Must One Be Christian to Be a US President?

“…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, January 1st, 1802.

Original illustration by Amalesh Das. © 2020 Svevak LLC. All rights reserved.

Recently I watched with avid interest the 2020 national political conventions of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to formalize the nomination of each of their presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the upcoming federal election of the United States. Preparing myself to take notes on the political positions taken by each party in what is essentially a binary political system, I was taken aback by the prayers featured in each of the four prime time daily sessions.

The Republican National Convention (RNC) showcased three Christian and one Jewish religious head, while the Democratic National Convention (DNC) invited four Christian figures to speak. The Judeo-Christian speakers made statements, such as:

“Pray we must… in thanksgiving dear God for democracy as we ask your hand Almighty Father upon this convention…. Amen.” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, 24th August, 2020, RNC.

“Your word declares in second Corinthians, “Where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”… We need you. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. We surrender to your plans and purpose for our lives…. I ask all this in the name of Jesus. Amen.” Reverend Norma Urrabazo, International Church of Las Vegas, 25th August, 2020, RNC.

“Oh Lord, you have granted us certain natural rights, such as the right to speak freely, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, as well as religious freedom, the right to assemble and the right to self-defense…. Father, we pray…. May God continue to make America great, and may we continue to be his people, one nation, under God. Let us say, amen.” Rabbi Aryeh Spero, Conference of Jewish Affairs, 26th August, 2020, RNC.

“Father, we know that you can make this nation great once again if we turn our eyes and our hearts to you and follow your word and obedience. May your will be done on this earth as it is in heaven, and we pray this in the mighty name of your son, my Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.” Franklin Graham, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 27th August, 2020, RNC.

“Help us, oh Lord, to be ever mindful of the most vulnerable among us…. I pray this in the maximus name of Jesus, amen.” Reverend Gabriel Salguero, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, 17th August, 2020, DNC.

“And now may the blessing of God, the source of all goodness, truth, and love inspire you, inspire us all…. Amen.” Bishop Mariann Budde, Episcopal Diocese of Washington D.C., 18th August, 2020, DNC.

“Let us pray. Most merciful and loving God,…. That we may achieve a common good, a greater good in the name of the Holy Trinity, we pray. Amen.” Archbishop Elpidophoros, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 19th August, 2020, DNC.

“In the name of all that is holy, Oh Spirit, bring out of this time of global and national chaos, a new creation, a new community that can with your help realize this new promise that we affirmed tonight. And so with profound hope, let we, the people say, Amen.” Sister Simone Campbell, Network and Nuns on the Bus, 20th August, 2020, DNC.

As an Indian woman who does not adhere to a Judeo-Christian religion and whose cultural context is oriented toward science, self-actualization, and the female creative force, terms such as ‘Lord,’ ‘Father,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘will,’ ‘obedience,’ and ‘Amen’ are not naturally integrated into my vocabulary or conceptual framework. And so the United States, land of immigrants that proudly espouses freedom of expression and religion as one of its cardinal principles, was an attractive feature. However, having lived and worked in the US for quite a number of years, the separation of church and state, or lack thereof, is still a puzzle to me.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States constitution was written in protest against the conditions during colonial times, under which the Church of England was established by law in southern states, colonists were required to pay religious taxes, and dissenters were punished for preaching without a license. Adherents of other Christian sects, such as the Quakers, Puritans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians opposed this religious imposition. So when the European colonists declared their independence from Britain in 1776, they soon afterward incorporated into the constitution several amendments, including the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The intent behind this establishment clause was explained by Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association to assuage its fears: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

However, as a non-Christian, non-Jewish person I have difficulty seeing this separation, both in daily life and also in the highest levels of US government. In 1971, the US Supreme Court established the ‘Lemon test’ that comprises three factors identifying whether or not a government practice violates the Establishment Clause: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.” Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Specifically with regard to government-sponsored prayer, the US Supreme Court has held it unconstitutional for public schools to lead schoolchildren in prayer (Engel v. Vitale (1962); Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)) and has even extended the prohibition to prayers at graduation ceremonies and football games (Lee v. Weisman (1992); Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)). However, paradoxically, the US Supreme Court has upheld legislative prayer because it is steeped in history (Marsh v. Chambers (1983); Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014)).

If in fact in the United States “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God,” as in the words of Thomas Jefferson, and the “principal or primary effect [of a government practice] must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion,” as conceptualized in the US Supreme Court’s Lemon Test, then why is only Christmas Day a national holiday in the United States? Why not also Holi (Hindu), Mahavir Jayanti (Jain), Good Friday (Christian), Buddha Purnima (Buddhist), Idu’l Fitr (Muslim), and Guru Nanak’s birthday (Sikh), which are all national holidays in India, the largest democratic and secular nation in the world? If the United States is secular, then why are predominantly Christian prayers presented in public legislative and political settings, to the exclusion of non-Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) prayers and speeches?

Yes, the United States is a predominantly Christian country. But India is a predominantly Hindu country. And yet, the principles of secularity are adhered to more closely in India than in the US. Even on the official website of the US courts system, www.uscourts.gov, it is stated: “The Establishment clause prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion.” Even if we leave aside the issue of omnipresent Christian prayer in political settings, we must analyze the perhaps not so subliminal message promulgated by the ambiguous interpretation of the Establishment clause. Does this preferential enforcement not contain a warning to would-be political leaders that they must be Judeo-Christian, preferably Christian, to hold the highest elected positions in the United States? The mother of Kamala Harris was a Hindu woman from South India. Yet, when Ms. Harris, the vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, spoke extensively of her mother at the DNC on 19th August, 2020, she said: “When I was 5, my parents split and my mother raised us mostly on her own…. She worked around the clock to make it work…. Helping us with homework at the kitchen table — and shuttling us to church for choir practice.” Ms. Harris specified the Christian church, but not once did she even allude to her Hindu background. In 2011, Nikki Haley, born Nimrata Randhawa and daughter of Sikh immigrant parents from India, took the oath of office as the first non-European origin governor of the state of South Carolina on a Bible. Similarly, Bobby Jindal, born Piyush Jindal and son of Hindu immigrant parents from India, also took the oath of office on a Bible when he was sworn in as the first non-European origin governor of the state of Louisiana in 2008.

While there is ample encouragement in the United States for people of all backgrounds to pay taxes and contribute to the economy through their hard work, is there a place for non-European origin, non-Judeo-Christian citizens in the highest levels of political office? Many countries choose allegiance to a certain ideology or religion. If the United States is one of these countries, then why not just declare it openly, so that those of us who don’t fit the desired mold can restrict our outwardly expressions of speech and religion and abrogate our political dreams and aspirations accordingly?

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Maya Svevak

Maya Svevak

Maya Svevak is an activist, artist, and author. She writes both non-fiction and fiction and is the creator of the universe of Svevi Avatar. www.mayasvevak.com