Harris' misstep

Carol Platt Liebau
|
Posted: Sep 04, 2006 7:46 PM
Harris' misstep

In recent years, many on the left have taken mounting umbrage at any sign of religious faith in the public square, denouncing conservative believers – from President Bush on down – as “theocrats” eager to use the power of the state as a tool for advancing their own Christian, sectarian viewpoints. Perhaps these objections are purely principled. Even so, they are politically convenient, offering a way for Democrats both to shore up political support among Jewish voters (who might otherwise be attracted by the President’s tenacious support of Israel), and to arouse suspicion among those in the political middle about the ultimate aims of the conservative movement.

In any case, the left-wing caricature of conservative religious believers is as unfair as it is untrue. Most churchgoers ask for nothing more than the right to practice their own religion, free from the twin evils of government intrusion and social condemnation.

That’s why recent remarks by Rep. Katherine Harris, a Republican candidate for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat, were so remarkably offensive. Playing into every stereotype that the left has purveyed about religious conservatives, Harris insisted that America was not intended to be a “nation of secular laws,” called separation of church and state a “lie we have been told” and asserted that, “If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin.”

Rep. Harris’ statements run counter to the text and plain meaning of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” By insisting that “sin” will be the essential byproduct of the work of non-Christian legislators, Harris falls into the worst kind of religious bigotry – and conveniently overlooks the unorthodox positions on social issues assumed by Christians like Teddy Kennedy and Mario Cuomo.

What’s more, she misconstrues the role of religion in public life. Certainly, there’s no doubt that the Founding Fathers viewed religion as an essential influence on the character of a nation’s people, and therefore as central to ensuring the survival of a free society. Washington’s Farewell Address makes that point; even Thomas Jefferson – who wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, that the First Amendment guarantees “a wall of separation between Church and State” – issued several public prayers as president. In fact, nothing in the Constitution requires the separation of religion and state.

Even so, there is a prohibition on the establishment of a sectarian faith. And although the Founders certainly knew that the laws would reflect the spiritual beliefs of those adopting them – for what are laws but the codification of moral precepts? – there’s nothing to suggest that they intended any federal legislation to enforce a particular “religious law.” In fact, like most religious conservatives today, the Founding Fathers understood that the “inalienable” rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence included the right to freedom of conscience – so that every individual could worship (or not) as he thinks right.

By appealing to religious prejudice, singling out Christians as the only lawmakers who won’t “legislate sin” and insisting that America was not founded as a “nation of secular laws,” Rep. Harris distorts the true meaning of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In doing so, she misrepresents the enduring principles that have allowed America to remain a religious country, without being a theocratic one.

Ultimately, Katherine Harris has not only hurt her own political cause – she’s handed another weapon to those who seek to rouse public suspicion against believers and eliminate every religious influence from public life.