WHEN I LEARNED last Tuesday that Democrats, breaking with past practice, had dropped the word "God" from their party platform, I dispatched message via Twitter: "God is mentioned in the 2004 Democratic platform 7 times. In the 2008 platform, once. In the 2012 platform, 0 times." I included a link to the National Journal story where I'd seen the details.
Within moments, that tweet had taken off. To my surprise, it was retweeted hundreds of times — an early indication of the backlash about to engulf Democrats in Charlotte over their platform's language on God and Jerusalem.
What really startled me, however, was the surge of responses I received from people who were glad to see God go unnamed in the Democratic platform. They didn't say they don't believe in God (though that may be true). Rather, they claimed that in the United States, politics and religion should have nothing to do with each other. Tweet after tweet seemed to take it for granted that references to God don't belong in American public life:
"Democrats are getting the idea: politics are politics and religion is religion."
"Is 'God' a political issue now? Separation of Church and State means nothing to you?"
"Good … church and state should be separate. Neither party should mention anything regarding religion."
"I don't get why this is even an issue. Why should religious beliefs have any place in politics?"
"The Founding Fathers would approve."
In reality, the Founders would have been the last to suggest that appeals to God and religion have no business in political affairs. Far from asserting that America's democratic system should be God-free, they regularly asserted the opposite.
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports," George Washington reminded Americans in his Farewell Address. "The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."
Years earlier, writing in Federalist No. 37 about the astonishing harmony reached at the Constitutional Convention, James Madison concluded that the delegates must have been guided by God. "It is impossible," he observed, "for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution."
When Madison and the First Congress later crafted the Bill of rights, it was natural that the Establishment Clause be immediately followed by the Free Exercise Clause. Separation of church and state meant only that government was not to dictate any specific creed, or empower one sect over another. But Madison and the founders took it for granted that American democracy would be enriched by religion and its teachings.