking back at American history. The very secular almost erase the impact of religion, or ascribe only negative effects to its profound presence in the daily lives of Americans today and throughout our history. While the other end of the continuum, the very religious exaggerate its place in America's founding documents, among the founding fathers, and in charting the course of the country's growth from an insecure archipelago of former colonies to a globe-straddling commercial and military power. Now, I'm not suggesting that there's only one answer to these questions. If we were a Christian nation, I would hope that we would at least ask some of those questions. And the fact that we not only don't debate them but don't ask, well, that gives me an important piece of evidence. The people we now call the Pilgrims, Anabaptist dissenters from England's established church, came to the northern Atlantic coast in what is now the United States in the early 17th century, and they were indeed deeply religious. But to merely look back and note their search for religious freedom and take that as proof of America's religious foundations is to purposely ignore the brand of religion they themselves practiced and the kind of society they made once they got here. The settlements that spread into New England from Plymouth Rock were the antithesis of what would become our national aspirations, and certainly the way we view religion in American in the 21st century, and what we value about being American. The theocratic settlements were rigid, intolerant, racist, dishonest, and occasionally murderous, in their dealings with the Indians. So can you take your pilgrims a la carte? Quote the Mayflower Compact, but not take a look at what happened after they built their first settlements? Can you vaguely endorse their religiosity and then close your eyes to the impact on the kind of place it made early New England? That naÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¯ve purposeful mis-telling of American history has its uses on both sides of the cultural divide. However, if you're willing to present some parts of the lives of early Americans as admirable and worthy of imitation, you reveal much about where you yourself draw the line. There's a certain intellectual dishonesty in quoting the Mayflower Compact, finding the roots of modern Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Plantation, and then quietly erasing the mass murder of Piquats just a few decades later. One of early America's most prominent preachers and theologians, Cotton Mather, was not shocked by the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children He didn't peer into the gospels for ammunition to condemn wholesale murder. Instead he noted in his diaries with some satisfaction that "some 600 Indian souls had been sent down into hell," in his words. Where they belonged. You know, murderous land-grabs as a faith-based enterprise. No doubt early New Englanders were frightened of Indian reprisal. This was a war, after all. They had every reason to be frightened of reprisal. But these early American Christians also exhibited an all too human failing, a failing exhibited by societies of every religion in every age, in every corner of the world. They denied the humanity of their enemies in order to make killing them easier. Because the Piquats, the Wampanonds, and many other tribes hunted to near extinction were not Christian, they failed to meet a baseline test for compassion. Was Massachusetts Bay all that different from other colonies because of its religious bent? Down the coast in Virginia, other sons and daughters of England were embarking on a very different kind of experiment. They had few pretensions to creating a city on a hill, longed for by John Wintham. Instead they longed for gold, and found it not in mines, but in tobacco. Virginia was a tough place to live. It didn't seek a higher power as much as the power of the sword and the purse. Named for Elizabeth I, the virgin queen, it divvied up the vast lands into estates for a transplanted English aristocracy who now just lived in Virginia. The muscle to exploit the land came from indentured servants and slaves. And the frontier threat came from Indians roughly pushed inland by the new British dominion. The church in much of English speaking America was not an institution with the far reaching power it had back in Europe. The established - that is, government-supported - churches kept their doors open with state subsidy, and commanded an uneven loyalty from Massachusetts all the way down to Georgia. In the earliest days Roman Catholics were only fully free in Maryland. Jews lived in small communities along the seaboard. They could be found from Newport Rhode Island to Savanna Georgia. And in early America the Spardim, the Jews who spread through the Mediterranean world after the Portuguese and Spanish expulsions, gave American jury in 1776 a very different flavor from its later 19th century incarnations. The German Reform Jews and the Yiddish-speaking Ashkinazin of Eastern Europe would later lay the demographic foundations for 21st century Jewish Americans. The thinly settled western edges of British America bumped up against French Louisiana, where places that they called "church" were really informal things: a community leader holding group prayer in a home...a more formal liturgy only when a clergyman came through town riding a circuit passing through networks of small settlements. For many early Americans, religious life was a loosely structured episodic affair. Popular preachers were the pop stars of their era. Before mass communication, before asy transportation, meetings in clearings and barns resembled competitions, battles of the bands, with traveling preachers showing their best stuff in front of enthusiastic crowds hungry for stimulation and news of the outside world. We tend to exaggerate the religious conviction of early Americans and early America. Why? Because there's a sort of pessimist strain in American culture that wants to always think that we used to be better than we are today. Either when we long for the simplicity of life in the fifties; or the closeness of communities where people depended on each other through the worst days of the depression in the thirties; or looking back to a time before any of us were alive, to the nineteenth century, where people where undoubtedly more moral and decent than they are now. Fat chance. Then, as now, the religious life of Americans was one of stunning contrasts and bewildering variety. The largely self-taught preachers of the slave quarters kept hope of freedom alive with the promises of the songs and the liberation of Israel. There's a funny little paradox in trying to understand America's Christian roots, and whether and how they lead us to the yeasty diversity and bitter debates of today. In 18th century America, and the 19th, church attendance was very low compared to today. Yet any literate person knew the Bible well, both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament. Even the semi-literate and illiterate knew whole chunks of the Bible by heart: the Psalms, the beatitudes, the foundational stories of Adam and Eve, Job, the passion of Jesus...while today with the highest levels of church attendance in the wealthy world, and one of the highest self-declared rates of God-belief in the entire world, scriptural illiteracy is widespread. I've already mentioned the revealing assignment of "God helps those who helps themselves" to scripture instead of to Poor Richard, but even as battles over Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses and nailed to schoolhouse walls reach the nation's highest court, a sizable majority of Americans can't name the Ten Commandments, even if you spot them fifty points by telling them "you can name them out of order, it's okay." Both Christian conservatives and die hard secularists agree that the landscape began to change with the series of supreme court decisions that made American public schools more secular places. With the election of John Kennedy in 1960 opening the most exclusive doors in the American power structure to America's largest religious group, and affirming consensus around an neutral deist civil religion that tried to include most American believers in very very general affirmations of faith, that involved no statements of real sectarian conviction, so when you heard, for instance, the house chaplain open a session of that chamber with the prayer it wouldn't invoke the Holy Trinity or the ever-blessed Virgin Mother, or set out rhetorical lines in the sand where members who were sitting there wouldn't be able to buy in...the kind of prayer that was said by a chaplain was one where more or less everybody in the room could more or less sign on. High public officials mentioned God from time to time but never had to flesh out the meaning of those statements in any detail. Nelson Rockefeller used to talk in his campaigns about "the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God." And the press corps that covered Rockefeller frequently heard it so often that they used to just write in their reporters' notebooks BOMFOG because, you know, he said it so often they'd just write B-O-M-F-O-G. But it wasn't really a kind of profession of faith that he had to deliver any exegetics on...explain what he meant... you know, explain what his understanding of that phrase was as a Baptist, as opposed to a member of some other church. The push back had been gathering for awhile but it really began to pick up steam with Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968; it continued with Jimmy Carters election in 1976; and began cresting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. These events are major chapters in the story of the realignment of American politics and the religion-ization of our politics at the same time. The Southern Strategy helped the Republican Party phase in southern whites feeling disaffected and betrayed by the Democratic Party during the civil rights years, paving the way for an increasingly Republican south. The election of Jimmy Carter brought southern and other evangelicals into the electoral spotlight after decades of their holding a suspicion of politics and elections, decades during which this huge block of citizens had simply not punched their weight in American elections. Now a candidate who spoke their language, with their accent, mirrored their concerns as his own and spoke openly, publicly, in a newly detailed way about his personal faith and its attachment to his public life, was asking for their support to head to the White House, and he got it. The Carter campaign mobilized these voters. But then four years later, those voters were in full revolt. They felt they had been let down by Jimmy Carter after being welcomed into the arena of electoral politics by him. If you look at the approval ratings and the margin of loss in 1980 you might conclude that most Americans felt let down by the Carter administration. But this block of white, non-urban, middle and working class evangelicals were now energized, identified, organized, and became the target of the surging Republican Party in 1980. Dismay over abortion after the Roe v. Wade decision was used as a potent organizing tool, but add to that: backlash against the secularized popular culture and the sexual-ization of that culture that came in during those same years... a disdain for public schooling in the post-integration era..a disdain for public assistance, public transportation, just about anything with the word "public" in it, and what you've got is religion gradually operating as a terrific sorting mechanism, a shorthand for determining who's like us, who's not, who's with us, who's my kind of American, who isn't. I mourn the day when smart political operatives figured out that religion could be used this way; not because I don't think a religious faith can bring a person to convictions, deeply-held convictions about the way the world ought to be; not because I believe that religion has no place in shaping common wisdom, creating common cause, and having us carry those values to the voting booth; nothing could be further from the truth. The story of how a string of struggling European settlements along the fringes of a vast continent eventually became the richest and most powerful nation on the planet can't be told without the story of American religious conviction, religious inventiveness, new ways of being both Christian and American. But just as that is true, you can't tell the story of America without the secular story as well. The story of Tom Paine, and Tom Jefferson. Of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain, who cherished this country's watershed decision to separate its religion from its electoral politics, its religious treasuries from the public purse, and stepped back from giving Christianity the overwhelming majority religion from the first days of the United States, through to today, they resisted giving it some special exalted legal status, as it has in many western democracies. Those two meta-narratives, the religious and the secular, are entwined through 200 years of history: from the salons of Boston and Philadelphia to the tent meetings of early Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois... from Joseph Smith's Palmyra New York to Fre Junipero Serra's California missions...from Thurston Deblin's lecture halls to Thoreau's cabinet Walden...from Jane Adam's hull house to Dorothy Day's soup kitchens and manual traning classrooms. America's tremendous inventiveness, drive, fruitful conflict, its unshielded noisy muffler throwing off sparks to light 200 years of tinder, is an inheritance we owe to believers of every stripe, and skeptics, free thinkers and atheists of every stripe. We are all heirs in common to that intellectual inheritance. But a winner-take-all mentality has soaked into American religion, a mentality that it may have picked up like a bad cold from hanging around politicians so much. One strain of American Christianity has melded itself to the state and created a kind of Christian Americanism which conflates belief in Jesus with the belief in the unassailable rightness and goodness of the United States in world affairs, with the idea of America as a chosen nation, with a mission in the world that is godly, rather than expedient, which carries embedded in it the notion that non-Christian or secular nations are less valuable, less good, less noble than our own. It's a far cry from the Baptist disdain for both government and politics that held them both to be flawed creations of man, prone to compromise, corner-cutting and temptation. Today even leaders on the inside who are welcomed into the highest councils of government aren't sure whether they're making a bargain with the powerful and the partisan that they're going to be so glad to keep. Some have wondered to me whether they'll still be able to speak prophetic truth to the powerful after they've allowed their churches to become part of the voter identification and "get out the vote" efforts of one particular political party. Now let me be very very clear about something. Do not think for a second that I'm taking sides in the partisan debates of the debate, that I think one party is right and the other one is wrong, and the conclusions they make about how to run America. That one party has reliably good answers while the other's are reliably poor. I'm a reporter, and if you read my book, The Holy Vote, you'll see that there are not white hats and black hats in my story as much as it's an exposition of how flawed religion is as a policy-making tool, and how it leads us to places we probably don't expect to go. The very notion of what a government is has been under assault. It is no longer a shared creation, something we own and operate together and for each other. instead it's something that gets seized in the view of some Christian activists by a confessional majority, to be run according to the wishes of that majority, to benefit the benighted minorities bringing them "benefits" whether they like them or not. In this elbows-out rough game of seizing the government for righteous reasons, the majority first presents itself as a persecuted minority, deprived of the basic rights of citizenship by an abusive and hostile elite. I'm sure you've heard some of t