Religion and presidential elections

By William Adler

Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

There’s been a lot of talk lately among a certain segment of Republicans claiming that President Obama is a Muslim; or that maybe he’s too sympathetic to clock-building “terrorist” teenagers; or that, perhaps, Muslims are unfit to be considered for higher office altogether (article VI of the Constitution notwithstanding). Sadly, virtually none of this is surprising (something something history repeating itself).

Interestingly, though, this isn’t the first time in U.S. history that a president’s political opponents have accused him of lying about his true religious faith. When Thomas Jefferson ran for president in 1800, preachers and Federalist hatchet-men called him a “confirmed infidel,” who professed “disbelief in the Holy Scriptures” and was in fact a “howling atheist.” At best, some argued, Jefferson was a closeted Deist who rejected the active hand of God in the world. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister in New York, authored a pamphlet entitled, “Considerations on the Election of a President: Addressed to the Citizens of the United States,” in which he stated:

“No professed deist, be his talents and achievements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place by the suffrages of a Christian nation… Would Jews or Mahometans, consistently with their belief, elect a Christian? Shall Christians be less zealous and active than they?”

Jefferson won the election, of course, but the smear campaign against him left a mark. Federalists spent most of Jefferson’s two terms in office continuing to find new ways to impeach his character: that he was too much of a philosopher, or too professorial in bearing, to make a good president; that his attachments to France and the French way of living made him all too likely to foment an American version of the French Revolution; that he was attempting to become a dictator; that he opposed the Constitution and secretly despised the national government; that he wanted to weaken the U.S. military for the sake of inviting foreign powers in; and that he slept with his female slaves who then gave birth to his unrecognized children (probably true).

For both Jefferson and Obama, these smears are linked to the broader critique their political opponents have had of their policies and governing projects. Jefferson, a committed Enlightenment rationalist, believed strongly in a strict division between religion and state, famously calling for a “wall” between them. Obama entered office in strong opposition to George W. Bush’s policies on the Iraq War and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. As a result, it’s easy for those so inclined to re-read these political stances as the product of some deeper, hidden motivation that supposedly disqualifies them as leader of the nation. In a nation where religion occupies such a central part of our political discourse, it’s all too easy for political opportunists to use this kind of moral denigration to eat away at someone’s political legitimacy.

Sources/further reading

Joanne B. Freeman, “The Election of 1800: A Study in the Logic of Political Change,” The Yale Law Journal 108:8 (June 1999): 1959-1994.

Frank Lambert, “’God – and a Religious President… [or] Jefferson and No God’: Campaigning for a Voter-Imposed Religious Test in 1800,” Journal of Church and State 39:4 (Autumn 1997): 769-789.

Charles O. Lerche, Jr., “Jefferson and the Election of 1800: A Case Study in the Political Smear,” The William and Mary Quarterly 5:4 (Oct 1948): 467-491.

William D. Adler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern Illinois University.  His research interests include American political development and the presidency.  He has published articles in the Journal of Policy History, Studies in American Political Development, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, and Polity.

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