The 1996 campaign has been sobering for Americans who believe that Jefferson's declaration of a "wall of separation" between church and state forms a fundamental point of national agreement. It is hard to recall a presidential contest when religious voices and a religious coalition have intruded in such partisan ways. A poll recently conducted by the Pew Research Center points to a striking change in the attitudes of Americans, especially evangelical Christians, toward mixing religion and politics. Evangelicals were once committed to the view that Christian churches exist primarily to carry out God's work of saving souls; now about 70 percent of evangelicals, both black and white, agree that "churches should express views on social and political matters." This does not necessarily imply an abandonment of belief in church-state separation, but it is a shift that commands our attention.
Consider how far we have come from the moment in Houston during the 1960 primary campaign when John E Kennedy confronted a group of Protestant ministers, mainly Southern Baptists, who vented their ancient suspicion that Catholics could not as a matter of faith accept the American separation of church and state. One unappreciated irony in the exchange was that throughout American history Catholics and Baptists had been the strongest opponents of efforts by other Christians to mix religious and political agendas. Baptists and Catholics both regarded themselves as the victims of state-sponsored moral legislation. Although Kennedy's answer to the southern Protestant ministers on that occasion probably did not win him their votes, it reflected a position that they shared with him. As a religious person, Kennedy said, I am influenced in my moral attitudes by my religion, and this will affect my behavior as president. But I will in no way seek to use the powers of the state to force my religious and moral convictions upon people who do not share them.
Against that memory, we may set the more recent image of Pat Buchanan, another Catholic who wants to become president, courting' support in Southern Baptist churches for a moral and cultural crusade to take back America for right-thinking Christians. Other candidates this year have also paraded their religious convictions like military medals--a strategy that may have reached rock bottom when Phil Gramm's flagging campaign implied that a sound view about Christ's Second Coming was relevant in judging aspirants to the presidency. So much for the spirit of Article 6 of the Constitution, the clause proclaiming that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
The idea that right-thinking Christians should take back America has been a rallying cry for Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition, now the strongest special-interest, group in the Republican Party. Without doubt, the coalition has helped transform many Protestant evangelicals into GOP zealots. But the connection carries considerable risk. Reed has tied his religious troops to the fortunes of Republican candidates in November. If they win, the Christian Coalition will remain in the news--at least until the next election. If they lose, and especially if they lose because of perceived close links to what many voters view as strident moral crusading that quotes the Bible on behalf of slashing welfare and defeating bans on assault weapons, Reed will pass into history. In either case, religion is diminished because Reed's gamble makes the cultural force of religion depend upon the number of votes it can command. And that result is precisely what religious champions of separation of church and state have most feared.
RELIGION IN A SECULAR STATE
Religion and politics have always mixed in this country's history. The line between legitimate and illegitimate mixture is not always easy to draw, but the Constitution provides some guidance. …